Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. 2024-05-20T12:38:36Z Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Japanese]]> 2024-05-20T12:38:36Z 2024-05-20T12:38:36Z

If, like me, you have a hard time remembering people’s names, reading history books becomes a real chore, especially in cases such as Japan. There, for the longest time the ruling class played elaborate games with the idea of power, all of them of course at the expense of those not typically mentioned in history books at all: all those thousands of people listed as numbers in battles and all those millions of people whose job it was to sustain all of it.

Furthermore, the ruling class also created a bizarrely complicated power structure for the country, with emperors resigning the moment their heirs were old enough to take over, only to then continue ruling behind the scenes as “retired” emperors (often “cloistered”). This immediately doubles the number of characters because each emperor of course needed his own court (power structure). You thus get twice the number of names, a game made even more complicated by not uncommon name changes.

But power did not always reside with an emperor at all, whether retired or not. Other figures — it’s easiest to think of them as warlords — jockeyed for influence in a variety of positions, whose actual amount of power would shift as well. At some stages, being a shōgun was mostly meaningless. At other stages, you were the man (and yes, it’s almost all centered around men).

When Tokugawa Ieyasu reunited the fractured country in 1603, creating what became known as the Edo period, his most important achievement for the ruling class was the elimination of all of those power games. For the rest of the country, it meant peace, a peace that had been elusive for so long.

You would imagine that an arguably seminal figure such as Tokugawa Ieyasu would be featured prominently in a book that is centered on the lives of 20 Japanese people throughout the country’s history, but he is absent. As it turns out, Christopher Harding‘s The Japanese — A History in Twenty Lives is not your ordinary history book. Harding is a cultural historian. Consequently, the country’s culture features very prominently in the book.

For those eager to learn about the reunification, there is a chapter on the first of the three warlords who sewed the seeds for what Tokugawa would harvest later. In his earliest years, the fiendishly brutal Oda Nobunaga was simply known as “the fool”. Thankfully, the book only briefly mentions some of the brutality this particular man engaged in.

I have always considered it as a shortcoming that so few history books deal with anything other than power. For example, you can understand parts of Germany’s history through its rulers. But you will still not be able to understand why certain things evolved as they did and why the country even today is so insecure about its own identity. In the very different context of Japan, you could make the same observation.

Located near the much older and usually much more powerful Chinese nation, the Japanese looked to that region for inspiration in any number of ways, whether in terms of religion or culture. In fact, for the longest time the Japanese ruling class would learn and speak Chinese, adopting Chinese script to write their own language (for which previously there simply was no script).

The court was so engaged in cosplaying another country’s culture that what would turn out as one of the defining pieces of Japanese culture was produced by someone who had no real part in any of that: Murasaki Shikibu is one of the early characters in The Japanese. Her real name is unknown. “She was born around 973,”Harding writes, “at a time when it was considered poor form to record — or even use, in public — an aristocratic woman’s personal name.” Unlike the cosplaying aristocrats around her, Murasaki Shikibu left a lasting impression in the form of The Tale of Genji, arguably the world’s first novel.

Harding’s use of writers, monks, travelers, inventors, or financiers is masterly: instead of telling the story of Japan as one of battles and court successions and land reforms, it becomes one of people, around whom things are happening and who have a role, whether small or sometimes large, in it. Some of the stories are almost too fantastical to believe, such as Hasekura Tsunenaga’s travels to Europe via the Americas to meet with the pope some time in the early 1600s.

As a consequence, if there’s one overarching achievement — besides providing the sheer joy of reading an incredibly engaging book — The Japanese does the country a huge service. All too often, Japan is seen in the West as something that is just different; Orientalism — whether of the malign or now mostly benign kind — is never far away. By presenting the lives of twenty people, most of them as ordinary as extraordinary, for the reader any otherness encountered is always only the otherness of the past, an otherness that we all know from our own personal histories.

For this writer and photography critic, the book also hit a different note. Over the past few years, I have become very interested in Japan. But I have also become rather disenchanted with the fact that photography is usually discussed in ways that is not too dissimilar from how history is discussed. That photographers are embedded in their societies and that they often are deeply affected by them too often is simply ignored.

To stay in the context of Japan, I personally couldn’t care less about the Provoke movement’s use of blurry and grainy photographs if there is no mention of how the photographers got there in the first place, what the aesthetic actually says about its time, and what ideas were being played with by some of its practitioners. That way, the movement becomes a lot more interesting, because it speaks of a very particular time in recent Japanese history.

How such a retelling could be achieved is demonstrated by Christopher Harding in The Japanese — A History in Twenty Lives. Even if you’re not at all interested in the country, I suspect that you will still enjoy reading the book. Ultimately, it’s a collection of people’s aspirations, some fulfilled, others not; and not all heroes (if that’s even the right word here) remain untainted by their times.

Highly recommended.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[A Conversation with Thana Faroq]]> 2024-05-13T12:08:27Z 2024-05-13T12:08:27Z

In early 2021 I reviewed Thana Faroq‘s I Don’t Recognize Me in the Shadows, a book that foregrounded the photographer’s and other people’s experiences as refugees in the Netherlands. The book left a lasting impression on me.

Usually, it’s photographers taking on such topics as outsiders, which might or might not lead to all kinds of problems (particularly in the world of photojournalism, which often prefers flashy images at the expense of deeper, meaningful stories). Here, the photographer was directly affected herself. In other words, the separation between photographer and subject had ceased to exist.

Late last year, Thana’s second book, how shall we greet the sun arrived, with which she yet again challenged her way of working through the inclusion of very personal writing. The combination of these two books had me convinced that I needed to speak with her to find out more about the books and the person behind it. In April, we connected over Zoom. The following conversation has been edited for clarity.

Jörg Colberg
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people, me included, don’t really know all that much about Yemen. What would you like people to know about the country and your background?

Thana Faroq
I was born and raised in Yemen, absorbing its culture, language, and ideas. I’d like people to understand that Yemen is truly a beautiful country, despite the cliché it might sound like ‘oh my country is beautiful’. Beyond the harsh portrayals often seen in the media, there is beauty and peace. Socially, there’s a strong sense of cohesion, which isn’t usually highlighted. Being from Yemen gives me a deep sense of community. Its history is endlessly fascinating, and every day I discover something new, realizing how much more there is to learn about my culture and everything it entails. That’s what I wish more people knew about Yemen. As for the aspects I prefer not to mention, I’ll leave it to others to discover those on their own.

I seem to remember that the country was divided into two right for a long time.

Yeah, it used to be divided into the south and the north, but that’s no longer the case since unification occurred in 1990. Occasionally, when I apply for things and need to select a country, I still see both options listed, but in reality, it’s been united. However, with the ongoing conflict, there’s a growing desire in the south to separate and become distinct again.

Yemen is actually what got me into photography, even though I started photography in the US during my undergraduate studies. But to be honest, it’s really hard to be a Yemeni woman and not have anything in your hands. You need to say a lot about a lot of things. Not necessarily the good things, the ones I mentioned before, but things you’re angry or frustrated about. Or you want to ask questions for the sake of asking questions. So Yemen got me into photography. We were a really small group of Yemeni women, a minority of photographers there. We weren’t many back then. For me, using the camera back then was an act of empowerment. The subject matter was not my main focus: It doesn’t matter what I photograph, but look at me, people! I’m holding the camera! That got me into photography.

I think that in a way Yemen challenges me. I hate it and love it at the same time. I never figured this relationship out.

That is really interesting. I often tell people in the world of photography, that it’s not just the pictures. The act of taking the pictures can be very powerful. And often it’s more important than the pictures themselves. It sounds as if for you as a woman in Yemen, the camera in your hand was more important than the pictures themselves.

Definitely. I would not necessarily take selfies back then. The culture of selfies did not really exist. The camera gives me a sense of confidence. When I used to walk around the streets with a camera, I would hear: “Where’s her husband?” “Where’s her man?” “Where’s a family?” “She’s going around with a camera. Is she a foreigner?” The camera was really a protector. I am walking with a camera for a reason. It gives me the confidence. I claimed my space. And I loved it.

There were times I returned home empty-handed, without a single photo. Yet, I felt accomplished, as if I had captured something significant (not images), but their perceptions and emotions. Being a woman with a camera was enough to challenge people’s perception.

I love that. I think photography is best where it can make people think or challenge people’s ideas. That’s so important.

Is it correct to say that you were forced to leave or that you had to leave Yemen? Maybe because of the war?

Well, how can I explain this?I left Yemen in 2016 after receiving a scholarship to study photography in London. At the time, I was quite naive, believing that the war back home would end by the time I completed my studies. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I was eager to return, but then the airport was bombed, leaving me stranded. In the UK, without a valid visa or a clear purpose, I felt utterly hopeless. This prompted me to seek asylum, and I chose to go to the Netherlands. Looking back, it was definitely the right decision.

When you hear that refugees don’t have a choice I want people to believe that. No, for sure they don’t have a choice. For real. I would have definitely not left my country if it wasn’t for what happened in the world.

I got the scholarship in London, and I wanted to be equipped with what I’d learn so I could go back and keep documenting everything. But if that space is not available anymore… If the woman with the camera cannot safely walk around anymore… That was not possible any longer.

When you had to go through the process did you meet a lot of other people with similar experiences? I think a lot of people don’t understand how difficult that process is. Can you talk a little bit about that?

It took a few months. I was lucky because it was early. Now, it is getting difficult when it comes to asylum procedures in the Netherlands. At that time, it wasn’t that difficult. We were also few Yemenis here, and the media were reporting on the war. So we had legitimate reasons to apply for asylum.

But every day felt like three years or four years. It’s not easy. It’s the waiting part, which I talked about in the first book. You are waiting. You don’t have papers. Mentally, it was not okay for me to go somewhere, even though it was allowed. But I did not do anything. What if I crossed the street and somehow missed the lights? What would happen if the police ask for my papers and I don’t have any? Mentally, it was difficult. I didn’t feel that I existed at that time. If you ask me whether I was with other people… It’s hard to remember actually. I do not even remember that I was with someone. Of course, I was with people, with lots of people. But it was me — and all the world against me. And all those people were just in the shadows.

I always say this, also in the second book. We aged as women. We aged not in a physical sense, but I felt like I was 50, going through it on a daily basis, waiting… Am I gonna get the asylum papers? Am I in? Am I out? What is the situation? But somehow I used to see the light in the dark.The inspiration for my second book came from the daily gatherings with women over shisha and coffee in the camps. During these sessions, we discussed everything under the sun, love, movies, relationships, husbands, motherhood you name it… Everything, that is, except the war. These conversations have occupied my thoughts and taught me much about myself and women’s lives in post conflict and migration.

I didn’t know what resilience meant. What does it mean to say you have resilience? Is this resilience? Is it about strength? No, I was not strong. I don’t think I was strong. But it was able to endure. And I love the expression to endure in spite of it all. And of course, the camera was with me the whole time. I photographed everything.

Honestly, I didn’t want my work to be interpreted as another refugee project, that wasn’t the intention ; In my work I was concerned of what was happening? Was this even real? How can I visualize trauma? Can photography do that. I’m still trying to process it all, even now. I’d be lying if I said everything was okay. It’s still a work in progress, and it likely always will be.

Looking at your books, I think you had an idea of what photography is and what you wanted to photograph. But then the reality of your life forced you to do things differently. You started writing in the second book. I think that’s what makes the work so interesting that there is photography — and then there’s all this uncertainty around it. Am I reading something into the books that’s not there? What do you think?

You’re absolutely right, I was responding. Whenever I’m asked about my methods, I think that I work intuitively. It was about me responding to the moment. There is no certainty. There is no such thing as it needs to be photographed this way or that way. I was confronting the circumstances I experienced.

I’m no longer sure what constitutes good photography. I’d love to create work that I can confidently call good, and I aim to improve all the time. However, defining what “good” really means in photography confuses me. I find myself reacting to moments as they occur, doing my best to capture them and the feelings they evoke. Sometimes, the images let me down. The frustration of not being able to capture a feeling exactly how I envision it is immense. My work, therefore, stems both from these spontaneous moments and disappointments. These disappointments aren’t a driving force, but they shape the images I create.

The position I’m currently in, I was wondering: is photography saying enough? That’s why I started writing from a lot of frustration and not knowing what good photography is. And I always keep the viewer in mind. Will you get it when you see it? Will it have an effect on you? In the pretentious photography world, they talk about affect theory.

I used to question things a lot. But I stopped questioning a long time ago. Now, I think that, OK, this is who I am as a photographer. Really poor images also count. So I include poor images in the process. And you’ve seen that a lot in the first and second book: the value of poor images and how I also include them and value them.

The writing… For me, text itself can be an image. And really, it excites me to produce images through text. If something else, maybe moving imagery, will be part of the equation, I will include it too. It’s all about the moment.

I was really fascinated when you said you included poor images. That is not something that most photographers would admit, even if they do it. And I think most people probably wouldn’t do it.

This maybe is a strange question to ask. But what do you think when you look at your books? Do they do what you hope they do? Or do you think there’s something missing and you have to make the next one?

I work in chapters. The first book is chapter one. The second book is two. When I look at the two books, they are a mix of imperfection, good photographs, perfect photographs, poor images, and less poor images. It’s exactly what I need to communicate. This process, the emotional interior landscape, the landscape of whatever I’m feeling… How can I revisit trauma? What does it look like? How does it feel?

That’s also why I struggle to exhibit the work. It needs to be seen as a book because a collection of photographs on the wall doesn’t do it. You need to see it as this package with the poor images, the imperfect, the perfect. With that packaging I feel satisfied that I communicated what I needed to communicate. But there will be more. It’s to be continued. It’s happening. It’s still coming for me. I haven’t said everything.

Every story traditionally has a beginning, a middle, and an end. My fascination lies not with the start or the conclusion, but with the middle—the heart of the narrative where everything intensifies. The middle is where the chaos unfolds, where the noise is loudest. As a photographer, my method is to focus on the central part of the story. Perhaps in a few years, when you look at a collection of my works and books, you’ll notice a theme: I capture only the middle. And it’s in these middles where you find the raw, unfiltered messiness of life.

How do your students respond? Do you tell them about poor images?

I teach at the BA level. They are still young students and excited about photography. I don’t talk about poor images. During the sequencing and editing, I don’t even say “your least favorite pictures”. But I use the term “the images you discarded”, “the ones that you left at home before coming here”. I’m really curious to see these. Why did you leave them behind?

I have another question. This is also a difficult topic. You have residency in the Netherlands.

I have a Dutch passport.

I didn’t know that.

I became Dutch last year. That was a really happy moment.

Europe as a whole has a big, big problem with the far right. It’s getting worse and worse. And they’re very racist. So you just arrived at a place where a lot of people would campaign against people like you. I think that is completely shameful. How do you deal with that? And is this something that will become part of your work?

I have to tell you that when I received the Dutch passport and became a Dutch citizen, it was one of my best moments. I had asked myself whether it was it worth it, all this hardship. It was worth it. It was definitely worth it to feel that you fit in. Physically and emotionally you are part of the Netherlands. It felt really good.

When events unfolded, I came to a startling realization: what I thought was real was actually an illusion. The sense of safety and security I felt was only temporary. Now, I find myself in a place where I have to teach myself not to get too comfortable, to stay alert and prepared for change

I feel lucky because I’m surrounded by a Dutch community that is really understanding and open minded, whether at work when I teach or my surroundings in the Dutch art scene here. But the whole world is not all of it like that. So I not I’m not comfortable. That’s the word. Not scared. I’ve experienced war. I’m a war survivor. So nothing scares me anymore. But not comfortable is exactly how I feel.

Because then I’m left questioning where to go next. Last year, I visited my family in Yemen for the first time, and I must admit, I felt like a stranger both to them and to myself. If I feel out of place there, and I feel like a stranger here, where do I belong? What comes next for me? It was a deeply unsettling experience.

Of course, I will do work about that, but I wouldn’t work to… I’m not an activist. It’s not going to be the kind of work where I’m holding everyone accountable: Look at what’s happening! I will stay in my zone. I will speak about it in my own means and ways .

In my second book, ‘ How shall we greet the sun ‘ I explored the themes of integration and fitting in. Now I started a new project about what does it mean to disturb memories? The word disturbing is really really strong for me. I’m talking about the awakening and the shock and the grief that comes from it. I think I will speak about what happens when you disturb things. I plan to also address the themes of grief, shock, and discomfort. These topics will likely be explored in one of the upcoming chapters.

As I mentioned, I feel that the true value of my work will be recognized over time. My approach isn’t tied to a single project. I view my work as a series of chapters, which collectively will serve as an archive in the long run.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Lebensborn]]> 2024-05-06T12:39:26Z 2024-05-06T12:39:26Z

(A preface of sorts:) As events have shown over the past decade (or more), we are collectively unable to keep more than one thought in our minds, especially if thoughts might be competing, whether for attention or for an assessment of moral or ethical aspects (you can see this very clearly in the discussions — if we want to call what’s happening that — around Israel and Gaza).

This fact is unfortunate for many reasons, the most important one being that it risks brushing aside a lot of individual hurt (even in the group you have decided to support). If we are unable to face individual hurt — how can we hope to address collective hurt?

There is only circumstantial evidence, and it is vague as is often the case in German family histories, but I believe that my paternal great grand-aunt worked for Lebensborn. I distinctly remember that at some stage, I overheard her say that the children of the failed 20 July 1944 plot had been taken to where she worked, and she had been taking care of them. At the time — I was very, very young (a very curious child), that statement sent chills down my spine: who would take children away from their parents?

We do not have to go back in history to find an answer. It was that snippet of memory that had and still has me so revulsed about russia’s mass abduction of Ukrainian children for which the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against its dictator. Historical comparisons are always problematic, especially if they involve Nazi Germany; but here, a comparison seems apt: the underlying motivations are very similar.

The second piece of circumstantial evidence for my great grand-aunt is the locale, the Harz region. As I learned from Angeniet BerkersLebensborn (in its italicized version, throughout this text the word will refer to the book), there was such a home in Wernigerode. Unfortunately, she died many years ago; in any case it’s extremely unlikely that I would have been able to find out more. The code of silence that had been draped over German families’ past has been pierced here and there, but for the most part it remains intact.

Lebensborn homes included a variety of different children. The homes had been set up by the head of Germany’s SS, Heinrich Himmler, as a (literal) breeding ground for what he and his peers considered the ideal German. Following eugenics — at the time were widely believed across the globe — the idea was to counter Nazi Germany’s meagre birth rate by having those who were seen as following the highest human ideals — blond, blue-eyed “Aryans” — procreate to produce more of these kinds of people.

A lot less prosaic and probably much closer to the actual motivations was Himmler’s statement that “the number of cribs must be greater than the number of coffins.” In other words, if you want to wage war and you need to throw people into the meat grinder, you need to be able to replenish the raw material (and here we have one of the direct links to today’s russia).

For obvious reasons, the “Aryan” idea was complete nonsense: with few exceptions, none of the Nazi leaders looked remotely like one of those idealized blond, blue-eyed people. In fact, the influential propaganda minister had a club foot, which was carefully hidden, given that under the Nazi’s ideology disabilities rendered a person as belonging to a much lower category as a human being.

Nazi ideology aside, the Lebensborn homes ended up not only being the birth homes of SS spawns, they also housed a variety of other mothers and their children. The Nazis combed various countries to locate “Aryan” children. Using very crude pseudo-scientific methods, these children were taken from their families and put into a Lebensborn home, to be raised as German.

Germany families that either did not have children or wanted another one (for whatever reason) were able to apply to get one. That’s how children ended up in German families, with German names and German parents. But there were other cases where German soldiers had fathered children in occupied countries, and some of them were put into those homes as well.

There’s a popular internet meme: “fuck around and find out”. In the Lebensborn cases, there’s a perverse twist to it, given that some people were doing the literal fucking, whereas it would be upon their children to find out.

This might read like an unfortunately crass way to describe the situation. But I find it almost impossible to wrap my head around the situation many of the Lebensborn children found themselves in once they realized that their actual birth history was rather different than what they had been led to believe.

Lebensborn contains a number of stories of some of these children, which will haunt you forever if you have a beating heart in your chest. There is, for example, Ingrid von Oelhafen, born as Erna Matko in then Yugoslavia (pictured above), who spent years trying to find her family in now Slovenia. Or Paul Hansen, whose father was a German soldier and whose mother was Norwegian. Put into a Norwegian home for children with intellectual disabilities after the war, he managed to finally locate his mother (in then East Germany of all places) who told him “You are not welcome here.”

It is the stories that do the heavy emotional lifting in the book. These stories overflow with a hurt that is hard to imagine. One needs to be aware of the fact that all of the individuals Berkers spoke with are survivors. How many other lives ended up much shorter, possibly out of sheer despair? And when you’re reading these stories, think of the Ukrainian children held in russian institutions or homes. And think of all of those children in Gaza who lost their entire families and now face their lives like many of the Lebensborn ones: in a world largely hostile to their needs.

It’s painful and yet necessary to remain at the level of the individual hurt — or to try to approach it yet again if one forgot about that that is where it all has its beginning. Individual hurt offers no solace, it offer no quick and immediate solutions; it merely remains hurt.

Paul Hansen should have never been discarded by Norway’s post-war society because he happened to have the wrong parents. The children of Ukraine should have never been abducted to live in a fascist country. The children of Gaza should have never lost their parents, to now grow up in a massive field of rubble without food. Whatever the choices might have been that led to these very situations, if we lose track of the individual suffering, we will never be able to get to a world where such suffering will cease to exist.


Lebensborn; photographs and text by Angeniet Berkers; essay by Dr Ingvill Constanze Ødegaard; 272 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2024

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The project is not your friend]]> 2024-04-29T19:00:07Z 2024-04-29T12:20:17Z

The project has taken on an outsized and, I would argue, partly counterproductive role in the world of photography. Most photographers work with projects, whether one or any number at the same time (the latter is usually a bad idea). They take their pictures with those projects in mind, and there is no overlap between them. A photograph belongs to one project and one project only, never to be used again anywhere else.

Obviously, there are some benefits to this idea. Besides the fact that a project fits neatly into our neoliberal world with its clearly defined and easily commodifiable units, projects provide a basic and easy way to organise work. Add on a statement at the end, put the pictures in a book and/or exhibition, and then move on to the next.

If you’re teaching photography, projects are a godsend. They create structure for something that in itself does not have any (how do you teach making art?). Projects can be pressed into the structure of your teaching: they might have to last a semester or a year or any other arbitrary time period imposed by the limitations of your program and/or university.

But a project, and I think this aspect is widely acknowledged, creates a problem: when do you end it? If you’re shoehorned into a time schedule by your teacher, that will give you a parameter. Of course, everybody knows that your project might not in fact be done in a semester or year. In addition, the inclination by many photographers is to let projects run longer than they need to. The right point when to finish it is often difficult to find.

Furthermore, projects can create severe restrictions that are essentially self-imposed. In my years of teaching, it was very common to observe a student cling to the small set of early pictures that had provided the initial impetus. Instead of moving past them and truly exploring the potential of a growing body of work, the early pictures became anchors that resulted in the ship never leaving the harbour.

In part related is the fact that the structure of a project often precludes experimentation. There are at least two reasons I can think of why that’s the case. First, speak to any photographer, and they will all be very cagey about projects that didn’t go anywhere. In part, that’s because of the world of photography’s general inability to recognise the productive role failure can play in one’s practice (I probably don’t have to explain how an inability to face failure is rooted in the machismo that unfortunately still dominates vast swatches of the world of photography).

If you won’t want to (or are unable to) fail then obviously, you’re not going to grow much as an artist. And the larger problem percolates down to the smaller level. If you can’t bear failing when producing a project, then you also can’t bear failing when it comes to individual pictures. I can’t tell you how often I heard something along the following lines from a student: “I have an idea for a picture, but I don’t know whether it will work. What do you think?”

In principle, you should be able to see how that’s a huge problem. You’re not going to be creative if you do not in fact create something, the consequences be damned. My standard answer was (and still is): “I don’t know, you need to make the picture and see.” Which worked only 50% of the time. A lot of students were eager to wallow in endless speculation over pictures they didn’t have instead of simply working things out in a creative fashion.

The framework of the project exacerbates that problem: the project must not fail, and individual pictures must not fail. There goes all playfulness out of the window — and experimentation alongside it.

How will you grow as an artist if you don’t experiment? If you don’t allow yourself to fail? If you don’t allow for at least some playfulness in your process? Well, you won’t. It’s really that simple. Instead, you’ll merely be repeating what you already feel comfortable with (which, by the way, can be a good business model as many photographers have been demonstrating).

Beyond all the problems I discussed above, there are more fundamental ones. […]

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Hermes/Unesco]]> 2024-04-22T12:42:54Z 2024-04-22T12:42:54Z

The very first thing I noticed about Martín Bollati‘s Hermes/Unesco is that it’s a little paper brick. It has more than 1,000 pages, 999 of which are taken up by images. I’m thinking that the idea for a viewer is not necessarily to go through the book in its entirety in one sitting. I suppose you could. But the sheer magnitude of visual material and the fact that what the images show (or purport to show — I’ll get to that) is rather similar would make for a tiring, if not numbing experience.

Instead, I’d open the book at random locations and look at a few images at the time. At first glance, the images contain depictions of statues, sculptures, and similar artifacts made by prehistoric cultures. Given that the history of humanity dates back a few thousands of years and given that there have been many civilizations on this planet, the sheer number of images appears to make sense. If anything, this is merely a small selection from that history.

And yet, something appears to be off. For this writer whose eyes are trained to look at photography but not to identify the kinds of archeological artifacts presented in the pages, some of them look more believable than others. Occasionally, I detect a smile in a sculpture, and I don’t seem to remember seeing any of those when encountering artifacts in museum settings. Even as ancient sculptors took some liberties with how they abstracted the human body, some of the more realistic sculptures depict bodies whose anatomy is completely unrealistic.

What’s going on here? If, unlike me, you’re smart, you probably know where this is going. The images do not depict real artifacts. Instead, they were produced with generative artificial intelligence (AI; I’m going to continue using this term even though it does not make sense).

The bulk of the book’s text is in Spanish, a language I am unable to read. There is a very small English section that comes before the images. In it, our collective digital heritage is mentioned as a possible target of nefarious actions. Someone could alter that heritage in such a fashion that it would be undetectable. Apparently, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is concerned about what they call digital cleansing.

My first instinct is to note that in light of the ongoing actual cleansing of people’s heritage that is happening all over the world — whether by Russia in the occupied Ukrainian territories, by Israel destroying Palestinian cultural buildings and artifacts in Gaza, or elsewhere — maybe the digital threat isn’t necessarily the most immediate one. After all, at least in the world of artifacts something has to exist before it becomes a digital entity.

But I get the point. I agree that we need to preserve cultural heritage, because even when other people’s is destroyed or altered, then that still affects us, too.

But maybe it’s not quite as simple, because there are many layers of complications. Take, for example, the fact that many nations’ cultural artifacts are not housed in their respective local museums but somewhere else. Dan Hicks’ The Brutish Museums dives into that aspect.

Furthermore, what we think of as our history actually still is in flux. New discoveries are being made all the time (the other day, they unearthed a previously unseen room in Pompeii). Not all discoveries change the way we think about the past or a specific culture, but some actually do.

In other words, the past is not as fixed as we think it might be. Instead, it’s being pieced together for purposes that are either benign (or purport to be) or malicious (such as when Russia’s dictator assembles some fake history of his own country).

But of course, using AI to generate new, convincing looking images of ancient artifacts fits into the mold I laid out in an earlier article. I do not intend this sentence to be read as being critical of Martín Bollati. Currently, there is a lot of very bad “art” being generated with the help of generative AI. None of it is conceptually sound, most of it is trite and shallow (at best eye candy for clicks) — with the exception of this particular work here.

With that said, even as I understand the impetus behind the book, its real target might be to point out the artifice of the larger endeavour. Try as we might, the past is and will remain a construct.

It’s just that some constructs are taken as a lot more believable than others. You don’t even have to remain in the digital domain: Germany rebuilding Prussia’s imperial palace in Berlin and filling it with an ethnographic museum (that houses thousands of looted items) is a form of generative AI literally set in (rather expensive) stone (it’s just not called that because actual architects were involved).

So maybe one would need to set Hermes/Unesco next to catalogues of real artifacts. Then, somewhere in between all of these collections of material it would become clear how they are a form of wish fulfillment: for our collective past to be glorious and affirming of what we’re up to in the present.

Hermes/Unesco; images by Martín Bollati; 1040 pages; SED Editorial; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Ein Dorf]]> 2024-04-16T19:40:29Z 2024-04-15T12:59:51Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Is your project merely a series of photographs?]]> 2024-04-08T13:02:08Z 2024-04-08T13:02:08Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t shy away from that risk.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Songs in a strange land]]> 2024-04-01T12:47:36Z 2024-04-01T12:47:36Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Ordinary People]]> 2024-03-25T12:48:41Z 2024-03-25T12:48:41Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Behold the digital Wunderkammer!]]> 2024-03-18T12:36:05Z 2024-03-18T12:36:05Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Exteriors]]> 2024-03-11T12:36:49Z 2024-03-11T12:36:49Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Rental Person Who Does Nothing]]> 2024-03-04T13:51:43Z 2024-03-04T13:51:43Z

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Women at Work]]> 2024-02-26T13:55:48Z 2024-02-26T13:55:48Z

On 5 February 2024, Helga Paris died at age 85. This had me think that I needed to look at her work again. Rummaging through the boxes of my books, still packed away in an unused room, would not lead me to the desired result: I knew that I did not own a book containing the photographer’s work.

I was aware of a recent book with photographs Paris took at Leipzig’s central train station some time in the 1980s. When it came out, I thought it was OK work but not something I needed in my house. It felt like the kind of work that would resonate in a rather localized fashion: with those who lived in the locale and have some form of attachment to it. This kind of photography is very common. Yo be honest, I usually find it hard to relate to, especially since books tend to lean heavily towards nostalgia.

What I was looking instead was a book with Paris’ portraits. If you look through the website of her archive, I think you will see that that the portraits are the real gems. This is not to say that the other pictures are bad; it’s just that the portraits are simply in a completely different league.

Two years ago, a book entitled Frauen bei der Arbeit (Women at Work) was published. I somehow missed it then, possibly because the publisher was not on my radar (and who has the time and patience to look through DAP’s rather messy catalogue?). I ordered myself a copy.

In many ways, the book is the perfect introduction to the East German photographer for all of those who are looking to add some of her work to their library. It contains a statement by Paris, which describes her interests and how they relate to her life circumstances in a remarkably succinct fashion. And there is an interview with the photographer that further dives into what drove her.

As someone who grew up on the other side of the Berlin Wall, to a large extent East Germany has remained a foreign country to me. For all the right and wrong reasons, East Germans who spent large parts of their lives in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) have not made it easy for outsiders to get access to their world. I don’t necessarily mean this as criticism: being extremely careful with whom you would share private information formed part of their survival strategy. Remember, one in ten East Germans informally worked for the country’s equivalent of the KGB (the infamous Stasi).

And today, it is not easy to talk about that particular past in Germany anyway. If there is anything positive being said or written, inevitably someone (often but not always from the former West) will talk about the Stasi and the dictatorship, and how dare anyone suggest that there might have been positive aspects to any of that?! Subtleties or nuances, you see, aren’t necessarily something Germans do well; and most of today’s societies have become unable to accept the existence of mutually exclusive truths that are present at the same time regardless.

As women in the GDR, Paris notes in the interview, “we demanded equal rights when necessary, and we got them. Did that happen in the West? Probably not. That’s embarrassing.” This obviously is the kind of occasion where the usual suspects would throw in the “what about the dictatorship” bit: The photographer has an important point, and it’s a point that traces through the book, a book made in a Germany where women probably have less rights than Paris and her peers enjoyed in the GDR.

It gets even more interesting if you consider the fact that the photographs in Frauen bei der Arbeit did not have to be made in a clandestine fashion. A lot of East German photographers were unable to showcase their real work because it didn’t conform with state ideology. In its most basic form, though, the photographs of women workers in a garment factory do: the GDR styled itself as the state of workers and farmers, and it is those people whom Helga Paris photographed.

The difference between official GDR photography and Paris’, of course, is that the former had to serve the state. Helga Paris was having none of that. Her interest was in the people in front of her camera. If you read the photographer’s words, she comes across as blunt and unpretentious. It’s exactly the complete lack of pretense that forms the core of what makes these photographs so good and, as I already noted, subversive.

“In photography, you need a certain empathy for the other person,” Paris says in the interview, somewhat casually mentioning what I see as the most important aspect of her (and many of her East German peers’) practice. Even if it seems clear that probably all of the women who found themselves in front of the camera were strangers, the photographer cared a whole lot about each and every one of them — except maybe one who is depicted at a much larger distance, glaring at the photographer.

The following might be a comparison too far for most, but regardless: if you want to ignore the very different circumstances under which and reasons why the pictures were made, I’m reminded of the great Lewis Hine’s child labour photographs. In both cases, the photographers went out to take photographs because they cared for those in front of their cameras — and not only for the resulting pictures. Paris and Hine wanted us to see the persons in front of their cameras and to fully acknowledge them.

There will be blank spots in the history of photography to be filled for at least as long as I’m alive. East Germany still is a rather blank spot (especially outside of Germany), and too many women photographers’ work is also still waiting to be given its due. If you want to add just one book to your library that can do a rather magical job to alleviate part of that problem, it probably should be Helga Paris’ Frauen bei der Arbeit. The fact that it’s a lovely production is an added bonus.

Highly recommended.

Frauen bei der Arbeit/Women at Work; photographs and text by Helga Paris; interview with Oliver Zybok; 120 pages; Weiss Publication; 2022

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Deutschland im Herbst]]> 2024-02-19T13:42:59Z 2024-02-19T13:42:59Z

It’s one of those amazing coincidences that in Germany a single day is the anniversary of a number of essential historical events, most of which are interconnected: 9 November. That day marked the beginning of the ill-fated Weimar Republic. It’s the day of Hitler’s failed 1923 putsch. It’s the day when in 1938 large-scale violence erupted against Jewish citizens and their property in Nazi Germany (“Kristallnacht“). And it’s the day that marks the fall of the Berlin Wall.

There are a few relatively minor other events on that day. But you can probably see how that particular day, late in those gloomy, gloomy German autumns, has particular relevance. In fact, autumn itself plays an outsized role in the German mind. Germans are gloomy, gloomy people, and the physical decay of the plant life combined with shorter and shorter hours of daylight at a time when the sun won’t peek out behind heavy clouds appears to portend something ominous to happen.

Ever since 1977, when a wave of left-wing terrorism shook West Germany, autumn itself became associated with possible political and societal doom. If you lived through that period (I did at possibly the worst possible time in my life, being old enough to understand something was seriously amiss but not only enough to be able to process it), you’ll remember what a ghastly affair that time was.

Ten years ago, a movement emerged in Germany that in the relatively short period of time since would result in what can only be viewed as a severe crisis of democracy in a number of East German states. People took to the streets to demonstrate against immigration and Islam, styling themselves after the protestors that had brought down the East German regime decades earlier.

Once the refugee crisis and the Covid pandemic hit Germany, the movement only grew, and it attracted any number of  people: fascists, extreme nationalists who aren’t fascists (I know this sounds like a weird distinction), conspiracy theorists, people on the far left of the spectrum who finally found a cause to join to voice their rather primitive anti-American instincts, and those attracted to Vladimir Putin’s fascist russia (it’s not clear where these people fit on the political spectrum, and, frankly, it doesn’t matter).

Please note that the categories aren’t even mutually exclusive. It’s not easy to wrap one’s head around where exactly someone like Sahra Wagenknecht, a politician that formerly was extremely pro-Communist but now routinely spouts fascist talking points, fits. What does matter, though, is that all of these people ultimately want to destroy Germany’s democracy and create something else (which might or might not look like Putin’s russia).

Even as many of the details here are uniquely German, the basic underlying principle is universal. You can find the same toxic mix of, say, people believing in conspiracy theories while loving Putin in parts of the Republican Party in the US. But of course, things are a little scarier in Germany, because that’s the country that started World War 2 in Europe, the country that is responsible for the Holocaust.

My country. If the above doesn’t contain reasons enough to be gloomy, I don’t know what else you’d need.

Regardless, part of the toxic mix on display by these anti-democratic forces is their open disdain of the media, where anything that even remotely might have something to do with the media — let’s say a camera — makes the holder of said device a person that virulent hatred is directed at (and open violence is often not that far away). So for Felix Adler to take his camera to photograph some of the protestors that still meet regularly is a gutsy move.

“Every Monday evening in Germany ten thousands of people demonstrate,” he writes, “mostly situated in Eastern Germany and not much noticed by the media and the rest of the people, the demonstrators seem to live in a self-affirming parallel world.” The evenings do not provide much like for a camera; but there are things you can do with a flash that carry the potential to throw things into sharp relief.

And that’s what Adler did. In his photographs from Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn), people and items appear against a sea of black. Photographically, it’s a simple device.

Visually, it makes for an astonishing effect: the melange of political delusion and craziness is separated out into some of its constituent parts. Individual aspects suddenly take on special meaning, even if the mix of it all never ceases to be little more than a bunch of political lunatics attempting to destroy the very democracy that grants them the rights to protest in the first place.

Adler published the work in the form of a set of cards that comes with a booklet. The booklet contains a conversation about the work, conducted by and with a journalist, an art critic, and a writer. Unfortunately, there is no English translation in the booklet. However, I suspect that without added context, some of the details discussed by the trio might be difficult to understand for someone who is not from Germany.

In light of the glaring problems that Germany is facing right now, including especially the fact that the neofascist AfD party appears to have become the strongest political force in larger parts of East Germany, work like Felix Adler’s Deutschland im Herbst is essential, a much needed reminder that photographers can indeed play their part in trying to stem the far-right tide in their country.

With larger parts of Germany’s so-called conservative parties now openly embracing far-right talking points (“woke” etc.), Germans who have learned their lessons from their country’s past and who still believe in political decency will have to make themselves heard. It’s heartening to see many hundreds of thousands of Germans taking to the streets to protest against the neofacism in their midst.

More of Germany’s photographers might want to think about whether they can also contribute to efforts to sustain the very democracy that makes their work possible.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Ordinary Things]]> 2024-02-12T13:45:58Z 2024-02-12T13:45:58Z

The world of contemporary art photography (photoland) lives with a very basic contradiction. On the hand, it routinely belittles all those who are not part of it as shallow when they take photographs. If you want to believe most art critics and writers, selfies and photographs of food are signs of a complete lack of sophistication and class (which, and this is implied, exists in sheer abundance in photoland [it doesn’t]).

On the other hand, photoland often goes gaga over photographs taken by outsiders, given that they are unfettered by the many unnecessary restrictions and rules photolandians live with. A good example are the photographs taken by Corita Kent, now available in book form as Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us.

Before we proceed, a couple of small notes. First, Corita Kent was born as Frances Elizabeth Kent, became a nun (Sister Mary Corita Kent), and later returned to secular life as Corita Kent or simply Corita. Second, the photographs in question were taken not only by Sister Mary Corita Kent but also by others, including (then) Sister Mary Lenore (now Lenore Dowling). There is a short essay by Olivian Cha in the book with more details. When looking at the photographs, you do not want to focus on the aspect of authorship in the strict photolandian sense all that much, because you’d be missing most of the points made by Corita Kent during her life time.

Kent, Cha explains, “did not make prints from her slides or exhibit her photographs as artworks. She described them fore most as plentiful sources, precursory, exploratory, and meant to be shared: ‘Anything can be a source, even a mistake. The sorcery or the thievery is the art of relating sources into a new solution.'” (emphases in the original) By itself, this is not necessarily a very original approach — ever since photography was invented, (non-photographic) artists have treated it as a way to create source material.

That said, there is considerable visual wit in these photographs, which makes them very interesting to look at. If you only know the photographs and know nothing about Corita Kent’s art, it might not surprise you to learn that she was a very gifted maker of screenprints. She now is seen as an important pop artist. Many of the photographs in the book indeed are very graphic in the sense that they extract snippets of the world (often signage) to amplify the basic graphic elements therein.

Furthermore, there is a vast sense of wit and play in a lot of the photographs, something that I personally do not associate with the organisation that Corita Kent was a part of (the Catholic church) — until she was pushed out by some cardinal who frankly does not deserve to get any more attention, so I will ignore his name. Kent’s best revenge — even though I think she might not have seen it that way — was to later design a US stamp with the message “love”, which was sold hundreds of millions of times.

The photographs in Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us were taken in the 1950s and 60s, and they easily tie in with the counterculture that would blossom in the later part of that period — to then come crashing down. A little over ten years later, the election of Ronald Reagan would trigger the massive counter-revolution that we now have to live with. I have no way of knowing how the photographs would have been viewed around the time they were made or when they were used by Corita Kent in workshops and lectures.

Looking back and being mindful of the atmosphere that now pervades the US, one can’t help but almost feel nostalgic for the time depicted in the photographs — even if that nostalgia is in fact completely misplaced (as nostalgia always is). This brings me to the book itself, in particular the way it was designed and put together. I don’t know how the book would have been conceived when the pictures were made. I don’t have a time machine available to find out.

That all said, what bothers me is the fact that the book has basically turned the photographs and spirit of Corita Kent’s work into something you might find at Urban Outfitters: material to be consumed by well-off hipsters.

The book is trying way too hard to create something fun out of a collection of pictures that don’t need that help. Looking through the book, at every turn of the page I almost expected someone to pop up behind me, exclaiming “Haha! Get it? Such fun!” Yes, the pictures are fun, but please don’t hit me over the head with that.

Furthermore, the pictures are actually a lot more than merely fun. Their wit and playfulness have a lot to offer: they invite introspection and a re-discovery of one’s inner child. Unfortunately, the book’s relentless over-the-top effort to be fun itself gets in the way of a deeper and more meaningful engagement with Corita Kent’s core message.

Ordinary Things Will Be Signs For Us; photographs by Corita Kent; texts by Corita Kent and Olivian Cha; J&L Books/Magic Hour Press; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Laurie]]> 2024-02-16T14:45:02Z 2024-02-05T13:44:37Z

“The works on pages 13, 17, 21, 49, 51, 47, 49, 65 and 97 were made by my daughter Laurie,” writes Thomas Manneke in the very brief afterword in the colophon of his book Zillion (yes, 49 appears twice, possibly an oversight). If I have one complaint about the book (and it is just this one), it’s the title. A book like this, a book filled with playful photographs and wonderful portraits, ought to have a better title than Zillion. Unless zillion is also a word from a language other than English, a language I am not familiar with, and in that language its meaning conveys grace, wit, and joy.

Laurie, the photographer’s collaborator, also finds herself in front of her father’s lens in a series of portraits, some of them taken in domestic settings, some of them outside. Those with good visual memory might pick up on the visual echo in the cover photograph. It evokes a classic Dutch photobook that isn’t as well known outside of the Netherlands as it should be: Johan van der Keuken and Rempo Campert’s Achter Glas.

A fun fact as an aside: when I looked on YouTube if there is a video of the book, using “achter glas keuken”, I ended up with a string of videos intended for home renovations. “Keuken,” I believe, is “kitchen” in Dutch, and “achter” means “behind”. Between the Dutch home-repair videos and the ads I didn’t have the patience to locate a video of Achter Glas (assuming there is one). I’ll make one myself once I found my copy in the many moving boxes.

Regardless, even as the 1957 book contains a very different story, there is a shared photographic sensibility. This is interesting because when Van der Keuken took his pictures, he was a teenager who, I wager, was still mentally embroiled in the transition of the world of children to the world of adults. His portraits of friends and acquaintances are very stylish, but they’re also very tender.

Somehow, Manneke, who clearly is much older (it would seem that his daughter is about to face that threshold that Van der Keuken had just passed) managed to bring the same spirit to the photographs of Laurie. That’s really impressive.

I’m writing these words not merely as a critic but also as a photographer whose portraits always end up on the slightly unsettling side, even when the people in front of the camera are not that much older than Van der Keuken was in 1957. It’s not that I mind this fact — it works well for my work around fascism, but at times I do hope that I were able to make tender portraits.

Regardless (again! so many asides!), one of the portraits of Laurie (page 47) hits the Van der Keuken note most strongly. The young girl is looking at the camera, and with her left hand she is holding a little object (a shell? a piece of wood? a stone?) against her body, just below her neck. I know absolutely nothing about Laurie, but I see someone who knows about the transformative power of the camera. She exudes — or maybe would like to do so — a sense of confidence beyond her years. It’s incredibly charming — and vulnerable in the way that you can only be at that age.

The “works” referenced by Manneke in the quote I began this article with are constructions made with the intent to be photographed. Some of them were inspired by other artists’ works. That said, not all of the objects in the book were made to be photographed. Some were simply found and then subjected to the same treatment such as, for example, some foam packing material that while discarded in the street through Manneke’s camera becomes an object of intrigue.

Art is all around us, the book says, and where there is no art it can be made out of the simplest materials: take anything — some cardboard, some metal coils, some pieces of tape, and with a playful pair of hands a piece of art can be had quickly and easily. This is, of course, the world of children, even as they are not too concerned with art, or rather our adult way of thinking of art, a thinking devoid of playfulness and filled with shallow pretense.

Sometimes, you only find out that you had been waiting for something when it actually arrives. Certainly this was the case with Zillion for me. I had been waiting for this book — or for a book that would do what this one does.

Of late, photography has become such a joyless affair, for reasons that I can only speculate about. I will not do that in public, because people tend to get upset, and I don’t need that any longer in my life. Everything about it has become joyless: the making, the distributing, even the looking. Or maybe that’s just me (entirely possible). Maybe curators that put together those shows about some abstract extremely broad subject matter enjoy what they’re doing, and maybe the photographers who get included do, too.

It’s not even that I’m looking for escapism — quite on the contrary. Escapism could be easily had, I would just have to binge watch whatever it is that people currently are obsessed with. What I’m looking for, instead, is beauty.

Creating beauty appears to be such a minor activity. I maintain that it’s one of the most political acts of these times, given that the world the fascists are angling for right now is all kinds of things, but it’s not beautiful. And the fascists have no understanding of what beauty is. If you don’t believe me, just look at and listen to them!

So this book that at first glance would appear to be rather inconsequential — what do photographs of little pieces of art and of a young girl have to set against fascism? — ends up being very consequential after all. It’s a reminder of the fact that contrary to what we are being told left and right, beauty and love are the two things that make life worthwhile. Not power, not money, not dominance.

Zillion was made with love and a fine sense for beauty, and it is filled with love and a fine sense for beauty.

Highly recommended.

Zillion; photographs by Thomas Manneke; 112 pages; van Zoetendaal; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Gerry Johansson — The Beginnings]]> 2024-01-29T13:34:38Z 2024-01-29T13:34:38Z

Swedish photographer Gerry Johansson is widely known for his mastery of the square format. His square pictures typically cover some geographic region, ranging from countries to towns. They each are perfectly composed, combining extreme formal accuracy with incredible photographic wit. Many of the books with these photographs are simply organized alphabetically, with locale A coming before locale B etc.

But how did Johansson arrive there? Where is all of this coming from? For those curious, the answer is now provided in Coast to Coast, a publication that features photographs taken in the 1980s with a biographical text by the photographer himself. It would seem that the book came with a set of ten prints. However, a quick internet search tells me that it can also be bought separately from a number of booksellers (here’s an example).

I suspect that those interested in the history of American photography will have a field day with the narration in the book. Johansson discusses a number of visits to the US, starting with one in the early 1960s. During the following ones, he got in touch with and met a number of well-known photographers, including Garry Winogrand, Henry Wessel jr., Richard Benson, and others. Coast to Coast has receipts in the form of photographs taken at these encounters.

For me, the more interesting aspect was to read about the photographic work, even as I appreciated learning about the education (if you want to call it that) Johansson received. In 1983, the photographer set out on a cross-country road trip. Staying at motels, he would photograph during the day — with an 8×10 camera — and develop and print the results at night. “It was a simple process,” he writes, “I put the negative on the contact printing paper, placed a glass plate on top and turned on the room light for a good few seconds, developed and reviewed the print.”

If anything, it’s the sheer discipline that delivered the results — and that is, of course, the one lesson for photographers (or writers or anyone else): “Talent,” to quote the late, great James Baldwin, “is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”

Motel Prints is possibly too modest a title for the photographs in Coast to Coast. Whether or not these pictures are reproductions of the original motel prints isn’t clear to me. Based on the text — “The prints were by no means great, but good enough to view.” — I’m thinking they are not. In any case, the analogue silver-gelatin prints have been translated into pictures produced with ink on paper. And I really don’t want to geek out on print quality here, because that would take away from the essence of these photographs.

In obvious ways, the pictures show someone from outside the US finding visual attractions to take photographs of. By 1983, Johansson clearly had done a lot of looking at other people’s photographs to produce the occasional homage, whether to Walker Evans or anyone else. Those pictures are good.

But it’s the other pictures that are a lot more interesting, the photographs that speak of Johansson’s own unique mind. In essence, they are versions of the square photographs he is so well known for, with the frame extended by the 8×10 aspect ratio. As can be expected, every single picture is perfectly composed. A view camera will make you do that if you pay enough attention; and I wager that Johansson’s training as a graphic designer contributed its part.

I have attempted to describe what makes Gerry Johansson’s photography so exciting to me before. I’m not sure whether I have succeeded — I’m thinking I have not. Maybe it’s simply the fact that the visual wit appears to have done for nothing other than its own sake.

In other words, the mastery behind all of these photographs is only the tool it should be, a tool that, of course, has to be fully controlled. But I have never had the slightest impression that any of Johansson’s photographs wanted me to consider anything other than themselves: a way of looking at an often mundane world that brings out little glimmers of intense joy, even when you’re finding yourself in the most dreadful of visual circumstances.

That’s really the essence of this photographer. The world isn’t beautiful per se. The world simply exists, and it couldn’t care one bit about what we think about it. It’s up to us to view this world any which way we want (or are able to — those two aren’t necessarily the same). If you make the decision to find beauty in the world, then you can. One way, Johansson’s, is to embrace the idea that whatever beauty there is, it’s ours, the one we construct.

Every photograph by Gerry Johansson is a reminder that beauty, enjoyment, and contentment are entities in our minds. It is up to use to recognize and embrace this basic fact. And the key isn’t even so much to take photographs as proof — most of us will fail to reproduce this artist’s pictures (and what point would there be in trying to copy them anyway?). Whatever tool helps you get to a more content engagement with the world — whether a camera, a pen, even just a spot to sit down to look — will do.

Coast to Coast; photographs and text by Gerry Johansson; 48 pages; Imagebeeld Edition; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[A new view of photography]]> 2024-01-22T13:32:29Z 2024-01-22T13:32:29Z

Given that the world of photography has much more in common with the world of filmmaking than with the world of painting, one might as well ask why we treat photographers the way we treat painters and not like any of the people involved in the making of movies.

Instead, in the world of photography we pretend that photographers craft the outcome of their endeavour entirely on their own, regardless of any of the other people involved — in particular those in front of their cameras. It’s an absurd situation, and it’s time to move beyond such a simplistic approach to creating photographs — an approach that, we might note, comes with considerable grandstanding, which neither in the world of the so-called fine arts nor in the world of photojournalism reflects very well on the takers of the pictures.

This standard approach to photography has now come under attack from a number of fronts. There is Europe’s privacy law, known as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which owes its existence to the excesses of US social-media companies. The idea is simple: people have the right to own their own data. With limited exceptions, photographs fall under data (which makes perfect sense, especially since most photographs taken today are produced with digital cameras).

This idea poses a threat to the arts. Assuming we want to treat street photography as a form of art, if you can’t take pictures of strangers willy nilly, then isn’t that an assault on the arts? Well, kind of. It’s hard to see, though, why a niche occupation such as taking photographs for art purposes should be viewed as more important than the privacy rights of millions of people. Furthermore, there are exceptions: a number of countries have codified laws that create explicit exceptions for art-related photography.

Second, there is the growing realisation that since its very inception, photography has been a handmaiden of any number of utterly gruesome practices, whether it’s colonialism or outright genocide (the two aren’t mutually exclusive as a number of countries have demonstrated). If photography is an exploitative tool (which historically it has been and which it continues to be), then to treat it as if it were not simply is wrong, both ethically and morally.

Third, a number of companies recently have trained their so-called artificial-intelligence algorithms with other people’s photographs and other images without bothering to ask the authors for permission or offering remuneration. In a nutshell, the companies adopted the idea of appropriation and applied it on the grandest possible scale, ripping off thousands of people.

© Estate of Alberto Korda/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023; Slim Plantagenate/Alamy Stock Photo; REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo; John Birdsall/Alamy Stock Photo; J Marshall – Tribaleye Images/Alamy Stock Photo; Jordi Salas/Alamy Stock Photo; Michael Sparrow/Alamy Stock Photo; Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images; Mohamed Chabâa; Photo Justin McIntosh; GM Photo Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Historically speaking, the idea of artistic appropriation has always been problematic — mind you, not in the arts (with its often limited understanding of real-world ethics). Up until now, artists such as Richard Prince who have been able to successfully defend their practices in court mostly were able to do so because they were able to hire competent lawyers. That Prince could have simply licensed the images he used apparently never occurred to him.

But it’s one thing to rip off one artist — artists in general are anti-social creatures, so as long as they are not affected, they will not display much, if any, solidarity with a peer who has been. It’s quite another to rip off thousands of them: thousands of artists who don’t feel much solidarity with each other still are thousands of artists. As of the time of this writing, it’s not clear how any of the various court cases will play out.

The attentive reader will have picked up an underlying red thread, and that’s capitalism in the form of copyright and the legal system. In the end, photographic authorship is mostly discussed in legal terms. If you don’t feel solidarity with other artists and can’t expect any in return, the law is your only friend if someone steals your pictures, meaning your only chance to fight against that is to go to court.

The courts are stacked with legal experts who have limited understanding of the arts. They’re ill-equipped to deal with the issue of stealing pictures. Their best approach is to consider financial aspects, meaning if wealthy artist A rips off mostly unknown artist B, then, well, it’s appropriation (because, you see, artist B does not suffer from financial hardship as a consequence). As has always been the case, having money trumps having none.

American copyright law includes the idea of “transformative use”. But if even art experts are unable to decide whether something has been transformative or maybe transformative enough — how exactly do you quantify this? — then how are people outside of the field supposed to deal with this?

However you might feel about any of the aspects discussed above, it should be really clear that the idea of a photographer being the sole creator of their pictures can be a very limiting if not flawed idea. It can bump into any number of problems — unless maybe you’re photographing sticks and stones out in the wild, far away from other human beings. But even then someone might claim that your pictures look just like theirs.

Photos Frederick Douglass, John Chester Buttre, Mathew B. Brady, Samuel J. Miller, Lydia J. Cadwell, James Presley Ball

Thankfully, there now is a book that looks at photography using an expanded angle: Collaboration — A Potential History of Photography, authored by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler. The title — Collaboration — might strike you as a misnomer. My guess is that anyone looking at the book will pick some example and then ask “but how is this a collaboration?” What you want to do instead, though, is to use the book as a challenge to your ideas of what photography is and how it is being made.

After all, even if you take a photograph of a stranger without them noticing — let’s say you take your Leica for a walk to do street photography, then that stranger finds themselves in your picture. If you did this in Europe, the GDPR would tell you that now you own someone else’s data. Let’s assume that you are familiar with that, and you’re making efforts to rectify the situation. You could, for example, talk to the stranger after you took your picture and ask for permission. In that case, it’s easy to see how you could view the whole transaction as some form of collaboration.

Alternatively, you could decide not to do that. Ignoring the legal aspects here (which differ from country to country), you’d then be deciding to reject the idea of collaboration, placing you into the vast pool of photography that was and still is being made in an extractive fashion. You’ll find examples in the book.

Collaboration presents 115 different photography projects or groupings and places them into eight categories (here called “clusters”). The categories serve to give the overall idea structure, and they allow for the detection of patterns by a reader who might not have thought about the general topic before.

For each item in the book, you get to see examples of the photographs and a number of added texts. The texts include a brief essay by either the authors (who call themselves CoLab) and/or an outside experts. There typically also are words written or said by either the photographer and/or the person(s) in the photographs.

While each item discussed only gets a single spread, the breadth and richness of the material covered provides incredible rewards, in particular since the reach is global. If you’re only familiar with your standard Western photography, your eyes will be opened to a lot of other photography (and thinking).

Art Institute Chicago. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; National Gallery of Art, Washington. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; Philadelphia Museum of Art. Gift of Carl Zigrosser, 1975; National Gallery of Art, Washington. Alfred Stieglitz Collection; © The Irving Penn Foundation; Photo Ansel Adams. Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust; Todd Webb Archive, Portland, Maine

I might as well get the following out of the way: as a writer, I prefer to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dictum that what can be said at all can be said clearly. That’s not the case for some of the writing in the book. Especially the texts written by the main authors is filled with academic jargon that non-academics might find tedious (at best). I feel that the publisher might have been well advised to push for more accessible writing.

But I suppose that’s a small price to pay for what otherwise is an absolutely invaluable and essential book that, ideally, will find its way not only into the studios of photographers but especially into the classrooms of photography schools. From now on, anyone studying to get a masters will have no excuse any longer for not knowing that photography’s standard model of authorship is flawed.

The most exciting aspect of the book is the fact that it points out ways forward, regardless of who you are as a photographer. I suspect that every person looking through the book will be drawn to different material. Inevitably, there will be follow-up research: looking to find more information, based on what’s presented in the book.

In other words, even as the book is a rap on the knuckles for a world of photography that by and large has been too satisfied with itself to consider the place of a photographer in the world, there already exists a lot of work out there that can move each and every photographer forward (assuming there is interest — I realise that that’s not a given). And that’s what matters.

Highly recommended.

Collaboration — A Potential History of Photography; edited by Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Wendy Ewald, Susan Meiselas, Leigh Raiford, and Laura Wexler; photographs and texts by numerous authors; 288 pages; Thames & Hudson; 2024 (for the US edition)

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Packing My Library]]> 2024-01-08T13:18:56Z 2024-01-08T13:18:56Z

The other day, Collector Daily published their 2023 Photobook Review Statistics. Something like that had never occurred to me, even as it makes a lot of sense: looking back to see how you have done. What had occurred to me, though, and what I have been actively trying to do for a while now is to make sure that the books covered on this site come from a diverse background — as diverse as I can make it (what exactly this means I’ll get to below).

I immediately went through my Archive to do the counting and found that I had achieved what I had set out to do — making sure that photobooks by men do not outnumber everything else (in fact, they were in the slight minority last year).

I grew up in a society that was centered on fairness (that place doesn’t exist any longer — Germany has become brutally cold). It took me a long time to realize that the fairness in question was not actually applied equally. This took me a while because I tended not to run into unfairness. For me, a heterosexual man, things were always fair.

With time, I learned that many people did not and do not have the same experience. Even as I’m the kind of person who shouldn’t complain, I still feel cheated by the society I grew up in. After all, fairness is only fair if it applies equally, no ifs and buts. Otherwise, I don’t know what it is; for sure it’s not fairness.

I still believe in fairness.

When I started compiling/writing what would become this site two decades ago, it didn’t occur to me until quite a bit later that I needed to do something about fairness as well. If I merely continued what I was doing, I’d continue building a site dominated by men from a very small section of the world. That’s not only not fair to all of those who aren’t in that group; it’s also profoundly boring. So I set out to fix things. I cringe looking through my very early archive of material, given how unfair it is. I decided not to delete it simply because I need to have it as a reminder for myself to do better.

A few years ago, I was invited to contribute to How We See: Photobooks by Women. There should have never been the need to compile that book. Women should have always been treated equally. The same is obviously true for all those who do not neatly fit into the simple spectrum of Western life that what we call tradition has provided us with.

And yet, here we are.

I don’t know when exactly it was, but by that time I had also decided to try to plan what I cover here by at least trying to make sure the aforementioned disparity from this site’s very early incarnation would stop. As a consequence, thinking about which books to review has become a lot more complex.

I will always review books that I really like, books that I want to have in my house with that greedy possessiveness of someone who is in love. But that’s just a small fraction of the books I actually review. There are a lot of other books I have respect for, and those might get reviewed. Occasionally, I will even review a book that I don’t like, simply because in photoland, we are not even remotely critical enough (plus, writing a negative review often results in much more insight).

On top of all of that sits my idea of fairness. Who made a book I am being offered? What are their life circumstances? Where is that person located? What is that book talking about? There are some themes or areas that I gravitate to. These include Germany and its extremely troubling past or Japan.

Beyond those, there are some broader ideas. For example, I am trying to cover photography coming from the parts of Europe that before 1989 were basically under Soviet occupation. The Iron Curtain might be gone in a physical sense, but I maintain that for many West Europeans (and Americans) it still exists mentally. For many Germans, say, a country like Latvia is still completely strange whereas Luxembourg isn’t. Consequently, a photographer from Latvia would still have a harder time getting seen than someone from Luxembourg. That isn’t fair.

If you’re wondering where all this introspection is coming from, it’s not the New Year. I personally couldn’t care less for some random date change. Instead, it’s the fact that right now, I am sitting in a room filled with boxes. Inside these boxes are stacks of my books. In a few days, I’m going to be moving.

Coincidentally, just after finding the Collector Daily article I mentioned above, I also looked through the stack of books that I still might review. With one exception, all of them are by men. This brings me to another aspect of this, namely the factors that I cannot control. I’m not independently wealthy, meaning I can’t just buy any book I want to cover. Every once in a while, I will do that, finances and interest allowing.

Instead, many publishers (and occasionally photographers) offer me their books for review. From what is being offered I pick material that I might cover. And then I schedule it in such a fashion that over the time span of maybe four to eight weeks, things are pretty even in terms of diversity.

But there is another aspect. Even if I had all the money in the world, I’d still be at the mercy of what publishers decide to produce. After all, I can only review what is being published. Over the past few years, some publishers have gone out of their way to make their offerings more diverse. Others have not. My gut feeling tells me that by and large, there still are many more books published by men than women. And the disparity extends from there to any other aspect you can think of.

If you’re reading these words and you are a photobook publisher, maybe look at your catalogue. I’m not talking about the quality of the work you publish. I’m sure that’s all great work (even as you and I might disagree about that).

But what about diversity?

Do you publish roughly as many men as women?

If not — why not?

I don’t have to strain myself at all to think of publishers that overwhelmingly publish men. How can that be? How’s that fair?

Do you publish books by photographers with a large variety of skin tones?

If not — why not?

Do you publish books by photographers who struggle making ends meet?

If not — why not?

Do you look at regions or topics that aren’t discussed all the time?

If not — why not?

Do you pay attention to those who have a harder time getting seen?

If not — why not?

I could ask a lot more questions, but I think you got my point.

At some stage in his life, Walter Benjamin wrote an article about unpacking his library. I don’t know whether this communicated, but I think for me, the intellectually more fertile period of time is the one now, the one where I’m packing my library. This not only entails giving away books I haven’t looked at in a long time, it also has me think about my choices — and about fairness.

As much as I detest the term for its all-too-frequent use in high-falutin bullshit art speak, sitting in the middle of boxes packed with books, while the rest is still waiting to be boxed up, is the ultimate form of engaging with liminality, of being neither fully here nor there. Even as it’s nerve-wracking, it’s a good space to be in — for my thoughts.

It had and still has me thinking about fairness because the presence of every book is the presence of a person’s voice given physical form.

And all of these voices add up to the brutality of the fact that this choir has too many voices in the lower registers.

That’s not fair.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Was Ray a Laugh?]]> 2023-12-25T15:52:42Z 2023-12-25T15:52:42Z

Ray, Richard Billigham’s father, is a laugh — according to the title of the book (Scalo 1996; there’s an early 2024 re-release in modified form by MACK). It says so right on the cover, which shows his blurry face.


Richard’s description of his pictures can be found on the back cover: “This book is about my close family. My father Raymond is a chronic alcoholic. He doesn’t like going outside and mostly drinks homebrew. My mother Elizabeth hardly drinks but she does smoke a lot. She likes pets and things that are decorative. They married in 1970 and I was born soon after. My younger brother Jason was taken into care when he was 11 but is now back with Ray and Liz again. Recently he became a father. Ray says Jason is unruly. Jason says Ray’s a laugh but doesn’t want to be like him.”


So it was Jason, Richard’s brother, who said that Ray was a laugh. It’s a jarring title once you start looking at the photographs.


From 1949 until 1961, there existed a radio show on the BBC entitled Ray’s a Laugh. The star of the show was comedian Ted Ray. Ray (the comedian) was billed as a laugh. I would have to ask someone in Britain, in particular someone who experienced the mid-1990s, to find out whether the show would still have been known over three decades after it ended. Maybe it was just a convenient enough title for the book. Regardless, now Ray, the father, is a laugh.


I felt squeamish about the cruelty in Masahisa Fukase’s Kazoku. Richard’s photographs do not leave me unaffected, either. In Fukase’s case, I have severe misgivings about the cruelty and about openly making a mockery of the family using carefully staged studio photographs. Billingham’s pictures, in contrast, are taken from real life using cheap snapshot cameras. I wouldn’t know this for a fact, but I’m pretty certain that Richard did not ask his alcoholic father to sit on the floor next to a grimy toilet bowl. He saw the scene and took the picture. That’s a different kind of cruelty than Fukase’s.


I don’t want to be slicing and dicing ideas of cruelty here, but I needed to point that out.


Maybe when I said that Billingham and Fukase employed different kinds of cruelty, what I really meant was that their cruelty manifested in different ways. After all, in his book Memories of Father, Fukase mostly photographed the way Billingham did.


As I said, from the photograph I have no way of knowing whether Billingham found his father sitting next to the toilet. I have no reason to believe that that’s not what happened. In the other photographs, frequent drinking is on view. Ray was an alcoholic.


Alcoholism — now called Alcohol Use Disorder — might look and act out like a social disorder, but it’s not. It’s a disorder that requires medical attention.


Much like Fukase presenting his frail, ailing old father like prey in front of a studio camera, Billingham’s snapshot of Ray does nothing to enhance the older man’s dignity but everything to lower it. Ray has hit rock bottom. It would seem that he hit rock bottom a long time ago, and there no way out.


Why do I need to look at Billingham’s photographs of Ray? I have been entranced by the book ever since I first saw it. For a while, it was not easy to come by. Originally published in the 1990s, it had been out of print. It took me years to find a used copy that cost not much more than my spending limit of $100 for single books. Until the book arrived, I had seen it only in reproduction. The thrill of being able to see the actual book was immense, and I was immediately in awe of the visceral power of most of the photographs. At the same time, I also found myself even very conflicted by my admiration of these very good photographs of often very terrible scenes of domestic squalor and neglect with their strong undercurrent of emotional violence.


“When you’re taking photos, put yourself in the position of the weakest.” Kazuo Kitai remembers that he received this piece of as advice from Ihei Kimura, one of the widely acknowledged and admired masters of Japanese photography.


Just now, I realise that Fukase and Billingham might have seen themselves as being in the position of the weakest person. After all, they were the sons who had to deal with being their father’s offsprings. Fukase remembered in the afterword of Kazoku:“I was terrified of my father as a child. He had an extremely short temper, and he would fly into rages at the slightest thing.”


Even as a camera gives you considerable power — you literally get to shape how other people will be seen, it is very difficult for many photographers to be mindful of it, in particular when being confronted with the power a father figure seems to exert (even if in reality that power might have now waned if not outright disappeared).


As viewers, we pick up on being confronted with a person that Kimura would have described as the weakest. Or maybe we pick up on what a photographer decided to do with such a situation. Photography has a funny way of muddying these waters. In the case of Fukase’s and Billingham’s pictures, I’m finding myself siding with the vulnerable fathers. I’m finding myself admonishing the sons for their photographic choices.


There’s a problem: I’m taking a side. Kimura’s advice might be good and useful when a photographer takes pictures of strangers. But in a family setting, things become infinitely more complicated: the photographer is part of the family. In the case of the sons, it was them who were first subjected to their fathers’ whims, however much or little those fathers were aware of what they were doing. The sons’ hurt is real, and it came before any of the pictures were taken. There is a cause-and-effect relationship that connects the hurt and the pictures. That relationship can never be disentangled in a satisfying manner. Thus by taking a side, even as (I think) I mean well and regardless of how spontaneous that act might be, I’m pretending (or hoping) that as an outsider I am able to disentangle a very complex situation.


Ray’s alcoholism was an illness. But explanations aren’t excuses. In any case how would one go about connecting them? Could Ray’s alcoholism serve as an excuse for the situation his wife and sons ended up in? The brokenness of the alcoholic man’s life must not get in the way of trying to understand the brokenness of his partner’s and descendants’ lives.


“Something I’ve come to realise,” Joanna Cresswell tells me in an email, “is that blame is sometimes unlocatable. In general, the only part I struggle with is the idea of any ‘sides’… All I really see is people hurting each other in human ways.”


Hurting each other in human ways.


Now, I realise that while I take sides, I also find myself wanting to differentiate between Sukezo Fukase and Ray Billingham, the two fathers, or rather the situations they found themselves in, when they faced their sons’ cameras. Sukezo’s old age simply was a part of life itself, whereas Ray’s alcoholism was an illness. I feel sorry for both of them, but in different ways.


“But pity is an ugly emotion to stomach,” Joanna continues, “and perhaps pity in itself can be cruel.”


Joanna’s words helped me see how conveniently easy it was for me to write that I would have wished for more forgiveness from these sons photographing their fathers. I have no emotional attachment to any of those families. I only have what is being created by and through the photographs I’m looking at. Consequently, I have to be honest with myself. If I demand more forgiveness from these sons photographing their fathers, then I have to demand the same amount of forgiveness from myself when I think about my own father. I am not better or more virtuous than these sons. We all just ran away when we could. But they went back with their cameras to take pictures. I never did. Instead, up until I made myself write down these words I preferred not to deal with anything.


Now, I’m writing about other people’s fathers and pictures and hurt as if somehow I were able to pick things apart from afar and with the added hindsight of time having passed.


What am I even doing here?


“My father. Where to begin?” asks Joanna.


My father. Where to begin?


As I noted, my reaction to Billingham’s work of Ray is made more complicated by the sheer fact that despite their raw, gritty nature, the photographs are so compelling. There is a photograph of Ray throwing the cat. Sitting in a fold-out beach chair in his living room, the camera has caught Ray right after the cat went flying. In the picture, the animal appears to be levitating above him, harshly illuminated by the flash of the camera but not in any visible distress. The photograph possesses all the short drama of life, while capturing it in the best possible way. It looks like a snapshot, and yet it also is the perfect snapshot — the lucky moment when everything aligns as if it had been carefully laid out that way. Everything is in just the right spot.


(I need to believe that it was a lucky shot and not the result of repeated throwing for the sake of a picture.)


You could see the casual performance of a minor act of cruelty towards an animal that was caught in this picture as proof that Ray was indeed a laugh. It’s easy to imagine one of the sons having a beer in a pub with his mates, retelling the story, and sharing a laugh. I will have to admit, though, that even as I like the picture very much, I don’t see the act caught in it as evidence of Ray being a laugh. Instead, I feel repelled by the man or rather by the kind of man he was in that moment. Cruelty towards animals, even the seemingly inconsequential kind, is not funny.


Looking and re-looking at all of these photographs, again and again I’m asking myself how I can cast judgment on these photographers/sons and their decisions what to do and what not to do. There is, after all, what I do and mostly not do while dealing with my own father. I am unable to say that I am particularly proud of being very curt in the occasional brief exchanges with him. But I am also unable to say that I am making an attempt to change the dynamic.


I used to think that for a situation between two people to change, it would have to be up to both – and not just to one – to own up to their respective behaviour that had them end up where they are. Now, I’m not so sure any longer. Or rather, I have come to realise that there is one person whose behaviour I can change, and that person is me. Even if the situation will not change, I now know that bearing a grudge does nothing for my own personal good.


Secure your own oxygen mask first, they tell you during the safety instructions on an airplane, before helping others.


For now, the photographs I am looking at here aren’t bringing me much closer to what I want to figure out.


There is the added complication that photographs tempt the viewer to offload all their judgment onto those involved, whether the persons in the pictures or the photographers who took them. This mechanism is particularly pronounced in the case of photographs of atrocities or similar extreme situations. For example, in 1993, Keith Carter took a photograph of a young child in (now South) Sudan who was trying to reach a United Nations feeding centre. The child looks terribly starved. Hunched over all on all fours, his head low to the ground, the scene is terrible enough, were it not for the presence of a vulture that sits nearby, eyeing the possible prey. After the photograph was published in the New York Times, the newspaper was compelled to publish a special editorial. It addressed some of the questions it had been made to face. “Many readers have asked about the fate of the girl. The photographer reports that she recovered enough to resume her trek after the vulture was chased away. It is not known whether she reached the center.” Much later, in 2011, it was revealed that the child actually had been a boy named Kong Nyong and that he had been taken care of. In 1994, the photograph won a Pulitzer Prize. A fierce discussion over the photograph erupted: was it right to take these kinds of pictures? Was this not, and yes, that is the term used, “poverty porn”, the photographic glorification of poverty? Four months after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Carter took his own life. Even if his photograph has nothing to do with the ones I have been look at here, all of these pictures have arisen from someone making the decision to take them. As outside viewers, we have no way of knowing what else happened in the particular situation. Photographs reduce the complexity of life (and death) down to the few traces captured in them. And as viewers, we find ourselves tempted to conclude that that’s all there was, that Billingham found Ray next to the toilet, took a picture, and walked away or that Carter found a vulture sitting next to Kong Nyong, took a picture, and walked away. We don’t really know that. Carter later revealed that he had chased the culture away. But for us viewers, we only have the pictures, which means the fact that they were taken and the facts that they visually reveal (or that we think that they reveal). I have looked at and written about photographs for a long time now. Still, I find myself making this same shortcut to what I believe to be a valid conclusion again and again.


The violence of an image always shortcuts our critical thinking, at least initially. The violent facts depicted in it take precedence over everything else. If we’re not careful, they will drive us to the wrong conclusions.


I envy Joanna who writes that “Billingham’s pictures broke my heart. They aren’t beautiful, and I still wince a little when I look at them, but I love them because they showed me a form of acceptance and creative redemption I had never seen before.” I wish I could see the form of acceptance she is able to see.


Joanna also writes: “We are the ugly parts of ourselves as much as the polished ones.” What then am I having problems with in Billingham’s pictures? Is it the fact that he is airing out a laundry that part of me feels shouldn’t be made to be seen? Or is it the fact that these pictures remind me too much of the ugly parts of myself?


Maybe it is the fact that unlike Joanna, I don’t allow the work to break my own heart?


In other words, am I attempting to reason myself out of my corner by approaching all of these pictures as a critic — and not as a son? (As if it were possible to separate the two.)


Richard re-created the family life depicted in his book in the form of a movie entitled Ray & Liz (2018). The internet movie site IMDB describes the film as follows: “Photographer Richard Billingham returns to the squalid council flat outside of Birmingham where he and his brother were raised, in a confrontation and reconciliation with parents Ray and Liz.” It’s easy to see how making the movie is a form of confrontation, a confrontation with facts, though, less with people, namely the facts of his life as a child and adolescent. The reconciliation aspect might be present through the act of making the movie itself — and not so much through anything shown in it.


Whatever might be the case, it’s this aspect that is holding me back when dealing (or rather not dealing) with my own parents. I am still working on mentally reconciling the facts of my own upbringing with what I wish they should have been. Obviously, there is no way that reconciliation can ever happen until I fully accept that differences sometimes cannot and need not be overcome and that living with differences is possible. Mentally, now that I’m firmly into the sixth decade of my life, I have understood that this is the case. Emotionally, I’m not quite there, yet.


“With the photographs I tried to make them as truthful as I could and hopefully that element overcomes any exploitative element,” Richard is quoted as saying in a long article about the movie that appeared in The Guardian two years before it was released. “I think there was a warmth to them.” I’ve looked at the photographs many times. I’m unable to pick up on that warmth.


Often, we see in pictures not what they show but rather what we want to see.


“I just hated growing up in that tower block,” Billingham said. “I didn’t like being unable to walk out of the door. You had to get in the lift and people would piss and shit in the lift and spit on the walls. You had to be careful never to lean on anything.” Even as the pictures don’t show the lift, I can see his visceral dislike of the living conditions in the pictures.


Once Ray & Liz had been released to some acclaim, there was another article in The Guardian. “Up until their premature deaths about a decade later,” Tim Adams writes, “Billingham’s parents were mostly oblivious to the fact that they had generated a Turner prize nomination and global gallery fame.” I might as well ask how the parents could have possibly understood what the Turner prize means or how galleries operate (and who frequents them). I’m thinking, though, that they might have had feelings about mostly well-off people looking at the circumstances of their living and about the open depiction of Ray’s alcoholism. Of course, the moment you make art based on your own and your nearest relatives’ personal lives, there is the simple fact that a lot of strangers might not only see it but come to their own conclusions.


“We are walking upon eggs,” T.P. Thompson wrote in 1859, “the omelet will not be made without the breaking of some.”


“Jason [the brother] often says to me now that, statistically, we should either be in prison or dead or homeless,” Billingham tells Tim Adams.


A life lived, whether it’s one’s own or somebody else’s, is too complex for anyone to arrive at simple conclusions. “Well, I had to look after myself, I suppose,” Billingham says,“[a]nd it’s the parents’ job, isn’t it, to look after the little one?” Yes, it is, even if, as appears to have been the case here and in much different circumstances in my own upbringing, the parents are incapable of doing it in a way that the children later deem adequate.


I suppose it comes down to the following. It’s one thing to try to hold your parents accountable when you feel that they were insufficiently attentive to your needs when you were a child. Probably a lot of children have that feeling about their parents. There might have been material shortcomings or emotional ones, the latter maybe in the form of a lack of support. Who knows. But it’s quite another thing to make that the subject of your art when it is then supposed to go out into the world. At least that’s the thought I come back to time and again, possibly also in part because in the society I grew up in, private problems are not supposed to be aired out in public.


Whenever being confronted with a piece of art that challenges a person, I always consider whether an artist is punching up or down. This idea introduces some relativity into my ethics of looking, a relativity that first and foremost challenges me: why would it be OK to punch in this case, when it’s not OK in that other case? Inevitably, coming to a conclusion will still leave me somewhat unsatisfied, given that I mind the fact of the punching, regardless of where it happens. Still, in the context of art, there also are the wider circumstances in which it is happening, which here means galleries or museums often frequented only by the well off, or expensive art books made for that same audience. There is an inherent violence to this aspect of class that the world of art typically prefers not to discuss. There is violence in well-off people looking at photographs of other, radically less well-off people. I find it difficult to justify exposing those who have less and who in general are also very much aware of that fact to the eyes of those who have a lot more. And it is this particular aspect that bothers me in the case of Richard’s photographs of Ray and Liz, even if I cannot and will not deny that his own coming to terms with the very situation depicted in them is important for him. After all, you could say the same thing about all of these words. So maybe my being conflicted here simply reflects that fact that the further I proceed in this investigation, the more I find myself challenging this endeavour. But I must proceed, not only because it’s possible that I am very wrong about all of this. It’s also possible that pushing through what right now looks like a solid wall might actually teach me more than I am able to imagine right now.

The above is a slightly edited excerpt from the manuscript of my unpublished book Memories of Fathers.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Claire Dederer’s Monsters]]> 2023-12-18T13:20:15Z 2023-12-18T13:20:15Z

Every once in a while (and it’s typically a long while), a book comes along that blows my mind. Typically (and maybe that’s why it’s a long while), such a book offers me more than merely cerebral insight (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Three of the four books that were able to do over the course of the past five years that were written by women. The former scientist in me knows that four books is a small data set, meaning that any conclusions arrived at from this number stand on shaky ground. And yet…

I’m not well enough informed about writing, whether the fiction or non-fiction kind, to make pronouncements that are more than hunches. As a person, I like my hunches, even often enough they are completely wrong. As a writer, I like my hunches, too, but I tend to edit them out: you want to write what you write from a position of certainty because you take your reader seriously.

That’s bad writing, though, isn’t it? Did you notice the switch from “I” to “you”? Occasionally, a “we” might pop in.

Maybe given that I never properly learned how to write — I didn’t go to any writing program and thus should be considered an abject amateur — I mustn’t assume that all writers take their readers seriously. If writers think like photographers, some of them actually might not. But that’s not my concern, because you… I have to write following my own instincts, following what is true to me, the consequences be damned.

Those consequences might then have more to do with myself — not the writer self but the person self (and no, those two are not necessarily identical at all). But I might also arrive at conclusions that have the potential to be uncomfortable for readers.

Claire Dederer decided to write a book about the people she calls monsters. In fact, we all might call them that. We all know the monsters, even if we might not apply that label. The monsters are famous artists who created widely admired pieces of art and who in their private lives engaged in terrible conduct.

The Prologue in Monsters (subtitled A Fan’s Dilemma) is entitled The Child Rapist, and the heading on top gives a name: Roman Polanski. If you had any doubt about what’s going to come in the book, that’s being brushed aside swiftly.

How does one or maybe should one deal with art made by terrible people? Can one still enjoy a movie by Roman Polanski, given all that’s known about him? Especially after the somewhat recent Me Too explosion, this topic has become widely discussed, (inevitably) leading to its own backlash. How do you deal with this?

The problem is easy to deal with when the person in question has never produced anything you enjoy. For example, I’m not into his movies, so it’s very easy for me to simply ignore Woody Allen. There’s no work that I possibly have to re-evaluate.

But I am fascinated with the work of Joseph Beuys, who now is very much tainted  (Dederer uses “stained” in her book) by all of I read in a massive biography written about him (I’m not sure it has been translated into English). It’s easy to suspect that much like Neo Rauch, were he alive today Joseph Beuys would probably seek the company of far-right people, making dark pronouncements about today’s Germany.

These would be in line with the kind of utterings produced by someone like Ernst Jünger, a far-right writer who became well known for a novel that glorified the mass slaughter during World War 1. Jünger was far to the right, but he wasn’t a Nazi. The Nazis simply were too uncouth for him (this didn’t prevent him for serving them anyway as an officer in occupied Paris). When someone told me about Jünger’s writing, I read that book in question and thought it was pretentious, unreadable nonsense. Problem solved. For me anyway.

But it’s not so easy at all to solve the problem when there is something at stake for yourself: when you like the work but dislike the person. And that’s what Dederer dives into deftly.

“We tell ourselves we’re having ethical thoughts,” Dederer writes relatively early in the book (p. 24), “when really we’re having moral feelings.” These two entities are italicized, and they provide the nexus around which large parts of the following 233 pages circle.

It’s easy… Relatively easy… Well, we can at least have some sort of discussion around ethical thoughts because by definition ethics are communal, and thoughts and speech are connected.

Morality also is communal, but here, things become a lot more complicated. I mean what’s the difference anyway: morality vs ethics? Right? But anyway, the real problem is the feelings part. We all have them, whether we admit them or not. We all have some capacity to share them, even as that capacity can be severely underdeveloped (especially if you grow up as a man in a patriarchal society).

How do you reconcile that which can be spoken of easily (even if that speaking might contain any number of actually pretty bad elements, whether bad faith, virtue signaling, or whatever else) and that which cannot be spoken of easily at all?

And how do you even go about writing a book about a problem that sits at this very intersection of thought and feeling and that deals with art, maybe the one communal source of joy we have left, now that the combination of neoliberalism and neofascism have so severely degraded our democracies and societies?

Read Monsters! That’s how you do it.

I don’t necessarily want to discuss too many of the many, many details discussed in the book. To begin with, I don’t want to take away any of your enjoyment. Yes, I said it: while the book tackles a terribly complicated subject that contains gruesome human behaviour, it is incredibly enjoyable to read. At just the right moments, Dederer manages to throw in humourous curveballs — lest you choke on the general awfulness you might have just encountered.

But there also is the enjoyment of reading things that you maybe suspected or thought, and yet never heard anyone else say or write. “Part of the reason so much attention has been trained on men like Picasso and Hemingway,” Dederer writes, “is exactly because they’re assholes. We are excited by their asshole-ness. Wasn’t that what we saw with Trump?” (p. 109) This is from the chapter on geniuses, which is worth the price of the book alone for its insight.

There is a flip side to toxic masculinity (“genius”) and patriarchy, and that’s what women have to experience if they aspire to enter the world of art. Making art requires a considerable commitment, and that commitment often comes at the expense of all those who live around the artist. In a long and searing chapter, Dederer dives into what women have to deal with, women who might or might not have children and who thus have the added commitment of motherhood. Do you become a monster when you focus on your art — instead of your children?

This is subject matter that I have no experience with whatsoever. I decided not to have children because I suspected that I would be a very bad father. Of course, now I know a lot more about myself than I knew a couple of decades ago. But at times, I still find myself thinking that were I to have a child right now, I would be a bad father, given that I’m giving preference to something that good fathers know to avoid (I’m writing this article on a Saturday morning for crying out loud!).

Obviously, being a father is different than being a mother, and I can’t tell to what extent the chapter on motherhood and art will resonate with women. I suspect, though, that it will ring many bells — much like all the other chapters as well.

I’m not going to tell you about the conclusion (if that’s the word) Dederer arrives at in the book. You’ll have to read if yourself, in part because the real insight you will gain from the book is not so much the conclusion (which is brilliantly frustrating and insightful at the same time) as the way this author leads you through this impossibly complicated maze.

As you’re reading along Claire Dederer’s exploration of ethical thoughts and moral feelings, you realize that right at those moments, you’re growing as a person. At least I thought so (but hey, maybe as usual I’m just desperately trying to kid myself).

One last thought: it would be a real shame if after reading the book someone would still come away with the idea that there are those monsters, and then there’s the rest of us. In some ways, we all are monsters, even if some monstrosity obviously is a lot worse. We need to learn how to navigate that continuum.

Given that we approach all of this with ethical thoughts and moral feelings, and given that even in situations which aren’t about monstrous people, those two usually are not being made to speak to one another, too often discussions in the world of photography fall short. Just take, for example, all those discussions around appropriation and how none of those ever go anywhere — leading them inevitably to the courts (those are not the places where art should be discussed).

In much the same fashion, terrible art can be made by OK people. And terrible people can make lousy art. We all know. (I don’t want to give any examples, because almost inevitably the fact that I mention someone and their work will overshadow everything I wrote here.) In those situations, the insight provided by Claire Dederer in Monsters can also help.

We need smarter — and by that I mean a lot more considered — discussions in the world of photography, and we’re not going to get them until people will understand and deal with the conflicts between ethical thoughts and moral feelings.

Furthermore, in the end, it’s not so much about the art in question anyway. It’s all about us.

Oh well, I gave away the conclusion after all.

What a brilliant book!

Very highly recommended.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[how shall we greet the sun]]> 2023-12-11T13:13:14Z 2023-12-11T13:13:14Z

We have to think of the photographer as her own subject in Thana Faroq’s how shall we greet the sun. For most photographers, this would be an impossible approach to take — doesn’t the camera allow hiding away your own sorrows behind that little opto-mechanical barrier that you put between yourself and your “subjects”?

While for many photographers that approach — the hiding away — is an easy and convenient cop out, this particular one does not have that option available. Having left her home land under circumstances many people will (hopefully) never have to experience and living a new life far away, in a country that while hospitable is filled not only with welcoming people but also with the likes of Geert Wilders: Neanderthalian neofascists, Faroq now faces exile in what might or might not remain a safe space.

And there are others like Faroq: women ejected from their homes, to arrive in a different environment, an environment that exchanges some problems for others. In how shall we greet the sun, we get to see some of them, some photographed against the sea, the wind blowing about their hair and clothes, some photographed in the woods. It’s very clear that theirs is a shared experience, and the women act as stand ins for the photographer herself.

There is a little envelope at the very end of the book that contains a small folded up note. “I write,” part of it reads, “because I don’t know things with absolute certainty and I often find myself in a position of digging and unburrying. [sic!]” The note saddened me a little bit because to me it came across as asking readers and viewers for permission to rely as much on text as the book does. In my experience, most photographers are reluctant to write; when they do, they often speak of their discomfort with it.

But I wish that I still had the ability to approach writing the way Thana Faroq does in this book. There is text, ample text, and for me, it’s the text that creates the book’s explosive power. The writing is raw and visceral, it’s filled with hurt, it shows someone at their most vulnerable. It’s the kind of writing that professional writers have to re-learn after years of experience with craftily putting together words for effect. It’s the real thing, and it unfolds over many pages in how shall we greet the sun, interlaced with blocks of photographs.

The above is not to intended to say that there is a problem with the photographs. No, they work very well, and their use is very effective. Towards the final third of the book, the sequence alludes to a ride back to the city at the end of the day, a day possibly spent with someone making pictures somewhere in the woods or near the ocean. As the sun sets, we enter an apartment that is solely illuminated by whatever light is still available outside.

As a viewer, you immediately feel that this is a feminine space. By that I mean that it’s a space where vulnerability and feeling are not hidden away by male bravado and denial. Instead, vulnerability and feeling infuse the space as the camera stays very close to what it intends to capture. The sense of fragility is almost too hard to bear.

But I do think that this particular section — without which the book would not even remotely work as well — has been charged up by all the words that precede it. As a writer, I’d say that there certainly are different voices (or maybe positions) in Faroq’s text. Ordinarily, seeing a writer go back and forth between different kinds of authority — the personal or professional one — would be muddying the waters. However here, the mix vastly contributes to the overall effect.

It’s one thing to be lost, and we might all know it in one way or another — even if our experiences of what it means to be lost can and will of course differ immensely. But it’s quite another to accept being lost and to make work out of it and about it. That takes courage — certainly for a photographer, because it requires to put down the camera and face yourself. Anyone can point a camera at a stranger. But to face yourself? That’s so hard!

I’m in awe of the courage it must have taken to make this book. In a world of photography that too often celebrates the supposed bravado of machismo, we desperately need a lot more work that is gentler and that does not paper over our individual and collective hurts. After all, we will only be able to attend to these hurts if we accept them and if we understand that rawness and true vulnerability are what it takes to be open to the world.

“I believe,” Faroq writes, “that the ambiguity of emotions doesn’t mean the absence of them. It just means that it’s hard to describe them.” And: “We have to put our pasts on mute mode.”

Obviously, these words specifically address the situation Faroq and the many women in the book found themselves in. But I do think that in a completely different fashion, collectively we have also become refugees from our own emotions — to the extent that larger numbers of us now project their own hurt onto others and then for the Geert Wilders types: fascist brutes who promise salvation but only deliver evil (that always comes at the expense of others).

If we want to have any chance to break this cycle of violence, then we have to bring ourselves back to our own hurt and switch off the mute mode Faroq wrote about. And in the world of photography, I see this as the best model to break the still dominant machismo with its cheap and by now very trite posturing.

Remember, “the ambiguity of emotions doesn’t mean the absence of them.” Facing ambiguity certainly pays off, as how shall we greet the sun demonstrates. Remaining in the space where ambiguity reigns brings its own rich rewards.

Highly recommended.

how shall we greet the sun; photographs and text by Thana Faroq; 168 pages; Lecturis; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Koechlin House]]> 2023-12-04T13:18:48Z 2023-12-04T13:18:48Z

The problem with taking pictures of architecture, a well known photographer once told me, is that someone else’s work (the architect’s) typically is calling too much attention to itself. Unless your target audience consists of architects or people interested in architecture I can easily see how that’s a major problem for a photographer, in particular the more idiosyncratic the building in question might be.

I know next to nothing about architecture so I might be forgiven when I write that the Koechlin House looks as if its architects had been unable to decide whether they wanted to build an air-raid shelter or an aquarium. They appear to have compromised on a mix of both, producing a building that features ample amount of concrete and large windows at the same time. How such a building could possibly be homey I have no way of knowing. Maybe one would have to have a radically different idea of what the word “homey” means to be comfortable in such a setting. Or maybe homey is too petite bourgeois a concept in this context.

Regardless, the house is indeed being lived in, as becomes clear from the photographs in Daisuke Hirabayashi‘s Koechlin House. Hirabayashi is a Japanese architect and photographer, and I’m intrigued by that combination. As a writer and photographer, I am aware of how being deeply immersed in both contains both huge potential and equally huge pitfalls. As I said, I don’t know anything about architecture. But it might be a good assumption to say that being an architect and a photographer involves similar struggles — maybe even more so, given that by construction, architecture has a large visual component to it (whereas words have not).

My attempts to learn Japanese involve cramming kanji, the characters (let’s call them that) borrowed from Chinese. There are thousands of them, and each one might involve different readings and pronunciations. But kanji also allow you access to some cultural aspects that are contained in Japanese.

In my beginners’ kanji book, number 49 is , which on its own can be read as either ie or uchi. It means house or home. You can find the character used in the word 家族 (kazoku), which means family (if you have a copy of Masahisa’s family book in your collection, you will have seen this on the cover). If you think about it, that’s interesting: the word for family contains the element of home. Or house. Well, no, because when you think about family, you wouldn’t think about the house it lives in, would you? You would think about the home.

Architects build houses, and those living in them make them their homes out of them. Koechlin House alternates between those two poles — house and home. But ultimately the photographer was more interested in the latter than the former. This manifests itself through photographs of small details such as, for example, apples laid out on a table outside, photographs of the plant life in and around the house, and photographs in which late day light bathes the building in warmth while hiding away some of its harsher features.

In contrast, the more architectural photographs at times are grim. There is a picture of what might be an entrance area that is almost entirely devoid of ornamentation. The light falls in from two directions, illuminating barren concrete walls, a light fixture that looks lost, and what might be a wooden bench with possibly a radiator underneath. I don’t think you’ll ever get the coldness out of that location, regardless of how high you turn up that radiator.

The many large windows and the presence of some interior courtyard invite photographic games that, I suppose, neither a photographer nor an architect can resist. Reflections in windows layer images on top of other images, and similar reflections also often prevent a view inside the building when it’s photographed from the outside.

Ever since I had to work in two large buildings made of concrete my senses have become aware of how the material does not age very well at all in a purely aesthetic fashion. As the various concrete air-raid bunkers in the place I grew up in demonstrate, the material is durable — so durable in fact, that tearing down those towers has not been in option in many German cities. But with time, the light grey of the material becomes darker and darker, and it attracts dark stains. You can see signs of that in parts of the building’s exterior.

How or why one would be comfortable in a home that has almost no soft surfaces escapes me. I have been looking through Koechlin House many times now. Hirabayashi does an incredible job bringing out the building’s character and how the plant life outside has created what I perceive as a refuge from its harshness. But I always end up feeling the photographs in my joints — much like how after a long day in one of the concrete buildings I mentioned above, my knees would hurt from walking on such hard surfaces for hours.

As is obvious from the above, my life experience shades how I view the building — the building more than the photographs actually. This brings me back to the well known photographer’s words, that the architecture commands so much attention. But unlike in the case of the functional architecture photography that I see every once in a while, I think here it’s Hirabayashi’s skills that  communicate the fact that this is a home more than a house, leading me to imagine how I would function and feel inside.

Whatever you might make of this particular building, Koechlin House deftly connects the separate but not independent ideas of house and home. The building feels lived in — not so much because we see that it is (there are the occasional people) but because of Hirabayashi’s focus on the aspect of home and how that aspect can be communicated with pictures.

I suppose that someone interested in architecture or someone trained in it will be able to extract something entirely different from the book. But then, they might be not so interested in all the photographs that don’t even really show the building. Who knows? Either way, Koechlin House offers a compelling look at an example of contemporary architecture and how people living in it have adjusted to life inside.

Koechlin House; photographs by Daisuke Hirabayashi; texts by Ellena Ehrl, Tibor Bielicky, Nicolas Jérôme Hünerwadel; 128 pages; MACK; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Sapper]]> 2023-11-27T13:21:07Z 2023-11-27T13:21:07Z

[From 2019 until early 2023, I spent time writing a book about fathers and sons and how fraught father-son relationships can be seen and read in a number of well-known photographers’ works (incl. Larry Sultan, Masahisa Fukase, and others). It was for that reason that I was interested in Bharat Sikka’s The Sapper. After spending a few months on trying to find a publisher for my book, I’ve come to the conclusion that it will probably remain unpublished. Should I end up being mistaken, the following might make more sense — or maybe it will finds its place in a much wider context.]

Men have to learn what it means to be a man, meaning: how to engage with the world around them. For better or worse (and it often is the latter), it’s other men doing the teaching, with fathers being the first male role model for a boy in a traditional family setting.

Conservatives and other people further to the right insist that it’s the traditional family — husband plus wife plus child(ren) — that guarantees a healthy society. You only have to look around, though, to realize to what extent this idea is complete nonsense. It’s traditional families that are the breeding grounds for toxic masculinity, with a father who might have never learned anything about vulnerability or empathy from his own father now instilling these own ideas in his son(s). Inevitably, in his teenage years a son will at least temporarily stage a protest against his father, which only helps to inflame the seeds of toxic masculinity.

And so the cycle continues throughout the generations, producing emotionally crippled men who subject those around them to the “lessons” they learned, meaning: inflicting emotional and/or physical violence on their immediate families while on a societal scale perpetuating the nasty system of patriarchy.

It is against this background that a photographer taking pictures of his father has to be seen. The act of photographing differs a lot from when the same photographer approaches a stranger to take their picture. The title of Bharat Sikka‘s book, The Sapper, is apt: more often than not, the ground between a father and a son is a minefield. One wrong step and — boom! — something will go off, causing great hurt to at least one of the parties (and possibly also to familial bystanders).

Of course, Sikka’s father was an actual sapper in the Indian army. I don’t know to what extent the metaphor might have played a role when the book’s title was chosen. As in all the other cases where photographer sons took pictures of their fathers, there have been careful negotiations over their taking (if you look carefully, you’ll see that all those well-known supposed family books are essentially centered on the fathers).

As viewers, we have no access to these negotiations (unless people like Larry Sultan tell us, in which case we still have to remain vigilant, given the son’s hidden agenda). But we see the outcome, and we can come to educated conclusions about what the negotiations might have been. In The Sapper, we see an older man who appears happy to play along and who submits to the staging of a fair number of photographs. Whose idea the staging might have been, we don’t know. It actually doesn’t matter. What should concern us is the spirit conveyed by the pictures.

The staged portraits of the father are matched by a large number of other photographs that show carefully constructed scenes, such as for example a pile of chairs. Occasionally, there is more than a single photograph of a staged scene, with the stages of construction being evident in the individual pictures. Even as there are many “straight” pictures in the book, in particular landscapes, these are less prominent than they could be, given the rather heavy hand involved in the staging of the other pictures.

Looking through The Sapper, I ended up feeling that I was really meant to take away something very specific from the work. Obviously, that’s the case for any photobook. But here, the cumulative effect of the staged photographs left a heavy mark, too heavy a mark at times.

For example, late in the book, there are images of photographs seen earlier in the book, now displayed in wooden frames. I get it, parts of contemporary photography enjoy celebrating their own cerebral — if often rather simplistic — photographic wit. But I wonder to what extent a relationship between any two people, let alone the one between a father and a son, is served by dumping art-academy artifice over it?

Well, then again, the book isn’t the relationship — that’s between the father and the son. Much like his predecessors, Bharat Sikka invites us to see one — the book — as a reflection of the other — the relationship. And it’s tempting to buy into that. But as viewers, we might as well remind ourselves that the photobook, any photobook really, is its own artifice.

“This is a story of companionship,” Charlotte Cotton writes in the afterword, “where neither the patriarch nor the artist command superiority over the other.” Not so! Not so at all! Just like in the case of, say, Larry Sultan, the artist-son very clearly commands superiority in any number of choices made here, which includes the end product as much as the decisions that went into the making of all the various pictures.

I desperately want to believe that the relationship between this particular father and this particular son does not at all follow the outline in the book, one where crafty artifice sets the dominant tone.

But that might well be the case.

I have no way of knowing.

[Absent the text I wrote being available, I can’t go any further with this piece. I could add more, but it would not make sense for a reader who can’t know where it’s coming from. In any case, with the above I don’t mean to imply that this is a bad book — far from it. It’s a good book. And it contains a lot of good photographs, even if the edit could have been tighter. But as the flawed son of a flawed father (or rather simply as the son of a father) it shudders me to think that a viewer might infer more about a father-son relationship from it than what is communicated by the pictures and their staging.]

The Sapper; photographs by Bharat Sikka; essay by Charlotte Cotton; 192 pages; FW:Books; 2023

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Oldest Thing]]> 2023-11-20T12:59:48Z 2023-11-20T12:59:48Z

One of the most frustrating experiences for a writer is semantic satiation. In fact, you don’t even have to be a writer to experience it; you merely have to be capable of writing: take a word, any word — let’s say “satiation” — and repeat it again and again. Suddenly it loses all meaning. It is as if there were a switch in your head somewhere that was being triggered. Why does this word look so strange? What does it mean?

Visual satiation lies at the heart of Ruth van Beek‘s The Oldest Thing, the fact that the most ordinary things can suddenly appear alien — much like words can lose their meaning. The book is filled with rather simple, at times childlike photographs of completely ordinary items alongside a number of images made by the artist. The latter can probably easiest described as either colour fields painted on top of photographs or swatches of monochromatic paper that are placed on top of other photographs.

All of these images (except the very first one) are paired. Pairing images is one of the main games in the world of photography. People go about them in all kinds of ways. For example, there is the hipsterish visual wit exemplified by Jason Fulford (furiously winking at the in crowd that will take delight at everybody’s shared cleverness). In stark contrast to that, though, Van Beek’s pairings are completely playful and entirely devoid of pretense. At times, the pairings are almost too simple; and yet they work. This really looks like that in the most basic fashion.

How does this work? Or why does it work? And why is the outcome of this game so incredibly delightful? Ever since I received the book in the mail, I have been trying to figure out how to write about it. Every time I thought I had finally figured out how to convey what I thought I had realized, some other form of satiation would strike me; and everything that had just — and finally! — made perfect sense was now dissolving in the strangeness of abstract thought.

Oh well.

I might as well note that strictly speaking, the book contains a lot of photographs that are placed sideways on the pages. As a viewer, you can obviously turn the book in such a fashion that up will be up, and down will be down. But I don’t think that you really want to do that. You want to resist that temptation because while Ruth van Beek is after the visual description of whatever item is being depicted — a table, a pillow, whatever else, it’s the one in the book that she’s interested in.

As a viewer, you always have to submit to the internal logic of a piece of art. As an artist, you have to trust your viewers to be able to do that. If they can’t or don’t want to, then, well, that’s their problem. After all, a small wooden table with plates, cups, and a tea pot on it (all of which might or might not be a miniature set) is only that when viewed “properly”. Seen rotated, all of it becomes something else, even if it’s not clear what exactly that is.

But that’s the game here: visual satiation. Of course, you could look at a photograph for such a long time until everything looks strange to you. However, those near you might start wondering about your sanity or they might suspect a medical problem, neither of which would be particularly pleasant.

Instead, you might as well take The Oldest Thing and have some of the work done for you, which comes with the added bonus that you couldn’t have thought of what you’re about to encounter.

One of the reasons why Van Beek easily manages to stay clear of the hipsterish visual wit I mentioned earlier is because the images all describe such basic, simple objects. Many of them are household items. Some look as if they had been taken from maybe a cookbook. Others might have been found in a mail-order catalogue. To locate such profound visual delight in the most mundane of settings is no mean feat.

On the back of the book, Van Beek gives away the source of her imagery: “My mother left me three binders with carefully copied recipes and pasted pictures. I never made any of these recipes. I kept them for other reasons. […] My mother died when I was fifteen. I never knew her as a woman. This has ensured that she has always remained a mother figure.”

We need to keep in mind that for all art there’s a separation between where a piece of art is coming from and what it is about (even as the two aspects typically overlap to some extent). Knowing about this part of the artist’s biography might be helpful, though, especially for those who are too puzzled by the mundane deadpanness of it all. If you’re one of those: There’s much to be gained from allowing yourself access to Ruth van Beek’s visual logic.

Highly recommended.

The Oldest Thing; images by Ruth van Beek; poems by Basje Boer; 512 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2023

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