Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. 2023-06-05T14:25:37Z Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Against Narrative]]> 2023-06-05T14:25:37Z 2023-06-05T13:29:20Z

There can be no doubt that the current trend of narrative-based photobooks has led to an increased understanding of what photographs do when they are placed into a context designed to communicate a larger story. In the most extreme case, a photograph might do more than one thing. It might communicate something on its own. But in the company of others, it might take on a different meaning.

In light of the latter, placing photographs next to other photographs to explore their communicative potential always is a good idea. Even as comparisons of photography with other forms of art are problematic, given that superficial similarities might deceive one to misunderstand one’s photography (see all the comparisons to poetry), maybe we could say that placing photographs next to other photographs is comparable to exploring resonance in music: will, and obviously I mean this in a metaphorical sense, another photograph be able to make this one vibrate, possibly in ways previously unforeseen?

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the narrative approach to photobook making has now gone too far. Over the past few years, I have been receiving regular questions along the lines of “do I need a narrative?” These questions typically come from photographers who have been quietly amassing their work, only to be confounded by how the photobook itself is currently being discussed.

For those of us who are older and who have seen more than one fad come and go, it’s easy to dismiss the question. Of course, you don’t need a narrative in your work. But imagine being a young photographer, fresh in school. Imagine that you’re photographing landscapes or maybe portraits. Or maybe you’re making abstract work. Imagine the excitement of looking into the potential of photography, possibly for the first time in your life having your heart go faster — only to realize that seemingly everybody is using pictures in ways that yours won’t work in. Then what?

I think you can see how this poses a pretty large problem for these photographers. It’s one thing to have ample experience with books and to be able to navigate the various pitfalls created by them. It’s quite another to be such a young photographer. This is someone who experiences photography’s creative potential in a way that us old hands simply (and sadly) don’t get to enjoy any longer. But this is also someone for whom the number of possibilities are bewildering, someone in need of gentle and useful guidance towards a deeper understanding of the medium.

Please note that I’m using the term “young” mostly in a metaphorical sense. Even as many of these photographers are biologically young, someone whose experience with photography starts at a much later age might easily experience the same confusion.

The most immediate solution to the problem is simple: as critics and especially educators, it’s our responsibility to carry everyone — and not just those who happen to follow along the idea of narrative-based photography and photobook making.

At the same time, there is another problem with narrative-based work. Especially if you focus too much on your supposed narrative before you have even finished photographing your work, you run the rather large risk of shoehorning your work into a very predictable and usually very shallow corner. After all, the nearest narrative is always only a few obvious pictures away, possibly after some short and equally obvious snippets of text plus some vernacular materials have been added.

Thus, what we’re currently witnessing is not only a fad. We’re also witnessing a deluge of very simplistic photobooks that work well enough but that — let’s face it — nobody needs to look at more than once. I won’t given any examples, I’m sure you can easily think of many on your own.

Working with narrative can thus also be a trap for those attracted to it: easy solutions — in fact: solutions that are too easy — make themselves available too quickly and too conveniently. A narrative-based approach too easily shortcuts the true creative potential of photography. It offers the simple and easy solution one can think of at the very beginning as a good outcome, allowing for the work to follow a simplistic and shallow script.

Instead, though, good photography arrives at its conclusion only after a typically large set of trials and errors. “Fail again,” Samuel Beckett decreed,  “fail better.” That process isn’t necessarily enjoyable — at least not at every point of its journey. But it is only through this type of process that more complex narratives as much as more complex narrative-free photography projects are developed. You’ll have to allow for your own work — the pictures you take — to outsmart your own ideas.

How do you do that? Well, you don’t think about narrative at all when you start your work. Narrative is the great attractor of simplicity when it’s being placed at the beginning of the creative process.

And again, as critics and educators, but also as photographers, it’s our job to discuss the work we’re made to see in a fashion that will call out those simplistic solutions for what they are — instead of mindlessly celebrating each and every narrative-based book (especially if it comes wrapped with the usual design- and production-based bells and whistles).

In the end, the lack of criticality that I perceive in the community hurts us all. It makes the job of those young photographers much too hard when in fact it should be our collective duty to help them develop their work. And it also makes the fad of narrative a lot more shallow than it needs to be.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[See you in June!]]> 2023-04-30T17:38:23Z 2023-04-30T17:38:23Z

I’m going to be out of town almost all of May, teaching in Budapest (Hungary). Consequently, this site is going to be on hiatus. I’ll be back with regular programming in early June.

Meanwhile, I will continue posting new articles on my Patreon. There, you can find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more.

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).

Thank you for your support!

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Conversations about Germany: Thomas Weski]]> 2023-04-24T15:27:48Z 2023-04-24T15:25:58Z

Late in 2022, Michael Schmidt‘s Ein-heit, which had been long out of print, was reissued. The book is not only a masterpiece of photobook making, it also directly addresses what has remained Germany’s most monumental historical event over the course of the past 50 years, the unification of West and East Germany. With the many historical images used throughout the book, vast parts of the country’s history in the 20th Century are addressed, including World War 2 and the Holocaust. Furthermore, the different types of government under which Germans lived can be found in the book as well.

Up until Schmidt’s Waffenruhe — published roughly a decade earlier — and the 1996 Ein-heit, unlike their artistic peers — writers, painters, movie makers — German photographers had largely avoided dealing with their country’s history. How or why I still don’t understand, and I find it reprehensible. Unfortunately, Schmidt died in 2014, meaning that there is no opportunity for me to speak with him about these particular books and his thoughts about the country and history they were dealing with.

Thomas Weski was a close collaborator of Schmidt’s, and he has been in charge of the Michael-Schmidt-Archiv. He curated the retrospective that traveled to a number of major European museums and he produced the catalogue. Thomas also initiated the re-release of some of Schmidt’s books, of which Ein-heit is the latest example.

Given how close they were, I approached Thomas to see whether I could get insight into some of the things I was interested in. He kindly agreed to speak to me over Zoom in February this year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and it was translated from its original German.

Jörg Colberg
I am currently working on a project that revolves around German photographers who have dealt or are dealing with contemporary German history. After the Second World War, there were writers like Heinrich Böll or painters like Gerhard Richter or Anselm Kiefer who dealt with German history. In photography, however, for a long time nothing happened. I have always been curious about that. Michael Schmidt was one of the first and most important photographers to deal with this history in Waffenruhe and Ein-heit. You knew Michael. You are also mentioned in the book. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.

Waffenruhe was published in 1987. Two years later, in 1989, the Wall came down. Suddenly, the book had become something completely different. It almost became a document because it dealt with something that had now ended. How did Michael react to the fall of the Wall?

Thomas Weski
Unfortunately, I don’t know where Michael was when the Wall fell. So I can only speak for myself. I was very surprised the morning after the Wall came down, because I hadn’t even noticed it the night before. At breakfast I followed the coverage first on the radio, then on TV, and of course later at work it was the main topic. For the time being, Michael had lost the topic of his life with the fall of the Wall.

However, he did photograph the process of change, the signs of dissolution, and the visible removal of the border installations in Berlin. He spent a lot of time in the former area of the Wall, now an empty zone in the middle of the city that had a dystopian character all of its own.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, 89/90, ©Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, 89/90, ©Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, 89/90, ©Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

From this work, the book 89/90 emerged. However, he only published it in 2010 for the exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, which I curated. So there was a delay of 20 years. Before that, the work lay dormant in his archive. But in parallel to the project he later called 89/90 he started working on Ein-heit. He immediately took advantage of the situation by traveling to East Germany to photograph there. He also went to East Berlin. There were some photographers who regretted that the Wall had fallen. That was not the case with him. But I don’t really have a clear answer for your question.

I have always read Waffenruhe as on the one hand a documentary work describing the past. On the other hand, though, Waffenruhe voices a premonition in addition to an atmospheric psychogram of the still-divided city. I find it interesting that he addressed this theme with its different aspects at this particular point in time in a way that goes beyond a depiction of the concrete situation and that formulates something like an artistic conception. I always had the feeling that West Berlin photographers tried to photograph the city without the Wall in order to achieve something universal, metropolitan, rather than something specific, uniquely historical. There were only a few photographers who dealt directly with the Wall. For example, at the end of the 1970s, the Berlin photographer Hans W. Mende walked and photographed the entire course of the Wall in his project Grenzbegehung – 161 Kilometer in West Berlin [Border Walks – 161 kilometers in West Berlin]. But in the world of photography, apart from Michael no one dealt with the psychological significance of this dividing wall. In literature that did happen, I’m thinking of Uwe Johnson or Peter Schneider, for example.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Waffenruhe, 1987, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

Michael always worked a focus on on projects, didn’t he?

Yes. In the catalogue of the retrospective you can see that well. There, we listed the various groups of works chronologically. At the beginning of his photographic work there were commissions. Michael adopted that structure for his artistic work. He always worked on very clearly defined projects that were limited in terms of time and topic. He maintained this way of working, which also gave him a structure for his everyday life, throughout his whole life.

For each project, he changed or evolved the particular method he used to approach the particular subject matter photographically. This is an aspect of his work that younger photographers find interesting. It’s a constant pulling back, questioning, finding new approaches, and not an implementation of a successful method all throughout one’s life. It’s taking risks and accepting failure — otherwise, there is no growth of the artistic work itself. Time and again, Michael was impatient and dissatisfied with himself. His goal was to always find a specific and unique form of expression for the themes we has working on.

Working on Ein-heit he added the photographing of historical documents..

There already is an image that shows a photograph of a photograph in Waffenruhe. That was the beginning of his appropriation of images that had already been disseminated through the media. The Siemens Kulturprogramm, for which I was working at the time, financed Ein-heit. I was responsible for the project there, so I visited him regularly to work with him as he was developing the project. There was a phase where he was doing a lot of these photographs of photographs. So I was a bit afraid that he would get stuck in a pure repro project. Around that time, Richard Prince also started talking about sampling, meaning ways of artistically re-appropriating existing visual material in the style of music-production techniques. For a while, I was worried that Michael might be getting into a too fashionable direction. So sometimes I was a little concerned when I went back to Munich from these Berlin visits, wondering where things were going.

I once succinctly called these pictures “repros”. He immediately sharply rejected the notion of reproduction, saying “I take photos of photos. For a portrait I need a person to work with, I need a building for an architectural picture. And so here I use a photo for a photo.” To be honest, in the beginning I didn’t really understand that for him a printed image was part of reality and thus could be a subject for a photograph. He found historical motifs in books he bought at flea markets or second-hand bookshops. He then decontextualised them in his photographs by cropping them extremely in such a way that they take on a completely new meaning and, moreover, are resolved as an image.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

There is an image showing a group of young people. The American art historian Michael W. Jennings wrote about it that they were members of Kommune 1 in West Berlin. But instead it is an FDJ party meeting with young students somewhere in the GDR. Michael took a very small part from of the group picture. This way, the picture opens up. It detaches itself from the historical situation and becomes open to individual interpretation. This is the method that he then applied when photographing photographs.

By chance, I was made to look at this the other day. I came across the source material of one of his pictures. The Auschwitz Museum has a presence on social media and shares all sorts of documents and photos there. It showed a blueprint of a crematorium at Auschwitz. I had always thought that Michael Schmidt’s picture — really just a small section — came from there.

This got me thinking. On the one hand, he appropriates the image. On the other hand, it is very important that it is related to Auschwitz. If you don’t see that or don’t know that, then the effect might be completely different. So I was wondering what he was thinking. Did he want people to know that it is Auschwitz? Or maybe not?

Michael Schmidt, Untitled., Ein-heit, 1996, ©Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

Is it this picture? [shows the fourth picture in the book]

Wait, that’s also Auschwitz?

It could be so; I suppose so. It’s a technical blueprint. So there is a suspicion that is triggered. Given our collective historical knowledge, we read the picture as part of this machinery of destruction. But we don’t know whether it really is. And of course, in the context in which the image is placed by Michael the motif becomes charged, opening up to all kinds of interpretations.

In this picture I managed to decipher two of the text fragments. One is “Müllverbrennungsofen” (waste incinerator). The other text says“Müllverbrennungsraum” (waste-incineration chamber). I haven’t been able to find anything else, yet.

As with many images, this leaves us on thin ice, if you will. We can only guess. I would say that this uncertainty is part of the concept of this work. When interpreting the work you can’t find stable ground under your feet. I find this phenomenon of different possibilities of attribution interesting because you don’t expect that in the field of documentary photography. Instead, it turns everything that you from documentary photography upside down. Comprehensibility is missing, connections are not provided, and clear insights are made impossible. In other words, instead completely subjective interpretations are fuelled.

There is a motif in the book that we know as a photograph of the clothing left behind by concentration camp inmates. Schmidt’s close cropping makes it very abstract, almost indecipherable. But when you take a longer look the terrible trace become obvious, because at least for my generation the visual DNA of this motif has been burned into us.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

In another image, the perhaps unambiguous content of the initial is again reduced so much and thus charged up by Schmidt that one must involuntarily think of the scene of an execution or a summary court martial. But it is probably not that at all. That’s what’s so strong in this work. The potential of a subjective interpretation based on a collective memory is triggered.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

I think that a different cultural group reads things quite differently and may not even understand the references. That was the criticism voiced by some people when the group of works was shown at MoMA in New York. The question arose whether their audience would be able to follow the work at all? I think they would. Ein-heit has two sides. It is specifically German. At the same time, it is universally valid because it deals with different social systems, their power structures, representatives, visible signs, even propaganda. During that process, it raises the question of perpetrators and victims.

Is there a collection of the source materials at the Michael Schmidt Archive?

We can trace certain sources quite accurately. There are some books where we can see that he used them. Maybe a dozen. One publication is an anniversary book of the SED, the state party of the GDR. He photographed quite a lot from that book. But there is no huge library or a huge amount of original materials that he used. I was surprised how few there are.

I know many of the people in the photos. I know who they are. But there are some pictures where I think I know them. But then it turns out to be someone completely different.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

[laughs] Exactly! There are also some people from his circle of friends in the book, Wilmar König [shown above] or Joachim Brohm, for example. Schmidt himself also appears with the portrait from his ID. And there are portraits of people from the circle of his daughter from his first marriage, who at the time was active in the subculture of West Berlin. In the photographs of photographs, there are politicians like Lübke, Adenauer or Mielke. But I can’t identify all of them, either. In that case, I read them as types, as representatives.

I’ll show you a portrait where everyone thinks they know. Here. Do you know him from back in the day?

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

I thought that was Heino.

No. I think that’s Wilhelm Wieben, who for many years was news anchor at Erstes Deutsches Fernsehen. But I’m not 100% sure, either. [laughs]

I was thinking about that. On the one hand, it’s interesting for find all the references.

Yes, of course.

On the other hand, there is the risk that the impact of the work will be limited because it may become too specific. It might not be so important to know exactly every person in every pictures. The real topic is the underlying mood.

Yes, I also believe that the quality of the work is formed by its vagueness, by it being unfinished and open ended. Sometimes, you lose this magic when you commit too deep to an interpretation or research.

My research into the details is about finding out more about Michael and his intentions.

Maybe I can tell you a bit about the reception of the project and why it was first exhibited in New York. Around 1987, Michael met Peter Galassi, who at the time was still curator at MoMA’s photography department under John Szarkowski. He had sent him Waffenruhe on the recommendation of Lewis Baltz. There is a response letter, which we showed at the retrospective, in which Galassi thanks him for sending the book. In 1988, Michael was part of New Photography 4 at MoMA, in which he was represented with Waffenruhe. In preparation for the exhibition, Galassi visited him in Berlin. I translated for Michael, who didn’t speak English very well. After the meeting, there was regular contact between the two of them and me.

In the mid-90s, Michael showed him a dummy of Ein-heit. Galassi then expressed his interest to the Siemens Kulturprogramm. He said that he would like to exhibit this project. At the time, that was important for me because the Kulturprogramm had financed the creation of this project without what would come out of it. Galassi’s interest and the announcement that the project would have its premiere at MoMA was very reassuring, not only for Michael and the cultural programme, but also for me.

It quickly became clear that the exhibition would then also be shown at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, where starting in 1992 I was curator of photography. For the presentation in New York, Galassi generously listed me as co-curator. But he did the work all by himself, together with Michael. At his request, the light in the exhibition galleries was very bright. At the pre-opening, a few fuses blew, which was quite funny. [laughs]

Michael created the concept for the book on his own?

Entirely on his own. My function was more like being a sparring partner when you do boxing. He showed me the work or later the dummy again and again and was eager to see my reaction. Often, I had to form an opinion first. Therefore, couldn’t tell him so much at the particular moment. I was only able to do so later. But it was still important for him to have a regular exchange. Of course, I was curious to see what would emerge.

Did he communicate what he wanted to achieve with the work and what his ideas were? Or did he show the work, saying “Have a look. What do you think about this?”

He told me the basic idea of the project. But it changed over the course of the work on his photographs. As did the title. Initially the working title was Daheim. Of course, the term Heimat was being discussed in Germany at the time, because it had been contaminated by the Nazis. Turning back to Heimat — that was already considered problematic.

I’m interested in the fact that the book is very political. What were Michael’s opinions, what was his politics? Do you know something about that?

Michael was a political person. Looking back on his service in the West Berlin police force, he always made the point that he had been on the right side of history. It was consistent for him to resign from the police force at the beginning of the 1970s. He must have been suffering there. After all, he was in the police during the student movement and at the beginning of the RAF. Furthermore, there was his longing to be able to concentrate exclusively on photography. All of this led to the end of his work in the police force. He didn’t talk much with me about those things. When someone mentioned that he used to be a policeman, he was always annoyed by it.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

I thought that maybe he’d talk about it in private or as an artist.

Not really. He taught himself to talk very precisely about his work. In the beginning, he was unable to do that. He grew up in very modest circumstances and taught himself everything. I always admired his self-education. Apart from a few lectures, there is very little written material from him. Even from conversations I can’t remember any fundamental political standpoints except for emotional expressions.

I was interested in his general attitude towards the subject, the fall of the Wall, reunification. At the time, that was a hot topic. I remember that many people in the SPD said that reunification was not an immediate possibility and that we had to wait and deal with history.


That didn’t work out. History simply developed more quickly. The conservatives wanted reunification right away. I was curious what he thought about that. Everyone had an opinion.

I would say that he had the hope that there would be a third way, which we as the left had hoped for at the time, namely that one would take the best from the two social systems and try to create something new.

But I also realise that I can’t really answer your question. We did talk regularly and often on the phone over a long period of our friendship. But it was a lot about getting each other’s daily problems off our chests.

In the end, this leaves us with possibly the best solution, the work itself.

For sure. It’s quite hefty and really hard to grasp. Ein-heit is not a book that you can understand quickly. As a viewer, you are initially thrown back on yourself. Usually, photographs open up relatively quickly. In certain contexts in which they are used they have to be quickly readable. Otherwise they would not be successful — I’m thinking of advertising or photojournalism. With Ein-heit it’s just the opposite. Since I first looked at the book, it has become more and more complex for me. Questions always remain. Of course, that is interesting. I only know the same feeling from very few other photography books, for example William Eggleston’s Guide or Walker Evans’ American Photographs.

In Ein-heit it is also remarkable how many interpretations a picture can allow. There are many more of those than there are pictures in the book. Often the content does not arise in individual images but only through the sequence of images in the book. Sometimes it arises between them. Michael Schmidt reduced this idea to the simple formula 1+1=3.

A younger generation certainly will see the images differently now, because they may not even know all the references.

Yes, I agree. If you take collective memory as the basis for understanding something like this work, then it’s always generational and limited to a culture. Americans will read the book differently. Someone who now is 20 years old also sees it differently. They might see certain types in the portraits, but they don’t recognise the people. They don’t make any rediscoveries.

Perhaps there will be discoveries that are denied to us.

That would be great. Then the book would remain timely, and it would not just be a work with a historical reference. That would be ideal.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Depravity’s Rainbow]]> 2023-04-17T15:37:00Z 2023-04-17T15:37:00Z

Now that I have spent decades looking into the past of the country I was born in, Germany, I’ve come to realise that the greatest threat to humanity is not posed by lunatics such as Hitler, Goering, or any of the other main characters from the Nazi era. These people undoubtedly were evil in the most basic sense of the word. However, without the active help of not only perfectly ordinary people but also, crucially, of a group of highly talented individuals whose moral compass was completely absent Hitler would have been unable to lay waste to an entire continent and kill millions of Jewish people in an industrial fashion.

To begin with, there are the likes of Adolf Eichmann, capable administrators who will apply their organizational skills to any task they’re given. When pressed, they will say that they were merely “following orders” and thus somehow are not responsible for the consequences of their deeds. And then there are the likes of Albert Speer or Wernher von Braun who operated at higher levels but who also were cut from a different cloth than Eichmann. Or take Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. All were extremely gifted people who happily put their talents to use for their regime’s murderous purposes.

After the war, surprise!, surprise!, they claimed that they had not known about the crimes they had contributed to. Obviously, this was the default defense for most Germans. But especially with individuals who were that gifted at solving even the most complex problems, the excuse rings particularly hollow. Von Braun was smart enough to develop the most advanced rocketry the world had seen until then, but somehow he was not smart enough to literally see the slave labour that was used to produce it?

After the war, Speer spent two decades in jail. Von Braun, in contrast, ended up as an employee of the US government, developing its space program. It is von Braun who thus makes for one of the most interesting cases. Here is why. Monstrous lunatics such as Hitler or, to use a contemporary example, Vladimir Putin are fascinating because they are obviously completely evil. At the same time, they are so different from most people’s lived experience that there almost appear to be from another planet (or from a movie — the go-to image people often use). In contrast, people like Eichmann live in our midst.

People like Speer or von Braun not only live in our midst as well, they are also very much visible. They’re the brilliant operators that any country relies on to keep it running. Which is fine — there is nothing wrong with brilliant operators per se. The real problem is twofold. First, it’s how morally compromised they can be (and often are). But second, and this is what really gets me, is that we don’t appear to have a problem with that. Let’s use a contemporary example. John Yoo, the person who wrote what became known as the “torture memos” still teaches law at UC Berkeley.

One of the most disturbing aspects of all of this is that in our democratic societies, we have no problem with employing people whose moral compass appears to be completely broken or absent, and we allow them to do their work for us even when their problematic past is openly known. Or we lionize billionaires who very obviously and openly voice their contempt for the democracy we live and act accordingly.

When I grew up, the standard tale was that Nazi Germany had been completely different than the West Germany I was living in. I was basically led to believe that after the war, the Nazis had all magically vanished into thin air. I was unable to understand how this could have happened. Now, I know that I had been lied to left and right. Now, I know that perfectly ordinary people not only have the capacity to do evil, they also have the capacity to tell themselves (and others) that there’s no problem with that.

The life and career of a Wernher von Braun provides a perfect example. If you don’t know much about him, you can learn a lot more from a new book by Lewis Bush, Depravity’s Rainbow. The book basically chronicles the man’s life story. But it does so in a very smart way that helps bring focus to von Braun’s life, his work, and the way two very different countries happily used his expertise.

In a nutshell, the life story is wrapped onto itself. As a viewer, you see von Braun’s greatest US success, the successful landing on the moon, and his birth and upbringing first. As the book unfolds, it moves back in time for the US space program and forward in time for von Braun’s German life. This way, two seemingly very different aspects of the man’s life are being brought together, as are the ways the two different countries he lived in engaged with him. Later rocket launches now sit next to earlier ones, and a variety of other material is brought into connection.

Late in the book, you get to see a copy of von Braun’s ID from Nazi Germany’s Oberkommando des Heeres (Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht), issued in early 1945, followed by an ID of the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, AL, issued in 1949. It’s the same man, the same face, staring into the camera. The switch, it would seem, was easily made. Just a few pages later, the final photograph in the main section of the book shows dead inmates at the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp where von Braun had had his rockets built.

Apart from von Braun’s life work itself, there obviously is another topic that is being explored in the book, namely the problem of dual use. Actually, as I’ve argued above, the problem isn’t so much dual use itself, the fact that the same technology can be used for productive and destructive purposes. It’s that most people don’t appear to have a problem with that. But mine might be a different interpretation than Bush’s. There is an excellent essay at the end of the book in which he dives into the details of many of the aspects I alluded to here.

Depravity’s Rainbow combines a lot of archival material with photographs taken by Bush in various locations that played a major part of von Braun’s life story, in particular locations in Germany that probably are mostly only known to people looking more deeply into the country’s history.

The book makes for an excellent example of what at some stage I termed the research-based photobook because it manages to present a rather complex story in an engaging and insightful fashion, focusing both on space programs and the moral inadequacies of an incredibly gifted human being.

Bush has his reasons for using the cyanotype process for his imagery. I’m not sold on those. I find the blue and brown tones distracting; but that’s just a minor quibble.

In any number of ways, the life story of Wernher von Braun has lessons for us today. In Ukraine, for example, Russian forces are using contemporary missiles in the V2 fashion, indiscriminately bombing civilians in Ukraine. At the time of this writing, the latest example comes from Sloviansk where one dozen people were killed in their apartment buildings.

Putin, a cartoonishly evil character, would be unable to wage his war without all those people who have no problem with sending off their missiles (many of which originally were produced for air defense). I’m sure that when this is all over, they will all say that they didn’t know anything or that they couldn’t have done anything. I’ve heard all those excuses in the different context of Germany already.

One final comment. Depravity’s Rainbow was self published. Making a book is a difficult task even when working with a publisher. Doing it on one’s own is even harder. Getting a copy of the book will not only add a real treasure to your library (at £40.00, the book is a total steal), it will also support its maker directly.

Highly recommended.

Depravity’s Rainbow; photographs and material collected by Lewis Bush; essay by Lewis Bush; 250 pages; self-published; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Photography and Art]]> 2023-04-10T14:49:20Z 2023-04-10T14:49:20Z

I’ve written the following in any number of variations countless times: photography has a lot of limitations. It is incapable of showing inner states, leaving us with depictions of surfaces. Because of these limitations, it’s an interesting medium to work with. However, I don’t think I’ve written about why this is interesting. What has me make that claim?

People have come up with all kinds of solutions for photography’s problem. For example, if you have a photograph of your late grandfather’s pocket watch, you could add a caption underneath that says as much. That way, a viewer would know what they’re looking at. Of course, you immediately get up another conundrum: as a viewer, you will have to believe that the caption tells you the truth. After all, it could just be some pocket watch, and the photographer added the caption to throw you off.

But in general, text can help solve the problem of conveying information that cannot be communicated visually or that is hard to communicate that way. This is the approach taken in the world of photojournalism and documentary photography, where factual text is made to work closely with images to communicate. By now, it’s a well established model. Its possibly only interesting aspect is the fact that what we today view as the rules of documentary photography have not always existed in this fashion. For example, in the 1930s, there was a very different focus on representing facts and on the role of fiction to achieve the larger goal.

I own a fair number of books that are photojournalistic or documentary. Many of them are quite good. But I rarely (if, to be honest, ever) look at them. They quench a thirst that I don’t experience very often. It’s not that I’m not interested in facts or information (I am). Instead, I find the game that you can play with photographs when you step away from intending to convey a very particular truth a lot more interesting. Again: why?

The answer probably comes down to the combination of two factors. First, I enjoy the process of engaging with a set of photographs to see what they will do to me. I attempted to write this sentence in the broadest possible sense, because I did not what to cut off anything. This engagement might centre on trying to understand something. It might centre on picking up on a feeling. It might centre on experiencing beauty. The list goes on. While these types of engagement are not necessarily strictly separate (of course, they can be), I enjoy all of them.

Second, I enjoy the type of photography the most that allows me to play a part in it, whatever that part might be. What I mean by this is that instead of being a passive observer (as in the cases of photojournalistic or documentary photography where someone attempts to funnel information into me), I become an active participant in the work. In fact, my whole self becomes a participant: my biography, my short-term and long-term feelings, my current life circumstances etc. Phrased differently, just like every person I engage with photography based on who I am in any particular moment, a combination of long-term and short-term factors. When it’s done well, photography affects me in ways that have me reflect not only on what I encounter in the pictures but also on aspects of myself.

Making art is a selfish act. Looking at art is a selfish act. However, given that there are shared sensibilities at play, the combination of these selfish acts offers a chance to get converted into a larger, societal effect. I personally don’t believe that it’s art’s job to make the world a better place. That’s our job. Instead, it’s art’s job to give us a chance to become better people.

When you approach art this way, a lot of it opens up to you. Instead of being attracted to art that you know speaks to you directly, you can expose yourself to art where it’s not clear what you will get out of it. Note that I didn’t write “whether you will get something out of it”. I feel that all-too-often, people approach art as a form of investment (this probably is not very surprising, given that decades of living under neoliberal capitalism have taught us to deal with every aspect of the world that way). Instead of letting art do its job, people try to gauge whether the investment will result in what they deem to be a desired outcome.

When you do that, though, you limit yourself to what you already know. In effect, you apply your own equivalent of the algorithms used by entertainment streaming platforms to your own life: I like this, so I will like that, given that I know that it’s in the same ballpark. You can observe this effect in the groups and bubbles that have formed in photoland, where the same group of people will look at, discuss, and make the same kind of photography. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to judge these groups. If that’s your way of engaging with art then, well, enjoy! I personally find it much too limiting.

It’s not only that I get bored (but not in a good way) by exposing myself to more of the same all the time, it’s also that I crave the thrill of looking at something that I don’t understand, that I think I have no connection with (at least right now). Because, you see, later I might be able to get to some connection with what I see, even as now I wouldn’t be able to tell what that connection might be.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Better Not Move]]> 2023-04-03T15:24:06Z 2023-04-03T15:24:06Z

“The object of our mind can be a mountain, a rose, the full moon, or the person standing in front of us. We believe these things exist outside of us as separate entities, but these objects of our perception are us. This includes our feeling.” I had to think of these words by Thich Nhat Hanh while spending time with Petra Noordkamp‘s Better Not Move, a book of photographs and text that is an expression of grief.

The bulk of the photographs in the book were made during a residency in Japan shortly after the artist’s partner had died unexpectedly. They are photographs of the ground, of the roots of trees, of rocks, of the insides of traditional Japanese houses. In addition, there are a few photographs of personal items that have nothing to do with those. These pictures come before short pieces of text that are sourced from a number of movie screenplays (none of which, I admit, I was familiar with).

The short texts focus on men and women as partners in relationships — marriage and the like. Noordkamp added a couple of longer texts of her own, one obliquely describing her time in Japan during the residency (there is a fear of earthquakes), the other outlining the larger situation: there had been the man who had died, and the three months in Tokyo were spent dealing with that fact. “Photographing the lines, structures, shapes and patterns,” she writes, “gave me something to cling onto and offered comfort.”

Ever since a number of artists photographed the possessions of people who had died — Christian Boltanski might have been the most prominent example — photographers have been focusing on treating such pictures as traces of their presence. In fact, one of the most common projects for photography students centers on taking pictures of typically a grandmother’s or grandfather’s possessions.

Interestingly, Boltanski never believed that his Inventories said anything about the person who had been in their possession: “Their only interest is that anyone who looks at them sees his or her own portrait in them, since we all own pretty much the same objects […] We learn more about ourselves than about the person behind the inventory.” Had Thich Nhat Hanh been a photography critic, he would have easily agreed with this. But he didn’t have to play that role, because his Buddhist teachings make the point very clear: the objects of our photographs, to adapt his words to this context, “are us”.

“Do not lose yourself in the past,” Thich Nhat Hanh continued a little bit further down in his essay on Right Mindfulness (in: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching), “Do not lose yourself in the future. Do not get caught in your anger, worries, or fears. Come back to the present moment, and touch life deeply.”

In the end, all photography is a combination of paying attention to something and trying to have other people partake in that: the attention itself and not so much whatever it is that is its object. Different types of photography do this differently. In a simplified fashion, we could say that the world of art photography is mostly centered on the former, while the much vaster world of social-media photography focuses on the latter (hence the often absurd admonishments produced by photography critics attempting to deal with how ordinary people take and use pictures).

The problem, of course, is that looking at photographs as — for a lack of a better word — documents is a lot easier than to view them as relatively unimportant aspects of a social gesture. You can write a detailed critique of what a photograph looks like, how it was made, or how you engage with this aspect. But it’s a lot harder — and yet a whole lot more rewarding — to try to understand other people’s pictures as part of their attempt to navigate their place in this world.

As much as I typically try to be aware of the different ways photographs can operate, when looking at art books, I always start out with focusing on what is being shown. As it turned out, this made my job when dealing with Better Not Move harder. After a while, though, I started focusing less on the photographs and more on the person who had made them. I started to imagine myself in her place, looking intently at what is on view.

Operating a camera can and usually will divert our attention away from what we see through the viewfinder to how we see it that way. As photographers, after all, we are craftspeople who are worried about our pictures’ form and content. As viewers, though, we don’t necessarily have that problem. The pictures have been made, and we can access them in ways similar to how Noordkamp accessed the stones or roots or walls, as the objects of our perception that Thich Nhat Hanh spoke of.

I have no way of knowing whether thinking about photography this way will be helpful for a world of photography that still is so focused on ideas such as indexicality. Still, art always is about its makers and about the connections we, as viewers, can establish with them. I see Better Not Move as a meditation on what it means to still be there while someone else is not, with each photograph being its own small assertion of that fact.

The more I looked at the book, the more I ended up focusing on the moments in which I did that. My looking became my being.

This idea led me to deeply appreciating this book, which, I should add, has been beautifully produced with just the right amount of careful attention to detail.


Better Not Move; photographs and texts by Petra Noordkamp, with text fragments from a number of movie screenplays; 192 pages; Architectura & Natura; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Thoughts on AI Images: Art, Very Convincing Nonsense, and Visual Literacy]]> 2023-03-27T14:40:56Z 2023-03-27T14:00:12Z

The world of art, of which the world of photography is a minor, rather insignificant part, prefers to hype up the latest technological advancements. Thankfully, the craze over so-called NFTs died down pretty quickly after “crypto”, a form of fake money that combines libertarian thinking with old-fashioned Ponzi scheming, imploded. Just a short time later, advancements in what is called “artificial intelligence” (AI) resulted in the release of new tools that are able to produce text that reads like real text (more on this later) and pictures that look like… well, not quite real pictures, but they seem to be getting there.

So far, the talk in the art world about AI images reminds me of when artists started exploring Second Life. There was a lot of hype, a lot of rather half-baked work. And then the fad disappeared pretty quickly. I’m thinking that AI images might stay around a little longer, but I could easily be wrong.

It’s worthwhile to point out that part of the panic that erupted over the tools bears similarities to how the world of photography treated the advent of digital cameras. I do not mean to dismiss the criticism that’s leveled at AI. But some of it seems misguided to me. Maybe I will start with the latter. There is considerable merit to discussing the problem that new tools lower costs for people buying the products and that they end up replacing human workers. (Obviously, if you’re a neoliberal capitalist, these aren’t problems but features.)

While I do have thoughts about all of that, it’s a politics problem, not a photography one. As long as we don’t pressure law makers to mitigate the effects of a rampant capitalism, we’re not going to solve problems like this. Copyright — AI images use other people’s pictures — obviously is a huge problem as well. In the US, the people who can fix this problem sit in Washington, DC.

It’s useful to keep in mind, though, that in the world of photography, we’re not entirely blameless ourselves. If rates go down all the time, if there’s a race to get everything cheaper and cheaper, then the fact that someone will be willing to work for that lower rate (or even for free) is not helping the overall cause.

In much the same fashion, to pick a completely unrelated example, if the market for photobooks isn’t growing because it’s mostly photographers buying other photographers’ books, then making more books for photographers also isn’t really a solution to the problem. Like I said, these are basically questions of politics and/or community, and we might want to treat them that way.

Coming back to photography, over its relatively short history, new technologies were created at a rapid rate, leading to new tasks arising and then made unneeded at a relatively rapid rate. As far as I can tell, in photography discussions over new technologies have always involved the kinds of discussions we’re now seeing in the context of AI. But when it comes to AI I do think that there are a few things that are interesting to talk about, in particular because they have repercussions beyond photography.

I should briefly preface the rest with what I’ve seen in terms of AI images. I’ve seen a lot of them, and so far I haven’t seen anything that has a lot of substance. I also tried an AI image tool for my own work and came to the conclusion that while occasionally, there are interesting images, AI falls way short in a larger, important sense: it’s not capable of producing something that is coherently speaking of its maker’s vision. For example, the visual narration in my book Vaterland completely evaporated when I replaced my pictures with AI ones.

But I also thought that it would only be fair enough if I elaborated on my own thinking around AI images. So that’s what I want to do in the following. After all, it’s not that theoretically, I’m not interested in AI images. But for me, they have to cross a certain bar to become art.

To begin with, creating images in a computer is not new. After all, there is computer-generated imagery (CGI). This article explains why furniture maker IKEA uses CGI for their catalogues. When you use CGI, you will have to start from scratch or from what you have already set up.

AI image tools offer something completely different, in that they assemble new images from a database of already existing ones. If you use CGI and you want a photograph of a chair, you will have to tell the computer exactly what the chair is supposed to look like, how it’s lit etc. With AI, you can tell it “show me a photo of a chair” and it will produce one:

This is one of the images produced by Stable Diffusion when I prompted it with “Show me a picture of a chair” (I used the free demo version). It looks like a chair, but it’s also wonky. Somehow, the geometry isn’t quite right and neither are various constituent parts. The articles I’ve read so far about AI photographs typically run along the lines of being amazed how realistic they look (which is debatable, but such nuance is typically omitted) and how advances in technology will make the pictures look even better (which might or might not be true; we’ll see).

It’s interesting and disturbing to notice how similar a lot of these articles are to the generally uncritical and hype-prone articles you can find in the world of tech.

Regardless, the picture of the chair was produced by assembling it from existing pictures. Conceptually, that’s interesting, because for me, the first big thing I think about is the following (which is probably based on my background as a theoretical physicist). Let’s use an example. If you buy a bunch of Lego bricks, you can create all kinds of things — as long as you follow what the bricks will allow you to do. In other words, you will be restricted by the options presented by them.

It is as if an artist, let’s say Ai Weiwei, decided to make something from Lego bricks. Whatever he’d decide to do, he’s be limited by what the bricks allowed him to do. In fact, Ai Weiwei indeed just used Lego bricks to recreate (if that’s the word) a painting by Claude Monet. “By recreating this famous scene,” we are being told, “Ai Weiwei challenges our ideas of reality and beauty.” (does he, though?)

I think a good way to look at Water Lilies #1 would be to view it either in the context of art in general (which might yield too low a bar, but your mileage might vary) or in the context of this artist’s own back catalogue. Taking the latter approach, does this piece of art strike you as being in the same league as his earlier work?

By the way, that’s a Claude Monet painting made from Lego according to Dall.E 2.

The point I’m after has something to do with originality, but it’s not quite that. I personally find originality completely overrated. There are a few photographs that I admire and that were genuinely original when they were made. However, the bulk of the photographs I appreciate were completely unoriginal when they were first made, and that didn’t matter one bit. For example, people have taken millions of pictures of landscapes before, and there still are very good landscape pictures being made. The same is true for family photography or any other genre of photography.

But using the term “originality” is too misleading anyway, because mostly, great art is not necessarily appreciated for that (or that alone). To get back to what I’m thinking about: can AI create very good art out of the constituent parts of existing art in a way that moves beyond those parts?

Could AI create a Beethoven symphony out of the parts of Bach concertos? You might think that, well, yes, Beethoven and Bach used the same types of scales and some of the same instruments. But that’s not necessarily how you go from Bach to Beethoven, and it’s not how you’d get to Schoenberg (to throw in a more contemporary composer).

If you think about this on a visual level, you could ask the same question in a different context. If you look at the history of photography, could you create later photography from pieces of earlier one?

This question can get very interesting when a first, basic answer would be: yes. Take collage. For example, László Moholy-Nagy’s or Hannah Höch’s collages are made from existing photographic material in the most literal sense. But could AI really do the same job? Could an algorithm replicate the creative genius of a Moholy-Nagy or a Höch?

My current sense is that that is unlikely. But that’s the only interesting question around AI photography for me. Everything else is merely craft. There’s nothing wrong with craft, but I’m interested in art.

You might argue that AI is merely being used by someone, so it’s not the AI that makes the pictures (this is debatable, but let’s buy into this), it’s the operator. However, the problem does not disappear. It shifts: assuming that the operator possesses enough creative genius, will they be able to make AI do things on their terms — instead of getting images based on the algorithms?

It’s a bit like looking at Facebook pages. They all look the same because people can only fill pre-arranged templates. You can only work with the options provided to you. In principle, this is not a new problem for photographers: you always can only do what your tools allow you to. But with AI, you now have a new parameter: everything you can do has to be based on something that already exists (older images).

When evaluating AI photographs in an art-historical or critical sense, you have to be careful, though. Let’s use an imaginary example. It would be pretty straightforward to imagine AI being used to create the equivalent of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. If that body of work didn’t exist and if Cindy Sherman decided she wanted to create such a body of work today, she’d have to feed her own portrait into the AI system, to then produce those film stills.

However, the question is whether this would be interesting. After all, the original Untitled Film Stills existed in a specific context, the so-called Pictures Generation. They thus acquired their initial meaning in an artistic climate in which artists looked into the role and value of pictures and into how existing pictures shape our world and expectations. If you imagine an AI generation of film stills in that context (admittedly an absurd idea, given that back then AI didn’t exist), then it’s easy to see how Sherman’s AI Untitled Film Stills would have done the same job as the actual ones.

However, if you imagine Cindy Sherman producing the pictures today, far removed from the Pictures Generation and with us being now in the world of fake news etc., the idea would probably fall pretty flat. The conversation about photographs has moved far from the concerns of the Picture Generation.

If you look at the untitled film still I had Stable Diffusion produce, you can see how the AI can’t get hands right. That’s a problem, albeit not in the art-historical or critical sense I’m interested in here. In fact, you could argue that the weird hand is the only interesting element of the picture. However, it’s hard to see how this AI shortcoming translates into a form of artistic merit, especially if we demand that such merit has to be at least somewhat related to a maker’s intent.

Consequently, in an artistic context, AI photographs need to at least aspire to have artistic merit. By that I mean that their makers have to attempt to contribute to the current artistic discourse. So far, I don’t see that happening (nope). Trying to make funny pictures or trying to prove that you can get realistic looking pictures with AI — that’s too low a bar.

There is a second, very interesting and very important aspect to AI photography. In a loose sense, it centers around the intersection of veracity and believability. Something might not have to be truthful to still be believable. For example, little children believe in Santa Claus. This is the general area where the generation of material, whether visual or textual, ultimately can — and very likely will — become political.

A little while ago, I tested ChatGPT to see whether I could make it write nonsense. To be more precise, I wondered whether the AI would correct factual mistakes I included in my questions. It did not. In all fairness to ChatGPT, I just got access to Google’s Bard, and it happily served me nonsense in the same fashion. Instead, both produced what I called Very Convincing Nonsense.

Very convincing nonsense is a piece of information that looks or reads as truthful and that is convincing in form, but that is actually not accurate. This type of nonsense is great for comedy. But it’s not funny otherwise, especially not if it ends up being used by Vladimir Putin’s troll farms or any of its Western equivalents (which are largely driven to undermine our democracies).

Here, you have an actual example that was disseminated by the person it is supposed to depict, Donald Trump (I found this on the same day that I started writing this article). If you look carefully at the image, you can see at least two of the standard problems of current AI image generators. The hands aren’t right. Furthermore, kneeling with your right knee behind your left heel is very, very difficult. (I literally tried this. In general, I have very good balance. But I found it almost impossible to balance the way shown in the image.)

Essentially, you have to be able to recognize the nonsense if it is embedded in something that looks or reads as convincing. If you’re unable to detect it, then… well, you’ll just take what you see at face value. In fact, while I was working on this piece, an AI picture of the pope in some stylish white winter coat fooled a lot of people. When I saw it, I didn’t believe for a second that it was real. Apparently, a lot of people did.

On the other hand, most of the people for whom the Trump image was made probably don’t believe any more in what it shows than citizens of the Soviet Unions believed socialist-realist art. It’s hard to imagine that any of those hard-right Christians believe that Trump is religious. But in the image there’s a code that is transmitted. And that code matters, because the image serves to deliver it — instead of what it depicts in a literal fashion.

Here is a recent example of an Instagram post by a member of Germany’s neofascist AfD party (it would seem that after some discussion of the imagery, the guy pulled the image). Norbert Kleinwaechter (whose last name ironically translates into “Little Guard” in English) is vice chairman of the party’s faction in Germany’s Bundestag (the federal parliament). The text reads “No to even more refugees”. There’s nothing subtle about the image, but obviously that’s par for the course for a party that has a history of producing racism. Note that the fictional person at the leftmost edge of the frame has five fingers.

If you’re not part of the target group, it’s important to be able to read the codes. They might be blatant as in the case of the AfD image, but they can also be more subtle. The visual code often connects to an invisible code that delivers the actual message. Just like in the case of the extremely well balanced Trump, photographic veracity isn’t the actual point.

In my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, I talk about codes in a different context. It’s easy to make fun of images like Trump’s or the photographs discussed in my book. But if your response ends there, you’re not performing the crucial and more important second step: understanding the codes that are being exchanged. You’re short-circuiting your critical facilities.

A good and very instructive example of detecting very convincing nonsense in AI image was recently discussed by Hiroko Yoda. Someone had AI generate a picture of a Japanese woman in a kimono (if you look at Yoda’s Twitter thread, you’ll see that the original post she referred to has now been deleted). “I’m certified as a kimono consultant in Japan,” Yoda writes, “and this triggered me in all sorts of ways.

To begin with, Yoda notes, there are some obvious craft issues. The AI showed a kimono that for a number of reasons couldn’t really be made, whether in terms of the materials or in the way it was folded. But there also is a very important cultural issue tied to it: “the biggest issue is super critical. Look closely at her white undergarment visible at collar. It’s folded right over left — used only for the dead. This is super creepy. So you have a white-faced woman wrapped in fabric scrap with odd hair accessories & funeral undergarments; if I ran into her in Kyoto’s Gion at night I would probably freak out!

I’ll be honest and admit that I would have not been able to notice any of the problems because I’m not familiar with the details of kimonos. (I can see how the chair I had AI create doesn’t make sense, though.) But I think you can easily see how what Yoda describes is very important: nobody in their right mind would wear a kimono this way in Japan. Obviously, the AI has no idea there is a problem because otherwise, we must assume, it would not have created the image this way.

What we’re left with is a visual example of very convincing nonsense: an image that does not make sense. But you would only know if, in this case, you were a kimono consultant (or, at the very least, someone who knows as much about the garment). And that is exactly the larger problem with AI images that we’re about to run into more and more. The problem is not only that images get produced to show something that didn’t happen or doesn’t exist (even though that’s bad enough).

The larger problem, at least in my view, is produced by images that convey nonsensical information even if they were supposed to be truthful and accurate, images that are so convincing that we take them at face value. I suppose you could view this problem as the equivalent of glitch artifacts. But in AI images, apart from wonky hands or other optical problems the more dangerous glitch artifacts are only visible if you have enough background knowledge to detect them.

One of the solutions we have for this problem is a vastly increased awareness of the importance of visual literacy. Specifically, by visual literacy I mean knowledge of the way of looking into how images convey their meaning. We will have to become a lot more aware of how we consume images. This would involve teaching visual literacy in schools and universities (outside of art departments or classes).

We will probably also get used to the fact that we often have to research images online. If we see an image we might have to look around and see where else it shows up, to infer something about its truth value. My guess is that verification tools will become available. It’s easy to imagine an arms race between AI image-creation and verification tools.

Whatever the outcome, now is the time to start becoming more critical of AI tools. Now is the time to start thinking about how to deal with them. AI image click bait is fun — but it’s just possible that at least some of the time is better spent on learning more about how to critically look at images.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Another world]]> 2023-03-20T14:51:55Z 2023-03-20T14:51:55Z

There’s something fascinating about how similar Japan and Germany are. In the late 19th century, both countries emerged out of a suspended state to try to catch up with the countries they perceived as their peers. This process involved trying to reconcile modernity with their own cherished and in part deeply flawed national and cultural identities. In the end, both countries failed miserably, inflicting enormous pain on their neighbours through wars and genocide.

Completely crushed in World War 2, both countries were given another chance (an unearned gift), only to emerge as economic power houses that, alas, have never quite figured out what it means to be a normal sovereign country. Starting in the 1980s, their paths started to diverge. Germany embraced neoliberal capitalism to the fullest, transforming itself into the mini-US it is now. Japan instead went through an extreme really-good-boom-and-really-bad-bust cycle, after which its ruling class doubled down on investing money to fuel the economy even as the country’s birth rate imploded.

But there remains a deeply fascinating similarity between the two countries. Deeply insecure about their own national merit, both are engaged in a fight between outside cultural values and their own, native ones. The latter contain so much fiction that it’s hard to see real differences between Amaterasu, Japan’s sun goddess, and a Disney character, or Richard Wagner’s Ring opera cycle and any one of the various Marvel franchises produced in Hollywood (except that the music is a lot more tedious and the acting is a lot worse in the operas). But to Japanese and German people, the differences feel very important.

Much like in any other country, the fight over Japanese or German national identities involves symbols (or signs if you’re into semiotics). For me, as someone who grew up in West Germany, I can see this struggle much more clearly in Japan than in Germany. In a rather basic sense, many elements of Japan’s visual culture make me look at least twice because they and their context are unfamiliar to me.

The huge pitfall for a Westerner of course is to immediately fall into the traps of orientalism and/or othering. If you look at things in a realistic fashion, though, a country like Japan that seems “strange” to a Westerner in fact is a lot less strange than many Western countries. As an aside, I just listened to a podcast in which two linguists, both fluent in Japanese and with years of experience living there, discuss “weird” experiences they had in Japan. At some stage, one of them says that it’s actually a lot more likely to meet a weird person in the US than in Japan.

As someone not from Japan, you don’t want to make any assumptions about what you encounter. You want to try to take things at face value. In fact, you wan to do that in any foreign country. If you do that, you will be able to see beyond what a tourist might see. Furthermore, you will start picking up on that struggle over national identity and symbols. It is that struggle that plays out in Kenta Nakamura‘s exuberant and brilliant Ginga ni umeru (Release into the Galaxy).

The book combines staged/set up photographs (mostly portraits) with snapshots in a wild mix that might ruffle some feathers both in Japan and in the West, albeit probably often for different reasons. The opening sequence alone makes it clear what will be unfolding in the book’s pages. The first spread pairs a photograph of a elderly woman dressed in a Cinderella costume enjoying some food with a photograph of a young child whose mostly blue possessions have been arranged around him.

The second spread shows two women who both wear one of those red-blue glasses used for 3D movies or pictures (see picture above; these glasses recur throughout the book). On the left, a young mother is holding her child. On the right, the woman is wearing a very formal looking white kimono while sitting on a couch (as far as I know, it’s a bridal garment).

The third spread has a brightly lit photograph of a cow’s udder against a pair of metal poles in water at what looks like sunset. This then is followed by a photograph of a dried and flattened squid against a portrait of an older Japanese man wearing a double-breasted suit.

Obviously, you would have to see the book to understand how it works. But maybe you can sense from the descriptions above that some of its meaning is created from using the contrasts between two opposing photographs, often done in a way that’s very much on the nose. In fact, a lot of the pictures are in the on-the-nose category with their bright colours, lit by flash. A lot of what you see has been visually exaggerated. But it works because many of the people posing do so in the most deadpan fashion, implying that what you perceive as weird — that’s you, the viewer, putting it on them.

There are a number of photographs from a funeral in the book, including what looks like a selfie of the photographer with the same dead relative who is later seen in her casket (following Japanese tradition, there are flowers arranged around her). The selfie itself comes with a huge emoji over the deceased person’s face (remember, the word emoji is Japanese). This might not be the most tasteful picture (then again, Masahisa Fukase took a funeral selfie, too). Yet in the context of the book, it doesn’t stick out too much. Nakamura treats everything as being worthy of satire, to poke holes into conventions, traditions, new ways of living, and the importance people place on themselves.

Even as the edit of the book is slightly uneven — there are some pictures that don’t contribute much to it, Ginga ni umeru is the most surprising and fun photobook I’ve seen in a while. The world of photography is so serious about so much. When it’s not serious it’s often too obvious and punching down (usually employing classism to do so). In contrast, this particular book does all the right things. It doesn’t distinguish between high and low culture or traditional and pop culture.

As a viewer one can’t help but connect with many of those who happen to find themselves in front of Kenta Nakamura’s camera. I don’t know why that older woman is wearing a Cinderella costume. I don’t know why the woman on the cover (who is seen again later) owns a pet turtle (that might or might not be alive). But it seems like everything is trying to make do in a society that’s filled with a a strange mix of customs.

If you manage to pull yourself back from the society you’re embedded in, you might find some of the same strangeness in the customs of your own culture. That is, I think, what you will want to keep in mind after you’ve looked at this book. You will have to avoid the easy conclusion that “Japan is a weird country”. It is not. It might look weird (and Nakamura dials this up 11) because as outsiders, we’re not familiar with what a Japanese person would take for granted. But in some fashion, every country looks weird to outsiders. You simply can’t focus on the weirdness — because it’s mostly your projection.

Seen that way, once you’ve enjoyed Ginga ni umeru you might want to start looking into how all of the same contradictions play out wherever you might be located.

Highly recommended.

Ginga ni umeru; photographs by Kenta Nakamura; 136 pages; GAP4 Publishing; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[This Almost Empty Road]]> 2023-03-13T14:24:40Z 2023-03-13T14:24:40Z

I can’t say that I’m an expert in the area that Timothy Snyder described in his book Bloodlands. What I know I know from the book. If you look through the Wikipedia page, towards the bottom, the reception of the book is discussed. Some of Snyder’s points were highly contested, and part of the protest appeared to have included accusations of bias towards some of the states that occupy the region.

The latter would in part be only logical, at least as far as I understand it, given that what we see as clear-cut borders on our contemporary maps do in fact not neatly separate people quite as clearly as we might be tempted to think. Before the borders in Central and Eastern Europe were re-drawn, many of the countries in the area had sizeable minorities, with often rich local cultures that often intermingled.

Even as after World War 2 large numbers of people were literally made to move, a process that was violent and that destroyed the livelihoods of many, many people, physically moving people will not eradicate cultures, connections, and conflicts that had been established over the course of centuries. It will also not eradicate memories of oppression and mass murder at the hands of those who committed them, Germany and Russia.

As far as I understand it, there is a strong sense of solidarity between the countries that now occupy the area Snyder covered in his book. At the time of this writing, this solidarity manifests itself very strongly in the support Ukraine receives from countries such as Poland or the Baltic Republics. I don’t think in the West, people understand the reasons for that support. Even the word solidarity seems not strong enough. There is a shared history that includes culture just as much as being violently oppressed.

As far as I can tell, the above forms the basis for Monika Orpik‘s Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road. I’m not trying to be coy here with my use of “as far as I can tell”. It’s very much possible that, say, Polish viewers and readers will find much easier access to the book than I did (I would have to ask people). And the book does include a number of clues what it tries to center on. But they are very difficult to find for someone who is not familiar with the location.

Let’s back up a bit. In a nutshell, the book contains a large number of photographs in a very bucolic setting. There are hints here and there that the location is somewhere in Eastern Europe: there are the occasional post-Soviet markers such as interiors of buildings, Christian-Orthodox crosses (that possibly are more widely known beyond the area now, given that so many of them are in the news from grave sites in Ukraine), or a group of priests.

I quite enjoy the overall mood that is established by these photographs. I get a feeling of a hinterland, a place that somehow has been left behind a bit. It’s not a neoliberal look at it, pointing a finger at what’s lacking, though. It’s simply observant of the land and its natural beauty.

There are three large blocks of text in English and a language that uses a Cyrillic alphabet (it’s not Russian, given that there are a few characters used that don’t exist in Russian). You’ll have to read both texts to figure out that the country in question is Belarus. The text conveys the voices of people from there talking about their experiences with the violent dictatorship in their home country. There also are four grids of similar images plus a short sequence of dark photographs of a pair of hands. What these are intended to communicate I don’t understand.

I think that one of the biggest challenges for any photographer when making a book is to realize that their audience often does not know everything you want to tell them, yet. The photobook is this curious thing where you have to slowly build up what you’re trying to get at; someone who only knows the pictures — and nothing else — will have to be able to figure it out. The inclusion of text does not change this challenge radically (unless you use text that explains what you’re after, in which case the whole thing becomes something entirely different).

Looking through Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road and thinking about what I started this article with had me think that I might simply not be a member of the book’s target audience. Maybe its target audience is exclusively located in Eastern Central Europe. My sense is that the book’s makers took a lot of information for granted, information that I simply have no access to.

And the book does make it very hard to figure out what’s going on. I wouldn’t want to claim that it’s trying to be mysterious on purpose (I wouldn’t know, and in any case, it would be unfair to make this claim). But I will say that a Western audience, in fact any audience really that’s not familiar with the region and its culture and politics, will find it difficult to access the book and to find the intended meaning beyond the landscapes.

For example, outsiders are unlikely to know what OMON is (it’s the vicious riot police you see in Belarus and Russia). If you use a specific term like this in a book (you find it in the first text), you want to include a note for an audience not familiar with it. I know that this seems like a small detail, but it’s one out of many in the book.

In general, in your photobook, you want to avoid two extremes: giving too much information and giving too little. If you give too much information, access to the book will be sharply reduced to something prefabricated. If you give too little information, people are simply not going to understand what you’re trying to get at.

In the latter case, the general sentiment that I often hear about this falls along the lines of “I want this to be mysterious”. Being mysterious is good — if a sense of mystery is the overall idea. But an audience will still have to understand that. This might be the hardest aspect of photobook making.

That said, obviously not every book needs to be made for an audience outside of the region where it was photographed. I suspect that the book will resonate with people in the area. At the same time, especially in light of many Westerners being indifferent about Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine (just one of the many aspects of the region that’s not understood well — if at all), it’s exactly Western audiences that would benefit most from learning more about the region.

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road; photographs and transcribed interviews by Monika Orpik; 124 pages; Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych (OPT); 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[1912 – 1949 – 1978]]> 2023-03-06T16:01:06Z 2023-03-06T16:01:06Z

“I picked out these portraits from an archive of approximately 600,000 photographs,” Cai Dongdong writes in the short introduction to Left, Right. “The portraits on the right-hand page of the book were taken during the Republic of China government from 1912 to 1949; those on the left-hand page were taken after the founding of the People’s Republic of China until China’s reform and opening up, from 1949 to 1978.”

The photographs all show women, whether alone or in groups. The pairings were done based on ages, clothes, gestures, and poses (the amount of work going into whittling down 600,000 photographs into these pairings is hardly imaginable). The result is fascinating and bewildering in a number of ways.

To begin with, if there were differences in available photographic materials, they are not apparent (at least to this pair of untrained eyes). There is, in other words, no stark contrast between the two photographs, where the more recent one would look considerably more modern (such as if, for example, you paired a tintype portrait with a silver-gelatin print). While this fact might (or might not) be of interest for photography historians, for a non-specialist viewer the artifice of photography itself does not force itself in between the two pictures.

In any pair of photographs, the viewer will inevitably create connections between them, regardless of how cognizant they are of the fact that they’re doing it. When two photographs look very similar, the this-looks-like-that game will be played. Much like in one of those old-fashioned visual games you used to find in old cross-word-puzzle magazines where two images were presented, with a given number of differences to be identified, the closer two photographs look, the more even small differences become apparent.

However, when looking at portraits, this game changes, given that when we look at a picture of a person, we think that we look at the person her or himself. There always is that jump to the human face and to imagining something about the person. Two more or less random strangers (or groups of strangers) that look very similar set off any number of thoughts in a viewer’s head. That’s the game being played in Left, Right.

Of course, there is the added complication (if we want to use that word) that the two time periods in question refer to two starkly different political regimes in China. There also is the added fact that up until World War 2, colonial powers and occupiers played huge and typically very malignant roles in the country, whether it was European powers or, later, Japan with its gruesome colonial puppet state (and associated mass atrocities).

None of that is apparent in the pictures, though. Or maybe almost none. If you look carefully, you can detect a few “Mao uniforms”. But the photographs were matched to be visually similar, so the corresponding dress from the earlier period is very similar. This is a nifty device that cuts out easy and shallow interpretations of the historical periods based on the pictures at hand (if you prefer such comparisons, you will have to look at different historical material).

Instead, things always boil down to the individual herself. It’s very easy to forget this, but ordinary people have almost always led mostly ordinary lives in any period of history of any given country. There might have been the occasional very drastic period where that was not the case. For the most past, these tend to be very short lived, though, providing exceptions to the rule. Furthermore, even in such periods, history still tends to get written on a large scale, a scale that glosses over the individual.

Left, Right focuses on the individual. It focuses on the fact that once you eliminate surface layers — types of clothing, say, you get to realize that across different historical periods, people have mostly lived very similar lives, focusing on their loved ones and trying to assert themselves in the tiny societal bubbles they lived in. This possibly is our only chance to learn something from history, which, after all, is unfolding right in front of our own eyes: we have to realize that it’s individuals, human beings like us, who make history.

Anyone interested in book making might want to pick up a copy as well. The book uses traditional Asian binding, and its pages are very thin sheets of paper that are folded onto themselves. Given that the book centers on China, this is an obvious, yet very good choice. I’m personally a fan of books made this way: I enjoy how they feel even more like an object than regular books. This particular example is incredibly well made, down to the creation of information on the spine and the added back and front covers.


Left, Right; archival photographs edited by Cai Dongdong; 144 pages; La Maison de Z; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Photography’s Deceit: Our Deceit]]> 2023-02-27T15:41:10Z 2023-02-27T15:34:05Z

I recently received a book in the mail that I had been trying to get for some time. It’s ひと夏 (One Summer) by Jōji (George) Hashiguchi. Up until I had the book in my hands, I had only seen selected spreads from it. There was something in those spreads that made me look for a copy.

Even before the book arrived in the mail, the friend who had helped me get a copy in Japan told me about its background. It also becomes clear from the book itself. In the texts (thankfully, there are English translations) the fact is mentioned that Hashiguchi took photograph on and near the set of a movie while it was being filmed (presumably over the course of one summer). My friend told me about the movie’s background, the memoir of artist Uchida Shungiku who had been sexually abused by her stepfather and who had produced a manga about it.

Knowing all of this had me on edge before the book arrived. Looking through the book, I don’t think the story of the movie comes across, though. I think you might be able to read something into a small number of the photographs. However, while some people are very adept at reading something they know into a photograph, I’m always a bit skeptical when this occurs, especially when that read involves a number of steps that move very far from what the picture actually shows.

When the book arrived, it wasn’t the movie’s story that had me on edge. Instead, the fact that in some ways the pictures aren’t real started to bother me. It’s straightforward to see, given that a number of characters re-appear in different pictures at different stages of their lives. Mind you, the pictures are real enough. They show real people. But what I had thought they would show — people encountered in some random fashion across a small town in Japan — is not.

All of photography is a fiction, and there is absolutely no insight to be gained from going over this fact one more time. Instead, insight might arrive from looking at our relationship to that fiction, whether as viewers or photographers.

Over the course of the past decade and a half, I have talked to a large number of photographers. I have come to realize that while photographers are very adept at understanding how photography expresses the world (people can easily see the effect of a lens), many of them are not any better at navigating the element of fiction in photography than people who don’t call themselves photographers.

Much like everybody else, photographers cling to their beliefs, the pictures be damned — even when it’s their own photographs. After all, photographers are human beings, much like everybody else.

In a nutshell, in pictures we want the world to look the way we believe it looks, even if with words we will claim something completely different. Mind you, making the world look the way be believe it looks also is one of the few things that makes photography genuinely interesting. If photography were a world that consisted only of passport-type pictures — documents following strict guidelines and devoid of any element of passion, it would only be interesting to a very small number of people.

However, the problem with photography’s deceit — showing us the world as seen by someone’s vision (let’s call it vision) — also creates a problem, especially when we buy into it too much: when we insist on the deceit being overwhelming, crowding out our other, critical facilities.

I think that a variation of this occurred when I encountered ひと夏. I wanted so much for the pictures to emerge from what we could call the real world. (Let’s not argue what the real world might be. I think we might all agree that it’s not what we encounter in movies.) Instead of focusing on the beauty of the photographs, though, I now spent all my time thinking about the artifice behind them. It is almost as if I had admired the work of Jeff Wall as snapshots, only to be told by someone that the pictures are in fact staged.

What this means is that the belief what pictures show also includes an element of how they do it. As viewers, we want to be deceived and we don’t want to be told about it. As photographers, we deceive ourselves and we don’t want to be told about that.

It’s inevitable, though, that you will be deceiving yourself when you go out into the world with your camera. You can tell yourself that you’re only going on a road trip across the US to photograph what you come across (let’s just pick this as a convenient enough example). But the reality is that you mostly only come across what you want to find. Or rather, you come across a lot of things. But the camera is a great tool to crowd out anything that doesn’t conform to your vision, and you end up with exactly the pictures that you set out to take.

Consequently, most US road-trip projects (remember, this is just an example, I could give you many others) show exactly the same thing, namely the view of the country that is entertained by a specific group, which usually consists of the relatively well-off (mostly white) men that do the road trips and the really well-off (mostly white) people that pay for pictures in commercial galleries or that sit on the boards of museums and other art organisations.

You can easily see how and why that is a problem. It’s no surprise that projects of road trips in the US all end up looking the same, featuring the same run-down locations, oversized flags, old TV sets or armchairs in ramshackle rooms, and crunchy white dudes with long beards. Of course, I’m simplifying this a little bit — but really not all that much.

When Richard Avedon photographed his version of this trope, John Szarkowski said “Avedon’s West is not the West as I know it.” I think what the curator had in mind was exactly what I talked about above. He didn’t say “Avedon’s West is not the West”, he said “the West as I know it.” (my emphasis) So there was a gap, and the famed curator wasn’t particularly happy about that.

It’s something we might encounter in our daily lives when someone takes our portrait and then shows us the result. Almost inevitably, we will tell them that we don’t look that way or that we don’t like the picture (or any variation thereof).

Obviously, no single individual can photograph the American West — or any other locale — in a way that would do it justice. Ignoring the fact that we’d have to agree on what exactly “doing justice” would mean, an all-encompassing view would probably end up in passport-picture territory. Especially if you want to create something that can be seen as art, you will have to make choices; and those choices include huge elements of omission.

Regardless of what you think about Avedon’s West, there is a merit to it, though. It’s just not that the pictures say much about the West itself. Instead, they say a lot more about its maker and, by extension, the society he was embedded in. Avedon went to where, to use an advertising slogan from the time, the flavour was. And he got the pictures that would not have been out of place in a cigarette ad, except that ads are supposed to show a promise and not actual consequences.

Photographing the things that you believe in, that you identify with, or that confirm your expectations can take many forms — much like looking at photographs itself. In my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, I looked into a different example. Just like in the case of Avedon, there is merit to that kind of photography. It shows us a different aspect of the society we live in. There obviously is a very interesting and revealing overlap with what we can deduce from American road-trip photography.

For both sides, photographer and viewers, the challenge thus is to work against the impulse to flock to the familiar. The familiar is not necessarily your friend. For sure, it will stand in the way of becoming a better — a wiser, more caring — person. Unfortunately, this means that looking at photographs is work.

The same is obviously true for making photographs. There is all the work of looking for the pictures, of working on them once they have been taken. On top of that, while looking for photographs there is the added work of not fully giving in to the temptation of being attracted to what one is attracted by. Many of the good photographs — the photographs that later, but not in the moment, will be good — are those made against one’s own inclination to remain on the safe, comfortable side.

When I use the words “safe” and “comfortable”, I’m not speaking about the feelings of another person who might be involved, say when a portrait is being made. Other people should not be made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable for the sake of one’s own photographs. The person who has to be made unsafe or uncomfortable is the photographer. Please note that I’m not advocating exposure to literally unsafe situations. Instead, I mean the safety of one’s own convictions, the safety of knowing that certain pictures will play oh-so well with the audience one has already established.

Even as in the world of photography, a neglect of safety or comfort is usually outsourced — people being photographed are made to feel unsafe or uncomfortable, or maybe an audience is being challenged in such a way, it is the photographer on whom that focus should be placed. I truly believe that if as a photographer you’re not challenging yourself first, then you have no right whatsoever to demand the same from your audience.

Challenging yourself first does not automatically translate into the right to challenge your audience in equal fashion. Don’t take my words as an invitation to engage in broad transgressiveness for its own sake. Instead, I’m interested in a form of transgression whose first (immediate) concern is to allow oneself to become a better person and whose second (later) concern is to have the final audience partake in that. I reject nihilistic transgressiveness, performed for its own sake and devoid of any redeeming qualities (the work of Dash Snow or Antoine d’Agata comes to mind).

As a medium, photography does everything in its power to make the task of challenging oneself difficult. In part, this is because it is easy to take a picture. You press some form of button, and you have a picture. There is the added deceit that photography shows what is “real” by making it look as if what is photographed and then presented were real (it might in fact be). Lastly, there is the consequence of these two together, which creates the invitation to stay close to what one believes in, to regurgitate one’s beliefs in visual form.

Thinking about it again, maybe what had me so confused about ひと夏 was that it simply wouldn’t conform to any of my ideas of what it should be. The work is rooted in an artifice — a movie set and its actors, which in itself derives from a different form of artifice that, however, is based in a very uncomfortable fact — the manga creator’s incredibly painful upbringing. The book brings together disjoint aspects of these, and they’re disjoint for the sole reason that they don’t conform to how I thought things would come together.

To paraphrase the title of a book by Alexei Yurchak, everything was real until it was not any longer. The real was a fake, and the fake had been set out to be real (or at least be grounded in a fair amount of reality). It was merely a strange coincidence that I had just started a new project, taking the first photographs the weekend before the book arrived. Even as I was photographing, I tried to remind myself not to only look for what I knew that I was looking for. But even that seems too simple now.

Whatever the outcome might be(come), photography is easy, too easy. We have to make it hard, impossibly hard for ourselves to have a chance to get to where it might lead the way — so that we might better know ourselves.

It is important to realise that ultimately, photography’s deceit is our own. We deceive ourselves with the very pictures we make; and we allow ourselves to be deceived by how we approach other people’s pictures.

There regularly is talk of a photographer’s intent when their work is discussed. I’ve argued for a long time that intent is completely meaningless. Once the work is out in the world, its meaning is generated by the pictures, regardless of whether or not it aligns with the original intent. In daily life, we run into problems with intent all the time. We all know that the right intentions can easily lead to undesired results, and we also know that we cannot explain those results away by insisting on our intentions. So how or why would intentions be more useful in the world of photography?

Instead of discussing a photographer’s intent — a convenient device to put the ball in the photographer’s court, so if there’s a problem, we can chastise them while keeping our own purity (note how especially on social media, such discussions often get very toxic very quickly), we ought to be discussing our own expectations a lot more.

What do we expect from photography? What do we expect to see? What do we not want to see? What do we believe in, and how does what we believe in colour what we see in other people’s (and our own) pictures? Going further: how can we understand what photographs show as reflections of the beliefs and ideologies that fueled their making?

These are the questions we need to be asking. We need to understand photographs better.

Photography is rapidly approaching its 200th birthday. And yet we often approach photographs as if we had just encountered them for the first time, buying into their artifice — and our own deceit.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[On Rape]]> 2023-02-20T14:49:52Z 2023-02-20T14:49:52Z

In 2018, Laia Abril published On Abortion, the first chapter of a series entitled A History of Misogyny. For all the right reasons, the book was widely acclaimed. In the years since, though, we have witnessed major set backs for women’s reproductive rights, most notably in the form of abortion bans in both Poland and the United States through the countries’ highest courts. Given that there are no democratic majorities for abortion bans, in both cases conservatives and neofascists had to hijack the countries’ highest courts to achieve their goal.

There is a bitter irony to the fact that two out of the five US Supreme Court judges who voted to reject the legal precedent established by Roe vs. Wade had to face very credible allegations of sexual misconduct during their confirmation hearings. One of the them, a man named Brett Kavanaugh, was nominated by a president who is widely known for his misogyny (there is an extensive Wikipedia page detailing sexual misconduct).

As Ruth Ben-Ghiat outlines in her book Strongmen, misogyny and sexual violence are integral parts of the authoritarian playbook. However, authoritarians merely form the tip of the tip of the iceberg of misogyny present in most contemporary societies. Were the world any different, Abril would hardly be able to find the material for History of Misogyny.

On Rape, the second part of the project, has now been published. “I chose this topic,” Abril writes in the introduction, “when […] this local story triggered me deeply. The group of five Spanish men self-named La Manada (The Wolf Pack) who had gang raped an 18-year-old woman in 2016, were found guilty only of a lesser offense of ‘sexual abuse’ due to ‘the lack of evidence of violence’. The defense argued that 96 seconds of video footage filmed by the perpetrators — during which she was frozen and had her eyes shut — was proof of consent.”

The background of the book is rape culture. “Rape culture,” Amanda Taub wrote in 2014, “is a culture in which sexual violence is treated as the norm and victims are blamed for their own assaults. It’s not just about sexual violence itself, but about cultural norms and institutions that protect rapists, promote impunity, shame victims, and demand that women make unreasonable sacrifices to avoid sexual assault.”

The preceding forms a serious concern for those covering the topic. “In order to avoid feeding the systemic victim-blaming society,” Abril concludes her introduction, “I decided to switch the visual narrative from the victims to the institutions, letting this book serve as an opportunity to address transgenerational trauma and social accountability.”

On Rape closely follows the model and visual/textual strategies set out in On Abortion, combining appropriated imagery and texts with photographs and texts produced by Abril. Apart from the more recent book being considerably larger, the main difference is the absence of portraits and stories of individuals. In On Abortion, a number of women recounted their experiences. This approach would be incredibly difficult in the case of rape, in particular in light of the widely practiced victim blaming just discussed.

As is the case in the earlier book, text plays an extensive role to dive into the many elements of what one might naively assume to be a simple topic. It’s not simple at all, especially give that the institutions in question cover a very wide range. Religion plays a role, of course, as do state institutions but also many private players. Culture itself is shown to be widely enmenshed in misogyny, as was demonstrated during what came to be known as Gamergate.

Unfortunately, some of the book’s production choices don’t necessarily work in its favour. We could have a discussion whether or not the book is too large. I personally prefer the smaller size of On Abortion. More importantly, though, often white text is used on rather glossy black pages. This poses a severe strain for the reader’s eyes. Given how challenging the material at hand is, I feel that these design/production choices are not ideal.

These misgivings aside, On Rape is an essential book. If as a society we want to entertain any hope that we’re striving towards a more just and equal future, then we need to find ways to address the many problems and outrages discussed in its pages. Furthermore, given how deeply embedded misogyny is in the authoritarian and neofascist project that poses a severe threat to democracy in many Western nations, the book has a wider political meaning beyond what some people might think of as a narrow topic.

There is one aspect of rape, or rather its consequences, that has struck me the most. It is incredibly common for victims to be re-victimized multiple times over in their attempt to get justice. For example, I just listened to a podcast episode that covers Shiori Ito and the book she wrote about her experience. In this particular case, the journalist had to re-stage her experience at the police department using a life-size doll in front of only male officers (there were also photos being taken).

“Rape culture didn’t come out of nowhere,” Amanda Taub writes, “it’s the direct continuation of centuries of patriarchal power and the institutions that developed to support it. […] Because rape culture derives some of its power from unconscious biases and hidden assumptions, simply drawing attention to it is a step towards changing it.”

I see On Rape as being geared towards exactly that: it sets out to confront these unconscious biases and hidden assumptions. The institutions that still support rape culture will have to change — or come down. This is on all of us.

On Rape; photographs and text by Laia Abril; essay by Marta Gili; 228 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[About Time]]> 2023-02-13T16:47:09Z 2023-02-13T16:47:09Z

For a while now, I have been looking into photography that moves away from the single-image paradigm. Per se, there is nothing inherently wrong with showing single photographs and building up larger units from those (in the form of the usual editing and sequencing). However, the approach is also oddly limited/limiting. Why should any one thing or any one person be shown with merely a single image?

I can see a number of problems with the single-picture approach, especially since it is too tempting to pick the photographically “best” picture from the source pool (whatever your definition of “best” might be). This approach, in turn, reduces depicting the world as seen through photographic gems — essentially working with the world (if it’s lucky), but usually mostly against it. Unfortunately, the model of the artist as the the brooding, singular genius still is too prevalent for the discussion of what photography is and how it can be used to open up more.

With that in mind, it’s probably no surprise that I was pleasantly surprised to see Gail Rebhan‘s About Time, a career retrospective edited by Sally Stein. The cover shows a grid of four photographs of a dish rack in various stages of its existence — empty and filled with assortments of dishes left to dry. This, we learn in the book, is a piece entitled Gail’s and Mark’s Dishrack, January 13, 14, 15, 16, 1981, taken from the very first section of photographs in the book.

There’s nothing particularly remarkable about any of the individual elements of the piece; you might even argue that that’s the case for the piece itself. Were you to do so, though, you’d basically arrive at a conclusion based on your original premise, namely that photography ought to be remarkable to warrant our attention.

It’s not necessarily that I want to argue that we ought to spend our time on the unremarkable. Instead, my point is that things can be remarkable if we pay closer attention without asking for exposure to singular photographic gems; and that is the point of most of the photographs in About Time.

As Stein makes clear in her writing that goes alongside Rebhan’s photo pieces, the photographer emerged at a time when second-wave feminism was at its heyday in the US. This sets the stage for the bulk of the work. The domestic setting here plays a major role — perhaps not surprisingly, because this is the most immediate ground where many of the issues feminism centers on play out in their first, most immediate fashion. In a heterosexual relationship, the task of taking care of the children (and, as is often the case, the male adult) almost inevitably falls to the female partner. If that partner also is a photographer, that poses a challenge for her, given she now has to juggle domestic work and her own work career.

This is a theme that I have encountered speaking with numerous photographers, some of whom had to put their career on hold when their children were so little that taking care of them took up all the hours of every day. As an aside, this is also the reason why the age limits that are still in place in many European countries for competitions and prizes are so toxic: they disadvantage women photographers even further — if you need to put your career on hold for a few years, something that many (most?) male photographers can simply avoid, how can you conform to an age limit of, say, 35? I find it infuriating that there is so little awareness of this basic problem in Europe.

Coming back to Rebhan’s work, the earliest pieces employ multiple images. They are either short sequences (for a lack of a better word), or they are the kind of collections (ditto) that show the same small detail from the photographer’s domestic life at different times of the day or on different days. There is very obvious feminist critique in many of these pieces, even if it is more obvious in some than others.

From late November 1983 until mid-July 1984, Rebhan recorded the progression of a pregnancy by taking a picture every day, the camera set up in front of a mirror and the photographer standing right next to it. There are a few blank frames where apparently, the camera malfunctioned. Given that the piece itself was designed to be the set of contact sheets, no second picture was taken. In light of the previous multi-picture work, this piece is an obvious consequence of the photographer’s thinking, and it’s most effective.

Later work shows Rebhan work with images and text. While I very interested in the ideas and themes explored in those pieces, my overall impression is that most of these pieces are too reductive. In most cases, the image elements serve as illustrations of what is expressed in the often very powerful text. As a consequence, the pieces themselves feel more flat than they might have been, had there been a different relationship between the text (which here clearly is the driving force) and the images.

I felt myself wanting to be able to read the text without the distraction of the pictures. I also felt that different pictures might have served the work better, especially if they had been given the space they could have used. Cramming everything into single panels doesn’t work for me.

We should all be so lucky to have a sympathetic and deeply insightful observer such as Sally Stein look into and write about our work. If you don’t know anything about Gail Rebhan and the world she grew up in, Stein has you covered. In much the same fashion, she unearths the ideas and themes in Rebhan’s pieces.

All of this is done in elegant writing that doesn’t attempt to bamboozle the reader with unnecessary jargon. As a consequence, About Time allows easy and pleasant access to a photographer’s world that, I think (or at least hope), will serve as inspiration for others.

About Time; photography and text by Gail Rebhan; text by Sally Stein; 144 pages; MACK; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Presence of Something Past]]> 2023-02-06T16:22:18Z 2023-02-06T16:16:23Z

“No new photographs until the old ones have been used up,” Joachim Schmid decreed in 1989. His idea was not to be taken literally — at least that is my read. Instead, Schmid implored us to look more carefully at the photography that already surrounded us, to understand what it tells us.

As I’ve argued on this site beforee, this approach also entails looking at the photographs that should surround us, the photographs taken by all those who up until now have mostly been finding themselves at the margins of the written and discussed history of photography. Geography here plays a major role in defining the margins in the world of photography — even in Europe.

In particular, once you cross what four decades ago was the demarcation provided by the so-called Iron Curtain from the West to the East, there is a sharp drop off of visibility of artists. Artists might have worked for decades, making incredible work, but the world of photography — still dominated by Western European and US American power players — is slow to embrace the incredible richness of photography practiced in countries that formerly de facto were occupied by the Soviet Union.

In my understanding as someone who grew up in West Germany, dealing with photography made in East Germany has to be done with particular care and attention. On the one hand, of course these photographers deserve their spot in the canon just as much as those from the West. They deserve to be placed into the established history, to be evaluated using the same high standards. At the same time, given that these standards and references were largely formed before the Wall came down, they are very Western-centric.

Looking through The Presence of Something Past, a career retrospective of Ulrich Wüst, drove home this particular point to me (full disclosure: the book was produced by Kerber Verlag, the publisher of my book Vaterland). What people refer to German reunification in reality was little more than a semi-hostile takeover of East Germany by West German elites. The ramifications of that takeover are likely to continue to poison Germany’s well being for many more decades. East Germans were mostly pushed aside. I don’t think their struggles to accommodate to a completely different way of life was even remotely understood by Western Germans (I’m writing this as someone for needed a couple of decades to grasp this basic fact).

Thus on the one hand, adding Wüst’s incredible pictures to what people understand as German photography is an essential task. It not only elevates the artist to the position that he deserves. It also enriches our own understanding of both German photography and East Germany itself. On the other hand, I believe that one has to be incredibly careful to give the artist’s background full consideration and to avoid insisting too much on comparisons with the usual Western photography suspects. While such comparisons can yield photographic insight, they are of limited utility when it comes to what is actually depicted in the pictures.

In actuality, though (assuming one has the mental flexibility), there is no real conflict. If you take Wüst’s Stadtbilder (translated as Cityscapes), possibly the artist’s most well known work, comparisons with artists such as Lewis Baltz, Walker Evans, and Stephen Shore are inevitable. Wüst himself took some inspiration from these Western artists (or maybe it might be better to say: Wüst felt a kinship with them).

But one needs to be careful to note the vast differences as well. These differences cover the tools used, the artists’ professional backgrounds (Wüst trained as an architect/city planner),  specificity of subject matter, and more. These Cityscapes are New Topographics in East Germany, and yet they also are not. Papering over the differences for the sake of art-historical filing runs the risk of diminishing Wüst’s achievement.

As a West German, I don’t think I will ever have a full understanding of what it meant to live and work in East Germany. There is an interview with Ulrich Wüst at the end of the book that drove this point home to me. The artist makes it clear that the kind of black-and-white understanding that a Westerner might have can only serve as a cartoonish image of his own lived reality.

One might wonder to what extent any of this might matter, given it’s the work — the photographs — we should be paying attention to. But that’s exactly the point: if you only know Wüst’s Cityscapes, then you only know a very small fraction of his work, whose breadth is fascinating in more ways than one.

For example, Wüst also used a compact 35mm rangefinder camera (an Olympus XA) to document his daily life in East Berlin, in particular in the then run-down neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg (which since reunification has been gentrified into what only can be described as oblivion). More recently, the photographer documented the state of various East German cities and areas in reunited Germany, bringing the sensibility he established decades earlier to the much changed country he is finding himself in now.

Thankfully, the extended essay by Gary Van Zante at the beginning of the book allows access to a huge number of details about this photographer’s life work — his background, motivations, ideas, but also possible references and ways to understand the work. Even as I felt that occasionally, Van Zante embraced Wüst conforming to the medium’s (and the usual suspects’) established history a bit too much (your mileage might obviously vary), the essay manages to successfully set the stage for a viewer who might not know anything about either this artist or the country he grew up in. It’s an essential piece of writing that deserves to be read widely.

Furthermore, there are introductions for the chapters that each focus on one particular body of work. If there’s anything I have to complain about it’s that I would have loved to see even more of Wüst’s work — obviously an impossible task, given that there already is plenty. Maybe there will be more books with a focus on some of the individual projects that have not yet been published. One can only hope.

One can also hope that books such as The Presence of Something Past will now be made for other artists that grew up on the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain. Obviously, there is a rich repository of such artists not just in East Germany but also beyond.

If there is value in photography, then it can only be what allows us to grow into better versions of ourselves. Those who have gone through that process in the context of their own life work have much to offer, in particular if their life circumstances were markedly different than ours. We need to look at what they have produced not merely to acknowledge their life work, but also to be able to grow ourselves.

I would argue that in this particular case, the need to look is particularly important for West Germans, the people who allowed their leaders to crowd out East Germans on that balcony in Berlin when they celebrated “reunification” on that night that is remembered so fondly.

Highly recommended.

The Presence of Something Past; photographs by Ulrich Wüst; text by Gary Van Zante (incl. an interview with Ulrich Wüst by Ulrike Heine and Gary Van Zante); 320 pages; Kerber Verlag; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Melody of Light]]> 2023-01-30T15:54:03Z 2023-01-30T15:54:03Z

“In the autumn of 2021 and summer of 2022,” Keiko Nomura writes, “I had an opportunity to spend a longer while in Poland, in Wrocław. I felt that Wrocław — a city of flowing rivers and lush scenery — resembles Tokyo a bit.” While I wouldn’t want to claim that photographers are superior beings in any way (sorry!), for sure most of them possess a heightened sense for the flow of time as manifested through the change of light. In addition, they know about the quality of the light in any given moment, whether it’s warm or cold — and what implications this might carry in their pictures.

If you approach the world in this way, superficial similarities and differences between two locations that seemingly are as different as Tokyo and Wrocław will fall away. Even the differences between the lives of their denizens fall to the wayside. In their place arrives an understanding of their shared being human. (I’m avoiding the word “humanity” because it doesn’t quite get at what I’m after, in part because the word can be too easily tied to the wrong concepts.) Of course, that understanding is the photographer’s first and foremost, even as it can — and in all likelihood will — be shared with their audience.

All of the above sounds pretty abstract. It’s easier to see it (or rather feel it) when encountering a photographer’s work. In this particular case, I’m speaking of Melody of Light, the book from which I quoted Nomura’s words (the book is also available from the photographer herself, but you might need to be able to read Japanese to order it).

It’s the kind of book where the more words you try to attach to it to describe what it conveys, the farther away from it you get. For example, the publisher writes that in the book, “Keiko Nomura explores such topics as transience, nature, body, soul travel and the water cycle”. That’s kind of true, yet also incredibly useless, isn’t it? (I don’t mean to give them a hard time.) Ultimately, you’d want to write “Just buy the book and look at it yourself”. But obviously that’s not an option for either a publisher or a reviewer. Oh well.

I’m not going to get any further into trying to describe the work beyond what I outlined above. Like all good photobooks, Melody of Light evokes a very particular atmosphere, which in this case is light and full or promise, even if it is being hinted at that most of the promises will remain unfulfilled. “Just as our life,” Nomura writes (albeit speaking about light), “with the accompanying imminent death, which will be swept away by unstoppable time.”

This is only a grim sentiment if you are too attached to any given moment or, as is probably more like the case, to life itself. But there will always be another morning with as much promise as today’s. It’s up to you to grab the moment and make the most of it — like a good photographer will be cognizant of the right moment at the right time to make her picture.

I currently am unable to shake a sentiment, namely that too many photographers shy away from taking photographs of people. Photographing any topic or idea of course can be done well without showing someone’s face. But more often than not, as a viewer, I am increasingly finding myself wanting to encounter faces in photography (I should probably make it clear that by this I don’t necessarily mean more faces of rugged, underprivileged men somewhere out West — I have seen enough of those, thank you very much).

The reality is, though, that it’s very difficult to come close to any emotional core without the direct presence of a human being. In Nomura’s work, more often than not the faces sit on top of nude bodies. At least that’s the work I am familiar with; looking at what was available during my trips to Japan I ended up buying a copy of her earlier book Soul Blue. There are quite a few nudes (and some clothed portraits) in Melody of Light as well.

To begin with, a female photographer from Japan taking nude photographs of (mostly) Western subjects has me interested on an intellectual level, because it inverts the common model of a male photographer — Japanese or otherwise — taking pictures of Japanese subjects (often young women). Beyond that, though, I am intrigued by the nudes in the book because most of them feel so tender. I would hate to use the word “innocence” in this context. Even as that idea for sure exists, in light of how people have written about nudes, there are too many icky associations lurking nearby.

Melody of Light collects these nudes and an assortment of other photographs of cityscapes and nature to immerse its viewers in the beauty of the moment. There are three photographs of shopping areas in both cities that I could have done without (they’re weak pictures), but this fact doesn’t take away from the beauty of the book.

With design by Joanna Jopkiewicz and a few charming and engaging production choices (I like the metallic-paper pages and the way photographs are printed on them), it’s a book that embraces many of the devices that contemporary photobook making has at its disposal. It’s a well considered production that isn’t trying to feel overly precious. I really appreciate this aspect of the book, given that off late, I have become less and less interested in oversized hefty art books.

Melody of Light; photographs and text by Keiko Nomura; 76 pages; BWA Wrocław Galleries of Contemporary Art; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Burgbergstrasse]]> 2023-01-23T16:36:45Z 2023-01-23T16:36:45Z

It seems hardly conceivable that a complex of buildings around a single street would encapsulate a large number of aspects of a country’s 20th and 21st Century history. And yet, that is exactly the case for the buildings at Crailsheim’s Burgbergstraße. Crailsheim is a small town in the southwest of Germany. Burgbergstraße is the name of a street that passes through an originally Nazi-era air-force base.

Since the end of World War 2, the base’s buildings have served a number of purposes that included further military use (by both American and [West] German forces) but also housing for displaced people, refugees, and migrants. The refugees that arrived in 2015 are just the latest group of people looking for a home. This is the premise for Wolfram Hahn‘s book Burgbergstrasse.

A quick side note: Readers paying attention to detail might notice two spellings, Burgbergstraße and Burgbergstrasse. For the sake of simplicity, you can treat them as being identical. In the English language, there is no equivalent of the German “ß” letter, a letter that does not have an upper-case equivalent, that often is represented by doubling the letter “s”, and that in the past was also written as “sz” (in fact, that’s how “ß” is pronounced). If you really need to know more about “ß”, this has got you covered. In a nutshell, German(y) operates following the motto “why make it simple when you can make it complicated,” and “ß” is a perfect example for that.

Burgbergstrasse makes use of both Hahn’s own photographs and found/archival pictures. The latter include photographs from institutional archives as much as people’s photo albums. The different types of images are usually (but not always) easy to tell apart. Thankfully, the book is visually not organized following a simple time line. In other words, it does not start out with the barracks’ construction and ends today. Instead, the book intermingles all the imagery, jumping back and forth in time. This is an apt choice, given that it allows the photographer to work out a number of themes.

As someone who was born in then West Germany and spent the first thirty years of his life there, I was struck by how familiar most of what I encountered in the book seemed to me. I have never been to Crailsheim (in fact, I had to look up where to find it on the map — my overall guess based on the name was correct). To begin with, encountering the buildings themselves was uncanny in the most basic (Freudian) sense of the word: I felt that I know them even if I had not encountered these specific ones.

The town I was born in had rows of similar buildings (even as those were simply apartment buildings). At the time I grew up (the 1970s and early 1980s), there was something about them that felt as if it had come from a different time, a contrast possibly enhanced by the fact that my parents lived in an apartment building that had been erected in the late 1960s and that looked different. For a lack of a better term, the older apartment buildings with their squat nature felt brutal.

But there is something else about that location, something around its atmosphere, an atmosphere that is decidedly German. If you visit Germany as a foreigner, you will not find that atmosphere unless you move to the less touristy parts. I have a hard time describing this atmosphere other than saying that to a large extent it was responsible for me looking for a different place to live.

Even if I have to come re-assess this atmosphere and now partly welcome its presence (there is some comfort in being in a familiar environment), even if that familiarity is not necessarily pleasant, to some degree I am still repelled. For me, it’s an atmosphere of a people that could be more open to the world but have decided to hold back. In part, this is why you won’t find it in touristy places with their welcoming and cool looking facade on view.

I see that atmosphere as a red thread going through this book, represented at any given time in the history on display. And I see that atmosphere as the background setting in which the people in the portraits — the book’s protagonists — have to make do.

For all its welcoming culture (the facade again), Germany has often made life difficult for those seeking shelter and protection there, especially if the colour of their skin isn’t milky white, if they’re not Christian, or if they’re from a very different culture (or any mix of these). Just now, at the time of this writing, Germany’s conservatives are grumbling again about how people have to fit in (the supposed firewall between the country’s conservatives and far-right people is about as protective as a shoji).

You’ll obviously be reading this review with someone else’s eyes, most likely as someone from outside of Germany. To what extent you’ll be sharing my impressions when looking through the book isn’t clear to me. I wager, though, that if you look carefully, you’ll pick up on aspects of what I described above, aspects of a very strange country that has partly come to terms with its terrible 20th Century past but that still refuses to learn some of the remaining lessons.

Burgbergstrasse; photographs by Wolfram Hahn; 144 pages; Vexer; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Small Myths]]> 2023-01-16T16:03:00Z 2023-01-16T16:03:00Z

There’s a photograph of Mikiko Hara that shows the artist posing with the tool of her trade, an old fold-out camera without a viewfinder that she carries on a rather short strap around her neck (you can find the photograph here, scroll down past her pictures). A few years ago, I was able to meet the photographer and came away deeply impressed by both her singular dedication to photography and her personality. Even as I only heard her words with delay and in translation, her soft spoken and thoughtful demeanor left a deep impression on me.

It is tempting to file away Hara as a street photographer, especially when one looks at the work the Getty has in its collection. Ever since I met the artist, I realized that such a filing essentially misses the point of her work. To begin with, the pictures that easily fall into the category of street photography are not remotely as interesting as the rest of her work. A recent book, Small Myths, that collects work made over the course of two and a half decades, makes this very clear. The book presents the street photographs in the context of a large number of other photographs, many of them taken within the confines of the photographer’s own home.

Hara’s photographs are the outcomes of brief encounters (of course, this much is true for a lot of photography), but it’s encounters in which the artist’s presence is essential (this is not). For a short moment, a subject and herself get to share the same space, a space that goes beyond the physical one. Unlike the regular street-photography crowd, Hara is not photographing as an outsider, someone who records what is in front of her camera for the sake of demonstrating her artistic wit. Hara also doesn’t view her subjects or subject matter merely as raw material for her pictures.

Instead, this artist experiences the richness of a moment that might bypass other people completely — a richness beyond visuals, a richness of full of feeling. The pressing of the camera’s shutter is but an attempt to capture a fraction of it in a photograph. The overall richness of the world that is experienced in this manner only unfolds once a viewer sees it not in a single image, but rather in a collection such as the one presented in the book.

This has very little, if anything, in common with the way standard street photography operates along the lines of the so-called decisive moment. With their often helter-skelter compositions (remember, the camera has no viewfinder), Hara’s photographs simply do not fit into Henri Cartier-Bresson’s idea that form and content have to be perfectly resolved. Here, form isn’t necessarily resolved (at least not in an orthodox sense); and yet Hara demonstrates what can be gained from ditching what more often than not reduces photography down to a petty craft.

There are worlds between those who hunt for their pictures with expensive Leicas and this Japanese photographer with her old-timey tool that doesn’t even remotely come close to what today would be considered a good camera. Street photographers are interested in demonstrating their ability to shape the world into a picture. Mikiko Hara is interested in the world.

Where a viewer will encounter a demonstration of skill in the former, in the latter, they get to be immersed in the actual richness of the world, a richness that is based on connecting with things and people, on being in and with the world — and not on extracting pictures.

Being in and with the world means being open to its magic. Every moment might reveal such magic at any given time. Small Myths is filled with it, whether it’s a small child being basked in light in a domestic space, the interior of a fridge with a cake topped with strawberries promising some future enjoyment, dirty dishes in a sink, a woman on the phone in front of a bright blue wall, or whatever else.

In Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, one of the key images is a picture of an embrace. The photograph shows a woman’s back, with a muscular male arm exerting a very strong, violent grip around her (it’s entitled The Hug). Small Myths contains the same kind of photograph, except here, there is nothing violent about the embrace (it’s the fourth picture in the slide show for the book). The man’s hand rests on the woman’s behind, who, in turn, seems relaxed. Both pictures demonstrates their photographers’ very different visions, and I really like both photographs.

In light of the above, I think Small Myths is an absolutely essential release. The book showcases Mikiko Hara’s sensitivity and genius in ways that I have not seen in other books. It’s interesting that Chose Commune have been consistently publishing books with Japanese photographers that are very, very good (unlike the rest of their program, which I find mostly underwhelming).

Even as I don’t want to see Japanese photography as distinct from photography made elsewhere (this would be a form of exoticizing or othering), there can be different sensitivities at play when Japanese artists face the world with their cameras. It is these sensitivities that Western photographers and audiences can learn a lot from.

You can make good photographs if you follow ideas such as the decisive moment (and thus turn your picture taking into an exercise of artistic genius). But you can also forget about the strictness and inflexibility of many of those ideas and embrace looser approaches that prevent the camera from becoming the barrier between photographer and the rest of the world that it often is.

Honestly, even if you don’t care about any of what I wrote above, you still want to get yourself a copy of Small Myths: the book is filled with incredible photographs.

Very highly recommended.

Small Myths; photographs and short texts by Mikiko Hara; 104 pages; Chose Commune; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Sleeping Island]]> 2023-01-10T15:57:19Z 2023-01-09T15:30:39Z

At the beginning of this year, it was reported that “Japan’s government is offering 1m yen ($7,500) per child to families who move out of greater Tokyo, in an attempt to reverse population decline in the regions.” Even if the desired outcome would appear to be rather modest — “The government is hoping 10,000 people will have moved from Tokyo to rural areas by 2027”, the fact that the country’s notoriously inflexible government would offer such a program hints at the scale of the problem. Japan’s rural areas are rapidly aging and losing its younger population for big cities such as Tokyo or Osaka.

Just like in the case of the deindustrialized regions in the US or Europe, this development appears to now have spawned its own photographic topos, of which Kentaro Kumon‘s Nemurushima is a recent addition. The title translates as Sleeping Island, and the island in question is Teshima, one of the many small to mid-sized islands that are part of Japan’s Inland sea, a body of water that is almost completely surrounded by the three main Japanese islands Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū. Teshima is located southeast of Okayama and lies roughly halfway between Hiroshima and Osaka.

As a brief aside, the view with Google Maps reveals two locations on the island whose names make me want to pack up and visit right away. Who wouldn’t want to see the Place of Sea Dreamers or the Remains of shadowing? Deepl translates the former’s 海を夢見る人々の場所 as A Place for People Who Dream of the Sea (a piece of art apparently) and the latter’s かげたちのみる夢 as The Shadows’ Dream (a museum).

After I published the original version of this review, the photographer contacted me to tell me that I had found the wrong Teshima. There is another one that he had visited, a place that, in his own words, has “a population of about 10 people and a circumference of 7 km”. With the help of Google Maps, I had confused one Springfield for another or one Frankfurt for another (or whatever a locale might be where you live where there is more than one with the same name). In the US, you’d use the state to find the right Springfield, and Germans add the river to specify their Frankfurt.

In Japan, though, you simply have the place name itself, albeit written in Japanese characters. There’s 豊島, the Teshima I had found through Google Maps, and there’s 手島, the Teshima from the book. If you look closely, you’ll see that both places share the kanji 島 (shima: island). There are thousands such kanji in Japanese, which make a learner’s experience miserable (for more reasons than one). Ironically, though, the Teshima in the book contains two of the less than 100 kanji that I already know.

Even more ironically, when I used Street View to look for the view from which one of the pictures was taken (the ferry I’m talking about below), I was unable to find it. There was only one ferry landing, but it didn’t look right. The visual person in me should have distrusted what he found. Alas, he didn’t. Regardless, when you look up 手島 Teshima, Google Maps will show you what it calls Te Island.

In the map above, there’s a red marker on it. In that map, you can also see the other Teshima (豊島), which lies roughly 20 miles away. The photographer told me that that Teshima has seen a revival with an arts festival (hence the spots I got excited about, given their names), whereas the one in the book has remained as a quiet, lovely spot. In the following, for reasons of simplicity, I’ll refer to the island in the book as Teshima (if you’re worried about confusion just imagine seeing the kanjis 手島 right next to it). However, even though I confused the islands, what I wrote about the book can remain unchanged.

As it turns out, Teshima appears to have much in common with what was described by Donald Richie in The Inland Sea (a book that, I should note, I enjoyed a lot more when I knew a lot less about the country and its culture; I recently re-read it and found its willfully distant arrogance rather off-putting) or, more recently, by Amy Chavez in The Widow, The Priest, and The Octopus Hunter. “Teshima was famous for its navy during the Warring States period (1467-1568),” Kumon writes in his introduction, “and the islanders’ shipbuilding and shiphandling skills were highly valued in the Edo period (1603-1868). But now there are only a dozen or so inhabitants; […] and although his boat still bobs in the harbor, the island’s last fisherman died a year ago.”

In the first picture in Nemurushima, we see a ferry leaving a rather desolate looking harbour on a rainy day, which sets the stage for the remainder of the book. Please note that the end papers both feature photographs, the one at the beginning showing the very harbour from which the picture I mentioned was taken. Thus, you could argue that it’s the second and not the first picture that depicts the ferry (as always I’ll leave the nitpicking to the readers).

The leaving or arrival of the one ferry that might visit just once a day marks an important time marker for these small islands: they’re worlds onto themselves but only almost. Once the ferry is gone, you’re stuck on this particular world and the one beyond, visible in the form of other islands, feels like an eternity away. I have not been to any of these small Japanese islands, but I remember what I imagine to be a very similar feeling on a number of islands on Scotland’s west coast. There is a finality to seeing the ferry leave, even as that finality is obviously completely overwrought: the next day, it will be back. But for now, you’re stuck.

Nemurushima proceeds to unfold through a series of photographs of old houses, dilapidated infrastructure, and the occasional human figure — inevitably an older person. There also appear a number of interiors of traditional Japanese homes, with one showing a get together of a group of people (all elderly) sharing food and drink. The work feels very serene, and what on the computer screen’s map comes across as a rather small island appears to be larger than anticipated.

Visually, the photographs alternate between two modes, one blueish and moody, the other one cast into the warm (possibly overly so) light of the setting sun. Even as I realize that such games with colour are not uncommon in contemporary Japanese photography, there always is the risk of things becoming maybe a bit too formulaic. I get it, it’s an isolated island that has seen better days, and yet the community of those living there still is vibrant. I would probably prefer for the location to simply reveal as much, without there needing to be that visual push.

And then the ferry leaves again in the final photograph (or in the penultimate one, see my disclaimer above), this time in slightly nicer weather, with an old man on a bicycle watching. The island is going to sleep again. I know that were I to visit the island, it would present itself very differently to me. It’s not just that I’d be a foreigner; it’s also that my eyes and my life history are very different. What we’re seeing in Nemurushima is Kentaro Kumon’s view, a view that might in fact be less centered on this specific island than on what it stands for: an older Japan that now is being left behind and that its government is somewhat desperate enough to revive again.

It might be a moot point to consider to what extent there is an overlap between Japanese ideas of what is lost in places like Teshima and Westerners’. After all, there appears to be a considerable repository of Western writers who flock to Japan to discover a country that conforms to their ideas — instead of allowing the country to simply be what it is. For sure, photographers all over the world are drawn to what is getting lost or what already has been lost. There’s patina to be found, and as visual creatures, we equate patina with something that is more fulfilled than the (actually very convenient) contemporary lives we are living.

Regardless, whatever you might be making of the above, Kentaro Kumon‘s Nemurushima presents you with an important aspect of Japan, and it’s very much worth your time.

Nemurushima; photographs by Kentaro Kumon; texts by Kentaro Kumon and Matthias Harder; 96 pages; Kehrer; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Master Rituals]]> 2023-01-02T15:28:26Z 2023-01-02T15:28:26Z

The notion of the male gaze appears to have finally become well known enough in the world of photography. Consequently, there now exists an awareness of the many problems that derive from it, even as often enough, the male gaze is simply being equated with a man being behind the camera and a woman in front of it. Unfortunately, that simple approach runs the risk of reducing what ultimately is a question of power and agency down to almost a technical problem — as if non-male photographers were unable to perpetuate the many problems created by the male gaze.

But the agency of taking a picture is not necessarily the same as the agency to define how in a picture a person, or in this case, a vast part of the population is being defined. If you view the problem from this angle, subverting the male gaze requires a multi-pronged approach, in which non-male photographer being behind cameras plays a crucial, but not exclusive part.

In a nutshell, given the history of the medium new photographs not only have to contribute to establishing a countermodel to the one produced by the male gaze, the one where the world is not only seen with male eyes but in which it also unfolds through laws created in the male mind. There will also have to be photographs that subvert all those existing photographs that still make up a sizeable fraction of photography’s history.

Around the time that John Berger and Laura Mulvey introduced the male gaze, Marianne Wex produced an extensive body of work that in its English version became known as Let’s Take Back Our Space: Female and Male Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures. Decades before manspreading became widely discussed, Wex studied exactly that: how body language was not only being performed but also perpetuated to cement gender roles (and thus the inequality between men and women — please note that given the time Wex compiled her work, it focused on traditional gender roles).

I’ve always liked that title, Let’s Take Back Our Space, because it centers not on the photographs themselves but on the intended goal, a subversion of existing norms and a resulting shift in agency and power. Were photography’s history to remain unchallenged, we might get the former but not necessarily the latter — and I suppose it is exactly for that reason that there has been so much resistance from many male photographers to deal with their own medium’s extremely problematic history: power is almost never ceded voluntarily.

Tarrah Krajnak‘s Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes now presents another addition to this steadily growing canon of feminist photography. Using Edward Weston’s nudes as a starting point, the artist meticulously re-stages them, using her own body instead of a model’s.

Krajnak not only explicitly asserts her own agency as a woman photographer, but she also asserts her agency as the subject of the resulting photographs. This latter aspect is crucial. The resulting photographs reproduce Weston’s original closely. But through the inclusion of the studio set ups and the clear presence of the remote shutter release, her own determination to undercut the “master” becomes very clear.

The inclusion of the original photographs in the studio setup of course helps all those viewers who might not be familiar with the source material. But Weston’s photographs essentially also get to function less like artful photographs well known from the history of photography and more like illustrations from a “how to” book about photography.

This aspect alone undercuts their value while also revealing the mechanism in the background: Weston’s nudes aren’t merely innocent photographs that happen to have become famous. They’re programmatic, establishing a visual hierarchy in which the (young) female body has to perform as material for a(n older) male photographer. Krajnak explicitly rejects this model. Her pictures very powerfully proclaim that if anyone ought to be able to determine the presentation of a woman’s body, it is first and foremost the woman herself — and not some older “master” photographer working with a “muse” (possibly the yuckiest word used in the world of art history; please note that this discussion extends beyond traditional gender roles).

Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes follows the tradition established by Jemima Stehli who re-created Helmut Newton photographs using herself as the model or who invited a number of male critics, curators, and art dealers to sit in a chair while undressing in front of them, giving them the cable release so they could take the picture. If you have never read Adrian Searle’s description of his experience, you might as well now. You can see some of the photographs in this interview.

Not all photographs in Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes are re-creations. There also are a few in which a book entitled Darkroom 2 (that has one of the nudes on the cover) is given the role of a prop. Using the same strategy as in the other photographs, with these pictures Krajnak connects Weston to all of his peers, whether contemporaries or later.

Furthermore, there are photographs without any of the references, another deft choice to reach the goal of — to use Wex’s expression — taking back a space previously expropriated, the space in which the female body is governed solely by those who inhabit it — as opposed to older male strangers.


Master Rituals II: Weston’s Nudes; photographs by Tarrah Krajnak; 52 pages; TBW Books; 2022

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more.

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[Conversations about Germany: Anne Morgenstern]]> 2023-01-13T15:36:35Z 2022-12-26T15:23:54Z

When I received Anne Morgenstern‘s 2015 book Land Ohne Mitte in the mail, I knew immediately that it was a landmark publication. The book looks deeply into something that in the immediate next years would explode out into the open in Germany, first with Pegida and then with the far-right AfD, a party that would openly establish racist and neo-fascist discourse in Germany.

It’s too easy and simple to tie all pf this to the East German states. After all, West Germany had had its fair share of far-right extremists. Before the AfD, those had mostly been bound to other far-right parties but had also had representation in the nationalist wings of the main conservative parties (to some extent, the latter is still true today).

Given its history, though, there was something different going on in East Germany, something that I had a hard time understanding, given my own biography as someone born in the West. Anne’s book pried something open, and it helped me see things less black and white. A little later, Anne produced Reinheit, another book that centered on something very specifically German.

What’s striking about Anne’s work is her ability to convey things using an imagery that is, for a lack of a better description, visually endearing first — before it cuts to the chase. This approach might confuse non-Germans and Germans alike, given that photography made in Germany often (but not always) is very cerebral, at best keeping things at arm’s length. It’s not that Germans have no emotions, but they don’t tend to wear them on their sleeves. For better or worse, much of Germany’s photography reflects this approach.

Given the preceding and given my interest in German photographers dealing with their country’s hugely problematic history, I had wanted to speak with Anne about her work and about what it meant to her. For my ongoing series of conversations about Germany, I reached out to her, and much to my delight, she was happy to chat. For this conversation, I spoke with Anne over Zoom at the end of November this year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and it was translated from its original German.

Jörg Colberg
You were born in 1976 in Leipzig. So you experienced quite a bit of the GDR?

Anne Morgenstern
Yes, and I think it had a big impact on me. I’ve read a lot about it later. It’s very interesting to realize that it’s not just me, but that quite a lot of things and sensitivities that shape me are partly a historical phenomenon.

I find that very interesting because I grew up in West Germany. I have the imprint of the “other side”. How would you say that it shaped you? How would you describe that?

I have to tell you a little bit about my biography. It’s pretty rough. When the Wall came down… Actually, I have to start a little earlier. The year 1989 was a really dense affair.

My grandmother, my father’s mother, was a senior lecturer in German and journalism. She had an old apartment. Since there was a housing shortage in the East, my parents moved in with her. The four of us lived in the apartment, which wasn’t always easy, especially for my parents.

In the fall of 89, I was 13 and the Monday demonstrations were in full swing. The mood was very charged. In my family, too. My mother always wanted to go to the West and probably would have gone without my father. Then, three weeks before the fall of the Wall, my father took his own life. From today’s perspective, I would say that my father was severely depressed. He slept a lot, he was very withdrawn, and as a person he was always somehow absent. I assume that the fear of change, the fear of the unknown was the trigger for his suicide.

I later realized that my father also was a person of his generation in the GDR. There were many depressed people who were not allowed to be depressed. There were an inordinate number of suicides, but you were not allowed to call them that. It was the same in my family. You weren’t allowed talk about it. “You don’t do that.” Therefore, I had to come up with something that happened to my father.

Then the Wende happened. When the Wall came down, my mother applied to leave the country. In February 90, she immediately moved with me to Munich because her sister lived there. My aunt had left for the West when she was 19, before the Wall had been built. She was seven years older than my mother. That’s why we ended up in Munich. As I said, I was 13 years old. I think that’s really a difficult age.

Later, I read a very good book by Steffen Mau, Lütten Klein. As someone born in 1968, the author himself grew up in Lütten Klein, a prefabricated-housing estate near Rostock. He is a micro-sociologist and can describe these phenomena extremely well. That was an incredible eye-opener for me. My generation is called Wende-Kinder [children of the Wende]. These are people who were born in the GDR between 1975 and 85 and whose parents were completely overwhelmed and marked by existential fears.

The parents were born between 1940 and 1960, had lived in the GDR for too long and were so firmly rooted in it. They were no longer young enough or already too established to be able to go through the tour de force of having to redefine themselves. The Wende-Kinder are a generation of people “lacking guidance”. That’s how Mau describes it. Everything changed 180 degrees. Teachers no longer had any authority. And the parents were, as I said, totally overwhelmed. In some cases, children had to assume the position of adults. Adults didn’t provide any guidance. This is similar to what happened to me.

My mother was very cool. But she was a woman of her time from the GDR: independent, emancipated, in a practical, everyday sense. She left without a man. That is a phenomenon that was typical of the GDR. The migration movement from the East to the West was dominated by women. In some areas, more than two-thirds of the women went to the West, and the men stayed behind. Women were used to having jobs, earning their own money. They were more flexible and pragmatic. That’s why they were much better off in the West, especially in the service sector — unlike the male labor heroes who stayed behind.

And then I had this hard impact in Munich: to feel what it means to be an Ossi. I thought that that was the ultimate crash.

What was that like for you at that age? I remember when I was 13 years old that was a weird time.

It was really terrible.

I’m trying to imagine having to move at that age into a completely different environment… And Munich of all places. I’m from the north and lived in Munich for a while. I hated it.

Munich is still okay. I moved to the affluent suburbs because my aunt lived there. I don’t know why my mother did that. She never suffered from it and always thought it was a bit cool. I thought it was terrible. Even today, when I go to those suburbs, I feel paralysed and suffocated. That’s what I was trying to work through with Reinheit, the tightness that surrounds me there. It was such a double whammy, Munich and Ossi. Munich is difficult anyway. [laughs] Add to that being East German… That was something totally new for me.

Up to that point, I had had a very nice childhood and a great youth despite my absent father. And lots of girlfriends. That was really beautiful. It actually hurt me to leave, even though there was the promise of the West. When I arrived there, I thought “What? That’s it? That can’t be what everyone was talking about.” Bavarians and Westerners can be very… Well, it’s probably the Bavarians, because I didn’t know the others. But to be burdened with being inferior — that was quite corrosive, also from the teachers’ side. At times, that was rather tough.

I lived in Munich myself, and even as a West German I found it very restricted and narrow minded. I imagine it’s very difficult to be an East German there.

When the Wende came, I had just gone to university. I had lived at home for a very long time, I was dependent on my parents. For the first time, I got out to study physics.

When were you born?


Ah, so you’re another one from 68.

Yes. I got out and studied in Bonn, the capital of West Germany. That’s when I had to stand on my own two feet for the first time. The fall of the Wall and reunification — with all the upheavals in my personal life, I didn’t really notice it so much. But I noticed that I was unable to place people in East Germany.

Two years before I graduated from high school, my class went on a trip to the GDR, to Dresden and Postdam.

The real GDR experience?

Yes. That had been the only opportunity I had had to meet people from the GDR. The FDJ had a lot of control over whom you would meet. There was a youth evening where selected GDR youths hung out with us. It was just like you’d imagine it from West German anti-GDR television programs.

I am a little bit envious. If I could time through travel, I would definitely go there, but as an older me.

Right, that’s what I always think. I often think about it, even if it doesn’t make sense. I really wish that at the time in Bonn or during the trip to the GDR… I wish I had had the knowledge I have now.

Absolutely! I agree completely.

That is such a missed opportunity for me, not dealing more closely with the Wende. At the time, I was very actively looking into West Germany’s Nazi past and asked around in my family, “What happened then?” All those stories you heard — nobody knew anything, and there had been so few people who had actively participated… I simple didn’t believe that. That just couldn’t be correct.

I don’t believe that, either.

Over time, the truth emerged. So I looked into German history. On the other hand, though, I was busy with petty personal problems and practically missed German history unfold in real time.

I can’t imagine being thrown into a completely different world at a time like that. That world is not so different in itself, because there are also Germans. But at the same time, it is totally different.

How did you find the topic that became Land ohne Mitte? Where did you study?

I studied in Munich at the Staatliche Fachakademie für Foto-Design (State Academy for Photo Design), and then in Zürich at the ZHdK (Züricher Hochschule der Künste — Zurich University of the Arts).

I read the interview with Jonas Feige. He says that he has always been interested in history. I am a person who always tried to pay attention in history classes. But I had very bad history teachers. I never understood the larger context.

Something I always have to do if I don’t understand something is to look at it from the inside. I knew Michael Schmidt a little bit. He pushed me and told me [Michael Schmidt voice:] “You have to work on something that has something to do with you!” So I started taking pictures of some of my girlfriends. That was very pretty lame.

Why did I then go back to the East… After the birth of my son, I had an endless longing a) to get away again and b) for these places. The sociological moment that resulted from it came later. In the beginning, I had a longing for landscapes in the East. I chose Knappensee. I didn’t want to go to Leipzig because it’s a city. It had changed very quickly. The city of my childhood had disappeared extremely quickly.

That’s another aspect of me being a child of my time. Having to deal with it again and again – that always comes back. Also the longing for it. The visuals — the symbols, the pictures, but also one’s biography — that was not accepted. It wasn’t valued either. I had a longing for big trees and trails and lush, strangely overgrown hedges.

So I went to Knappensee, which is in Upper Lusatia. I researched it a little bit. The area is a conglomeration of my mother and my grandmother. My mother used to work as an engineer, industrial hygiene. Se took measurements in lignite-fired power plants to see how much of a health risk they posed. She also did asbestos measurements.

My grandmother was a Germanist. There were letters between her and Brigitte Reimann, a writer. Reimann wrote a lot about everyday working life in the GDR. She also wrote about an architect, “Franziska Linkerhand,” who was involved in designing a new city and was critical of it. For a while, Reimann lived in Hoyerswerda. She went to these places especially to be able to write from there, from the inside. That’s why I went there. There was something for me.

The first time I went to Upper Lusatia with my mother, who was babysitting my son. I kept walking around the lake. The lake is in the book. It comes up again and again. At some point I realized that that wasn’t enough. [laughs] I printed out the pictures that offered something, put them on the floor, and asked myself “what’s missing?”

I realized that I might have to go to Hoyerswerda after all. At first I wanted to avoid it, because for me it was associated with the events of 1991. But then I went anyway. I started to meet people there, at parties, in pubs, etc. Before I did that, there was no tension at work.

When I work on photographs, I always need something that attracts me very much and that repels me at the same time, something that is a bit unwieldy — full of love and yet raw. That’s where I was digging: where do I find this unwieldy material?

With Hoyerswerda, you picked something really unwieldy.

It’s unwieldy, but also not so unwieldy. I also have a very loving attitude towards it. I can see myself very much in it. And I accept that, I think, also the people. But of course I exclude the radical right-wing scene from that.

Perhaps my reaction is simply based on how I perceived Hoyerswerda at the time. I read newspapers and Der Spiegel, and I learned about the big news items while I was busy studying physics. Hoyerswerda was one of the big topics where I was just shocked. I remember that. I asked myself how it was possible that something like that was back, that something like that was happening again in Germany. I don’t remember if it was the first pogrom…

It was the first pogrom.

Now, I know how little I understood at the time about what was going on in the East. Looking back, I regret that I didn’t go there to deal with it myself. To meet people and so on. But I remember how shocked I was. And that’s why this is a huge issue for me. I’ve also been dealing with the subject in my own work: the far-right movement in Germany. That’s why I find it so impressive that you have dealt with it. But with your socialization and your background, you probably see the topic differently.

Yes, I have always tried not to treat this particular aspect as the main part. It is one aspect of many, and it shines through. In my work, I’m fundamentally interested in approaching it without prejudice: To look for the places, to try to understand. I try to understand what is going on or what is present not with my head but with my heart.

Do you know the Thomas Heise’s films? He produced many documentaries in the East, Stau – Jetzt geht’s los and Kinder. Wie die Zeit vergeht. He did a lot of interviews. He did these in 1990, 91, 92, and then again in 2007 in Halle Neustadt. In the past, they were always impossible to find. But now they are available from the Bundesamt für politische Bildung (Federal Office for Political Education). I can highly recommend them. Among other things, there are interviews with 18, 19, 20-year-olds from the right-wing scene. They are very interesting.

Steffen Mau takes a completely different approach in his book. Unfortunately, it was not yet available when I did my work. He describes how the emigration of women and the fact that men stayed behind created a strongly male-dominated society in the East. Between 1991 and 2005, in some cases two-thirds of the women left for the West, excluding Leipzig and Berlin. That is the first point.

The second point is that there was a very striking drop in the birth rate at the time of the Wende. Normally, something like that would have been in the single digits. But due to the combination of these two facts, there really were years in which there were 300 men for every 100 women.

Mau dives deeper into it. Women tend to marry men that are socially better off. Consequently, there was such a blatant asymmetry between men and women that the classic working man ended up remaining single. There is the theory that men in male-surplus societies tend to be much more violent and that testosterone levels of men who are not in relationships are much higher. So they have to assert themselves through much more aggressive, physical behavior. That’s how Mau attempts to describe it.

On top of that, of course you have the issue of self-esteem, of not being seen, the fact that one’s descent, which has so much to do with identity, was never recognized. When you’re from the East, this wound always returns. It’s soooo deep. That’s really crazy. Of course, the AfD is heavily exploiting this, including with sentiments such as “now they’re also taking away our women.”

That’s consistent with what you see with neo-fascism here in the U.S. A lot of it runs on the idea of masculinity. A perceived loss of power, a loss of recognition. People are suffering from that — whether they’ve lost their jobs in the Rust Belt or they don’t have jobs. I think the U.S. is even more conservative than Germany in that regard. The image of the man, the masculine, is still much more pronounced here than in Germany. That’s where it gets charged, probably to a similar extent as in East Germany, only against a different background. Masculinity is seen as under threat. The right-wing right offers a way out with a constructed identity.

You now live in Switzerland. How long have you been there?

Forever. Twenty years.

Then you’ve been in Switzerland just as long as I’ve been in the USA. Switzerland is a foreign country, it’s not Germany. So you have the view of Germany from the outside as an East German who grew up partly in the former West Germany and then saw the reunified Germany. How do you see Germany against your personal background? What does that mean to you, personally but also as an artist?

I become much more German in Switzerland, because I am perceived much more as a German and treated as a German. In Bavaria, I was more of an East German.

I like this being foreign. I like it. In the beginning, it was difficult as well. Switzerland was much more encrusted then, it wasn’t very open. Zurich is not Switzerland, of course. You have to say that, too. Because of the bilateral agreements, there are many more foreigners in Zurich now. When I started studying, it wasn’t like that. Then, I found it all very difficult. But it has become very easy to live in Zurich. You can choose the people you want to see. [laughs] As a German, it’s a bit more difficult in Switzerland. For the Swiss, Germans are often too fast, too loud, too self-confident. Of course, that’s a total turn-off.

Now I can look at Germany in a completely different way. I also feel very connected. I realize how deeply it is embedded. I don’t know whether that is being German, but I know how much of a connection I have to the country of origin. It’s actually much more the East than Bavaria. Bavaria also influenced me, but not as deeply.

I notice it very strongly when it comes to language. German language in general, words that trigger me, that somehow are quite old and make something vibrate and sound in-between. Language delimits, but it also opens up a world. It influences perception. It is very powerful and it can be a tool. But it can also be deficient, have many gaps, and not describe things.

I think the German language is an absolutely beautiful language, even if it is a harsh, harsh language. But I feel at home in it. When I make work, I always try to describe or explore this gap that you can also find in language. To show or try to tell things that can’t necessarily be told with language either: Gaps, vibrations, things that can happen where spaces open up that cannot or cannot yet be described. In that sense, the German language has something to do with my work.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Winter Workshops 2023]]> 2022-12-19T15:05:59Z 2022-12-19T15:05:59Z

A workshop can provide a productive laboratory for a photographer who is interested in exploring a particular aspect of their practice. This is the main idea behind the workshops I’m offering. They each cover a specific topic or a part of a photographer’s practice. During a workshop, participants will produce new work, which is then being discussed by the group. At the same time, there will be discussions around the workshop’s focus that look into relevant pieces or photography/art and/or writing.

Unless otherwise noted (please see details below), the workshops will be held online in groups of 4 to 8 participants. Workshops are strictly limited to a relatively small number of participants to maximise the time and attention available for them.

Writing for photographers

You want to write a sentence as clean as a bone. That is the goal.
— James Baldwin

You might not think of yourself as a writer. However, as a photographer you will be unable to avoid having to write about your work. Photographs are typically organised into projects, which come with a statement. Another important piece of writing is the artist statement — also a standard requirement in the world of photography. How do you produce those pieces of writing, though, when you’re not a writer?

We all have been taught to write. In fact, we write on a regular basis, whether it’s a shopping list on a small piece of paper, an email to a friend or business partner, a birthday card for a loved one, or whatever else. But that’s just writing, whereas producing the statement — that’s Writing, isn’t it? Well, no.

In this four-week workshop, we will cover the basics of how to write about one’s photographs. Specifically, we will see how the distinction between writing and Writing sets up a false dichotomy. We will learn what constitutes good writing in a photography/art context, and we will practice and discuss writing. In addition, the role of writing as a very useful tool for one’s photographic practice will be explored.

At the end of the workshop, each participant will have arrived at a fully formed artist statement, plus a statement for one of their projects. In addition, each participant will know how to apply the principles taught in the workshop to their future practice.

Four weeks
Sundays 12:00pm-2:00pm, 2:30pm-4:30pm EST
8, 15, 22, 29 January 2023
Open to all ages and intermediate to advanced levels
Participants need to have a finished or almost finished project that they can write about
Limited to 4-8 participants

The Workshop of Boredom

I’m living in this movie, but it doesn’t move me.
(from: The Buzzcocks — Boredom)

If you have no concept of time, you have no concept of boredom. You’re bored because the flow of time appears to be in conflict with what you expect to be happening. If you think about it this way, boredom, possibly the most underappreciated state to be in, opens up a vast field of possibilities. Boredom is not an external fact; it is not something you are subjected to by outside forces. Instead, it’s the outcome of a mismatch between the external world and the internal one.

“The contemporary terror of boredom, which testifies to its apparent inevitability,” Elizabeth Goodstein wrote in 2005, “is saturated with the post-Romantic resignation to a world in which neither work nor leisure can bring happiness to subjects who no longer hope for divine restitution in the next.” Eight decades earlier, while exploring the idea of boredom Siegfried Kracauer concluded that “[i]f […] one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly.”

The above provides the broad outlines of this workshop. Over the course of four weeks, its participants and I will explore what boredom actually means in the context of photography. We will study how the patience Kracauer mentioned can lead to an expansion of what might be considered an interesting photograph. To this end, we will discuss a number of texts, and we will set out to produce new work. In a nutshell, the idea is to make “boring” pictures in order to understand how useless such a descriptor actually is when thinking or talking about photography.

Each meeting will consist of a mix of conversations. Each week, there will be a text to discuss (which include both Goodstein’s and Kracauer’s essays). There will be examples of photography or other art to look at and discuss (participants are encouraged to share something that have come across as well). And there will be discussions of the work the workshop participants have produced since the last meeting. Given the short time spans between sessions, participants are strongly encouraged to use a digital camera or smartphone to take pictures.

Four weeks
Saturdays 12:00pm-2:00pm, 2:30pm-4:30pm EST
7, 14, 21, 28 January 2023
Open to all ages; intermediate to advanced levels
Limited to 4-8 participants

If you’re interested in participating in one of the workshops of if you have any questions, please be in touch:

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Conversations about Germany: Tobias Kruse]]> 2022-12-12T13:57:16Z 2022-12-12T13:57:16Z

Earlier this year, I spoke with my friend Tobias Kruse about Deponie, a body of work that he photographed in East Germany. At the time, it was only available as a newsprint publication. But now, Tobias has made a new version with Spector Books, and the photographs are going to be on view in Berlin from mid December this year until the end of January 2023. This seems like a good moment to share the conversation I had with him.

Actually, it was maybe the most unusual interview I’ve ever done. I asked an introductory question, and Tobias told me the whole story, without me having to ask any further questions. The following is a transcript of Tobias’ words, edited for length and clarity and translated from the original German.

I had wanted to work on the project for a while, maybe for ten years. Then in 2015 the so-called refugee crisis and Pegida and the AfD happened. All of a sudden I had the feeling “Shit, you’re familiar with this. This happened before. You wouldn’t be able to go to a restaurant in the countryside without getting harassed from all sides. You know what it’s like to feel unsafe everywhere.“ There was this feeling of „I don’t belong here“, a feeling of „this is dangerous“. Everything could be dangerous. It could be dangerous to go shopping. Somehow the situation had come back, where these people, these radical people, were no longer in hiding but instead showed themselves and their mindsets.

One day, Ingo Taubhorn called and told me that I had received the Olympus Recommended Stipend. That’s what it was called. Unfortunately, Olympus was sold, which ended the relatively short period when this stipend existed. There were only two rounds. Anyway, that gave me an OK amount of money and some Olympus camera gear. I had to use the camera, that was part of the deal. That made it a little bit difficult for me, because I’m not good with new gear. Actually, I simply don’t care about camera gear. When I have a camera that works for me I’m happy.

The grant provided the perfect opportunity to work on the project. But how do I explain what I wanted to do? I didn’t really know I wanted to take pictures of. But I knew the feeling associated with the project very well. It’s a feeling of anxiety, of something unpleasant, associated with the concept of Heimat. The focus is indeed that I am from the East. But it doesn’t only center on the 1990s.

Something has emerged (already at the time of the fall of communism) that was kept under wraps for a long time. It’s the fact that there were and still are very widespread authoritarian attitudes in the East. After the end of Nazi dictatorship those continued during the SED dictatorship. It was as if those attitudes were immersed in nutrients. They held up quite well. And that has continued until today. There is the relatively well-known study done by a Leipzig centre studying authoritarianism, which is being conducted every two years. It uses relatively subtle questions to ask Germans how they feel about certain things. Results have consistently shown that the trust in authority is actually much higher in the East than in the West. Researchers produce statements such as „What Germany needs right now is a single, strong party that embodies the people as a whole.“ And 38% of people agree with that. That’s crazy, isn’t it?

The 90s were totally intense. I was 10 when the Wall came down and 11 when reunification happened. At the beginning of the 90s, there were Nazis everywhere in the East. You’d go outside and ask yourself “Which way do I walk now? I’d rather not cross Platz der Freiheit“, because that’s where they always met. We always hung out in the youth center. That was a fairly left-wing youth club in Schwerin, the city I grew up in. The center was also attacked by them. At the same time, after the fall of communism there was a deluge of drugs in the East.

For me things were clear: as soon as I’m able to I’m going to go to Berlin. Back then, that was simply the place to be. In addition, party people from the big cities had started to discover the Mecklenburg fields as locations to party. The Fusion Festival was born at that time. Back then, those were events with 300 people. We were there, too. So on the one hand, you had a strong right-wing scene in the East. On the other hand, there also were alternative subcultures in smaller numbers. We were always fewer than them. And what we did wasn’t all good either. Many people took way too many drugs. Friends of mine died. These aspects show up a little bit in the work.

There was also such an intense moment of freedom. You have to remember that we had been locked up, and suddenly we weren’t anymore. I was young, but I perceived everything very clearly. My parents were Bürgerbewegte, they were members of the opposition. For them, everything was great. My father took part in disbanding the Stasi in the Schwerin district. For us, the fall of the Wall was the most important event in our lives. Now we were released into freedom. But we had no money. We were unable to make use of our freedom. That sucked. We found ourselves being told “now you can travel to America“. But who was going to pay for that? You also didn’t have money to buy Coca Cola. You had to shop at Aldi.

During the first few years, people tried to save their money. For years, people saved money. We kids tried to find shortcuts. We wanted to live life to the fullest. But it became clear relatively quickly that throughout the 90s we were second-class citizens. So there’s this component of identity politics. We were looked down upon. We were ridiculed. It simply sucked to be an Ossi. That only ended at the beginning of the oughts. In Berlin it was a little different because East Berlin was considered cool. But you really only were able to say “I’m from Schwerin” in Hamburg or Munich without worrying about it in the noughties. We East Germans have a fine sense for that. If you’re asked at a party where you’re from, you’ll often hear „ah, oh… from the East“.

Coming back to what I mentioned earlier, about that faith in authority and Nazis in the East… In fact, another type of fascination with the Nazi era has been preserved. My grandparents’ generation who had fought in the war — they were treated a bit like heroes. They had been in France, they had seen the world but in connection to the war. That fact was glorified so much. Those had been the good times before the war. In the East, there were many Nazis, people who were born at the end of the 60s or at the beginning of the 70s, who celebrated this. Of course, that erupted when the Wall came down: now we’re somebody again. All the West German neo-Nazi leaders recognized that immediately. They went East and grabbed people: the dissatisfied, the unemployed, the disoriented, kids… That’s still the case today. The AfD’s entire leadership is from the West.

There is a historical component that has always interested me very much. In the East, it was a thing to look for Nazi memorabilia in the woods. After the war, there were no funds. What was left behind from the war was not properly cleared. Perhaps metal was needed, meaning tanks were melted down. But even today, the forests are still full of war materials. The East had been one of the main theatres of war, because the Reich capital had been there. Around Berlin there still are thousands of installations, bunkers, and all the concentration camps: Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald… Buchenwald alone had over 400 subcamps. South of Berlin, East Germany was littered with subcamps. Nobody can tell you that they didn’t know that. They were everywhere. In Nordhausen in the Harz region, it was on the market square. Sachsenhausen is right here in Oranienburg. In Fürstenberg was the Ravensbrück women’s camp. These two concentration camps also had subcamps as far away as the Baltic Sea. In Buchenwald you arrive at this big parking lot, and there are old SS barracks. The Buchenwald staff lived there. Now Weimar squares live in them. The houses belong to the memorial. They rent them out themselves. All this Nazi shit — that was already an issue in the 90s. There are bunkers here that were never cleared out. Of course, Nazis happily have their campfires there.

And there is the landfill, the starting point of the story. If you drive from Schwerin to Lübeck, where back then we went from time to time, you drive past the landfill. (Lübeck was the closest place where you could buy Stüssy tshirts. “Forty marks for a tshirt – are you out of your mind?“) In 1979, they set up a landfill close to the German-German border near Lübeck. The idea was to earn foreign currency. It was done as a hush-hush operation that was illegal under GDR law. Western waste was dumped there for cheap, including from companies such as Shell and Bayersdorf. A lot of waste came from Hamburg and Schleswig-Holstein, but also from Holland. It’s a toxic-waste dump, the largest toxic-waste dump in Europe. There was a toxic-waste scandal in Seveso, Italy, in the 80s. Barrels disappeared in Seveso, and it is thought that they’re there. There still are eighteen million tons of toxic waste lying there, and nobody knows what to do with it. The operating permit for the landfill was granted on a questionable basis. It was not really legal, not even under GDR law. In the area, clay and gravel rivers alternate in the subsoil. It is relatively important to know whether it is clay or gravel. If it is gravel, it is bad. Lübeck is not far away, and they are worried that the groundwater will be contaminated. I thought this was quite a nice image for the unresolved issue of Germany’s East and West: toxic waste lying around in the landscape and nobody knows how to deal with it.

You cannot change the fact any longer that after reunification, the entire East was sold to the West. That means that all the real estate is owned by West Germans. It will never get adjusted again. I think 5% of the real estate in East Germany belongs to East Germans. This totally cements the question whether you are an Ossi or Wessi. If you are an Easterner, you inherit nothing. The huge inheritances that are going on right now are all inherited only from West Germans to West Germans. Prices for real estate in the area surrounding Berlin — this surrounding area has become very large, it’s already half of East Germany — are as high as in Berlin. In the Uckermark, 100 kilometers from Berlin, you pay half a million Euros for a simple little farmhouse. Ten years ago it still cost 50 thousand Euros. The people who can buy it are West Germans. Now, West Germans are buying up the very last remnants. It remains to be seen how such a social transformation is going to be handled. You have to make sure that things are fair. In Poland, for example, they put a stop to this development. Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, foreigners became practically unable to buy real estate in Poland. It was possible, but you had to found a company and that was a considerable effort. But that didn’t happen here. That is another aspect of Deponie.

It was obvious that I wouldn’t do a reportage about a landfill. It’s just a huge green mountain. It’s not interesting. I started taking pictures in the immediate vicinity and realised relatively quickly that that wouldn’t work. So I decided that the project would cover the whole East. I went to places that clearly played a role in my personal life but also for the country: Hoyerswerda, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, and other locations. I drove around a lot. In terms of distance, I covered three times the circumference of the GDR: 8,000km. But initially, I didn’t know what to photograph at all. I didn’t have a list of subjects. I started making a list of words that came to mind while driving. I tried to make sense of them. When you think about a word, you start thinking about images. In the end, I also compiled a list of the places I’d been to. Combined, this resulted in the list that is part of the exhibition.

Images then fell into place. You can also push your luck when you go to AfD events or demonstrations. There’s a legal element to it, because you’re not allowed to photograph people without their consent. But you are allowed to do so at demonstrations and political events.

Violence was a topic. Where do you get a picture of a people’s brutalization? I don’t necessarily mean a brawl. Where does brutalization manifest itself? I simply went to a football match: Dynamo Dresden playing FC Sankt Pauli in Dresden. I got accredited and stood at the sidelines. I always stood with my back to the pitch in front of this wall of 5,000 hooligans from Dresden. Whenever the La Ola wave came around, they always performed the Hitler salute. I had not expected that they would show it so openly. I wanted that picture. I wanted to tell the story of the past and present at the same time. That was important for me. That’s why early on, it was obvious that I had to photograph in black and white to create that connection.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[How to read a photobook]]> 2022-12-12T21:25:36Z 2022-12-05T14:04:07Z

How do you go about reading a photobook? What exactly do you do to understand a book that operates purely on a visual level? In the following, I want to focus on books that either have no text whatsoever or very minor supportive text. These are books that either show the titles of the pictures somewhere near them — whether right underneath or maybe on the opposite page, provide them in a list in the back, or simply do without titles. In these books, a viewer you only have the pictures to understand what’s going on (because the titles mostly don’t help). How do you understand such books?

I wanted to write this article for all those people who aren’t necessarily deeply invested in the photobook already. Maybe you are starting out in photography and are discovering the medium’s many different possibilities. Maybe you have been looking at photographs for along time, but books aren’t really your thing (yet). In a somewhat regular fashion, someone will tell me (typically in an email) that they have trouble approaching photobooks. As someone who is part of the world of the photobook, I will admit that we don’t necessarily make it easy for newcomers to embrace the very books for which we desperately want (and need!) to find a larger audience. While there isn’t any single reason for this (it’s too conveniently populist to claim that the world of the photobook consists of snobs), I think we can (and should!) do a lot better. My hope is that the following might help all those who are interested in photobooks but who don’t quite know how to go about them.

To begin with, it’s important to disregard a few very common but completely misguided ideas. First, while there are a number of books that have come to occupy important spots in the world of the photobook, you’re actually under no obligation to like any of them. I just dismissed snobbery as a convenient talking point. But there is a fair amount of snobbery when it comes to well-known books. If you don’t believe me, try telling someone that you really don’t like William Eggleston’s Guide, say, or that you think Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens is overrated. The cult created around these types of books is off putting (to say the least). That’s too bad. But you’re still not obliged to like any of the famous books. Or you can like some and dislike others. That’s all good.

Especially if you’re starting out with photobooks, you want to first find books that you respond to — for whatever reason. If one of those books happens to be a famous one, that’s nice. But it doesn’t mean quite as much as you might imagine. It’s true that some of the famous books can teach you a lot about photography. But the same is true for many non-famous ones. Consequently, as someone starting out with photobooks, the key is to engage with the books you respond to, regardless of what they are and regardless of who made them.

When you discover books that resonate with you, you’ve made your first step into the medium. Even if you couldn’t tell why you respond to them, you have started to pick up on how and what they communicate. That’s very important. This gives you a good basis to continue looking. After all, looking at photobooks should be mostly a source of enjoyment, regardless of what form that enjoyment takes. Remember that enjoyment is always personal: mine might be very different than yours. But mine is not any more relevant than yours. I think this is a very important lesson for someone trying to look into photobooks: in the end, it’s always going to be about your personal enjoyment. In all likelihood you are the only person who can gauge what that means.

If you’re new to the photobook you need to realise that there is no prescribed way to look at one, and there is no prescribed outcome of that looking, either. However you want to look at the book is fine, as long as it feels right for you. You can go about it very slowly, looking at each photograph for along time. You can go about it rather quickly, going back and forth between pages (that’s what I typically do). Anything works that allows you to discover something in the book. The reason why I am writing this is because looking at photobooks is not necessarily something that you either know how to do or not. Instead, it’s a way of engagement that expands and changes with time. You will want to give yourself the mental space to find your own engagement with these books. This will take some time, and you will have to be fine with that.

In the very beginning, you obviously will pick up on less than someone who has spent many years with books. But instead of focusing on what you’re supposed to pick up (which doesn’t exist), focus on what you’re picking up. What are those pictures doing that come one after another? What emotions do they create in you, what ideas do they launch? Be aware of what’s happening inside you, and take that — and only that — as the basis from which to expand your engagement with photobooks. While you might start out with some wrong ideas or conclusions, as you continue your exploration, you will learn more, which help you to correct misinterpretations.


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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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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[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

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more.

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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