Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. 2021-01-18T15:39:29Z Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Photography’s Table Top Joes]]> 2021-01-18T15:39:29Z 2021-01-18T15:39:29Z

It’s easy to forget this, but the Western history of the sciences is rooted in outright quackery. The separation between quackery and “serious” science is not quite as well defined as we’d like to think — even today, your science might be someone else’s quackery (or the other way around). Just look at, for example, homeopathy, relics used by the Catholic Church, “the rising tide that lifts all boats” etc.

Roughly a quarter century ago, Lawrence Wechsler wrote a charming and very entertaining book about aspects of this. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder dives into the world of museums. In particular, it traces their history to a group of powerful and/or wealthy well-meaning people (from the West) who amassed collections of stuff, based on some larger idea.

As a consequence of their actions, we ended up with nice museums. But we’ve also ended up with nice museums that house large amounts of stuff literally stolen from what now are other countries and back then were colonies or proto-colonies.

At the same time, the scientific method has now separated out things that are admissible in museums and all the rest that is not. Again, this separation is not even remotely as obvious as we would like to think. We now also know about the flawed and lopsided history of art. Now museums are scrambling to address the issue that large parts of their collections were made by Western white men (to the extent that these institutions can or want to actually scramble).

At the same time, some art is art, while some other art isn’t (at best, it’s “outsider art”). Some people are photographers (with some even calling themselves “artists”), while all the other people who take pictures are merely amateurs. Looks like a contemporary form of quackery to me. But hey, what do I know?

Given it’s a technical medium, photography has always been an attractive target for quackery — or for those playing with the belief invested by so many people in photographs. A good historical example is provided by spirit photographs. A contemporary artist exploiting the same belief is Joan Fontcuberta.

Stephen Berkman‘s Predicting the Past—Zohar Studios: The Lost Years is a recent addition to this relatively small but very interesting niche of photography, blending Fontcuberta’s approach with one familiar from Shana and Robert ParkeHarrison. The books comes with afterword by, yes, Lawrence Wechsler, which served as a reminder of the book I mentioned above (I read it about 15 years ago).

Ostensibly focusing on the work of one Shimmel Zohar, the proprietor Zohar Studios, the book presents us with photographs taken with the wet-plate collodion process. Due to the process materials’ properties and due to our own expectations of what historical photographs look like, it’s straightforward to buy into the conceit at hand: these are indeed re-discovered pictures, made by an idiosyncratic Jewish man who arrived in New York City at some stage in the 19th Century.

The form of the book (the treatment of the type etc.) and the inclusion of what looks like historical materials only serves to amplify the message. It’s all very well done, even though at times, it becomes very clear that what is on display is a photographic caper.

In some ways, I’m reminded of Mandy Barker‘s Beyond Drifting (which I reviewed here). But there are some differences. To begin with, Barker’s book ends up being closer to a historical book: it replicates large parts of an actual old book. But at the end, Baker also gives away the game to drive home the larger point.

In a variety of ways, Predicting the Past is an image-text piece. It is made to look like a regular catalogue, with the inclusion of a large section containing text about each and every image. For me, the essays provided for each photograph are where the true value of the book can be found. Through the organisation of the book, I could see how they might be seen as afterthoughts; but in actuality, the pieces are actually vastly more interesting than the pictures themselves.

In each case, the connection between the text pieces and the photographs is provided by their captions/titles. In some ways, the fact that the photographs are such one-dimensional illustrations of the many incredibly fascinating and multi-faceted ideas expressed in the text hints at the very limitations of this medium: If you want to show something in a picture, if you point at something in a picture, you’ll inevitably produce an illustration.

I actually think that if the book had centred on the text, with the photographs serving as the illustrations they are, this would have worked a lot better. For that, though, the form of the whole book would have had to be changed. As an object, it’s enormous. On Amazon, it says that it’s 11.75 x 2.5 x 16 inches, weighing 8.55 pounds (I didn’t crosscheck this); and it comes with its own reenforced cardboard container.

I’d love to hold the book in my hands or in my lap, but I can’t. Or rather, I can but not for long. It’s just too heavy, too large. I feel that through its makers’ insistence on creating such a massive tome, part of its incredible playful quirkiness dissolves into sheer showboating.

I have another concern. While I appreciate the quirky quaintness of many of the ideas in the book — there clearly are many echoes of Jewish culture and of larger 19th Century sensibilities, I’m not entirely convinced that in photography, you can easily emulate something that musician Tom Waits has made a career out of: creating vastly exaggerated characters that are as absurd as they are engrossing (for the record, I’m a big fan of much of Waits’ post-Swordfishtrombones work).

Can the odd catchiness of Waits’ tunes (listen to, for example, Table Top Joe) be compared with the equally odd, yet compelling visuals of Berkman’s photographs? In some ways, I’m led to believe they can. Does music combined with lyrics transport its message in ways similar to photographs combined with text? That I’m not convinced of. Even as there are plenty of Table Top Joes in Predicting the Past (in whatever variant), the end effect isn’t quite the same.

Or maybe it’s the fact that in some ways, Predicting the Past appears to have been made in another era. I’m not referring to the photographs but to the overall idea. At some stage last year (or maybe the one before — who has an understanding of time right now?), I watched the 1972 movie Cabaret. I was struck by how dated it felt as a movie. It’s not that it felt inappropriate to me; but I also felt queasy about its rather simplistic treatment of its subject matter.

This is not to say that I think something like Babylon Berlin is better. There’s still much to be said about its kitschified simulation of a Weimar-era Berlin in its final democratic throes. Still, when you watch Babylon Berlin, you can’t help but notice its implicit and explicit inclusion (and deliberate exclusion) of all we’ve learned since 1972. Any understanding of Weimar-era culture inevitably arises through contemporary filters: that’s why Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Alabama Song sounds so radically different when you compare a 1930 recording and, let’s say, when David Bowie sang it in 1978.

With photography now having become a central currency in the fight over what constitutes truth, I feel that there is a missed opportunity here. The book could have challenged our own sticking with often misguided beliefs in photography a lot more than it does. Making a book like Predicting the Past now feels like or speaks of a luxury: the luxury of being able to ignore the weight of how history has been playing out in photography.

It’s like Tom Waits sang: “You’re innocent when you dream” — but only when you dream.

Predicting the Past—Zohar Studios: The Lost Years; photographs and text by Stephen Berkman; afterword by Lawrence Weschler; 368 pages; Hat & Beard Press; 2020

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[An Educational Archive]]> 2021-01-11T19:46:01Z 2021-01-11T19:46:01Z

In a classroom at one of the art schools I taught at a few years ago, there was a large wooden cabinet with many relatively small drawers. If you have ever been to an art school, you’ll know that with the exception of digital labs, facilities typically betray their frequent use (I’ll leave it at that). But unlike its surroundings, the cabinet was pristine. When using the classroom, I often found myself pulling out random drawers to look inside.

I knew what was inside: physical slides the types of which had been a part of the world of analogue photography before the general move to digital media. I’m old enough to remember the use of transparencies and slides in a classroom setting. As a teacher, I never used them; but when I was in school, I remember having to give presentations that involved such materials.

Inevitably, slides were iffy. Larger parts of the presentation time were spent on re-focussing the image on the screen. In retrospect, I miss the strange charm of the materials’ physical quirks: a slide would “pop” (caused by the projector’s heat), and you’d have to refocus. You also wouldn’t have to look for an adapter to connect things — maybe the time required to refocus slides has now gone into that often large chunk of time spent on looking for the correct adapter?

As time went on, the more often I found myself in that classroom, the less interested I was in looking at the cabinet. I knew what was inside. Mind you, I enjoyed the physicality of it all, and I enjoyed (and still enjoy) looking at photographs. But frankly, I found what was on display depressing: a very US centric assortment of predominantly white male photographers. This was what generations of photography students had been exposed to.

There now exists a publication that makes available a (different) full set of slides used for teaching. Entitled An Educational Archive of 2863 Slides, the book presents the images used by Dutch art historian Frido Troost who taught at Gerrit Rietveld Academie. With a few exceptions, nine slides (images) are presented per page, resulting in a 400 page book. While being fairly large, it’s printed on a relatively thin paper stock. The book handles well without being overly hefty, and the images are large enough to allow for good viewing.

In some ways, Educational Archive resembles Gerhard Richter’s Atlas (which, as far as I can tell, is now out of print). There might be an overlap in the audiences of both books: people who derive pleasure from seeing collections of images that were assembled by someone with a high degree of visual literacy. But Richter is an artist, not a historian. Maybe the Atlas to refer to would be Aby Warburg’s (full title: Mnemosyne Atlas). While I’m at it, I might as well mention Hannah Höch’s Album (sadly also out of print), compiled roughly at the same time as Warburg’s Atlas.

Educational Archive is indeed that, educational. There is an index at the end that lists the names of the artists for every slide (where such information was obtainable). The slides are organised in some fashion, but the organisation follows more loose principles. As a consequence, the viewer will end up having to make their own connections between the images, which, of course, cuts both ways: you’re not being guided, but you’re able to discover.

The scope of the imagery on display is a lot more diverse than what I encountered in the cabinet I spoke of above. As an art historian, Troost very obviously didn’t deal with only photography. But he also did not limit himself to the larger art context. The first few pages of the book show a large number of advertising: full pages from magazines showing ads for cigarettes or perfume. In fact, Troost often included more quotidian sources for his slides (as far as I can tell, the slides were made with a camera on a copy stand).

With this breadth of source imagery, Troost must have been ahead of the curve in his time. That said, in many other ways, he was not. Having seen the cigarette ads, I expected a much wider breadth of imagery in the areas dealing with photography in general. But there is ample material that runs along the lines of the male gaze or standard colonial photography.

I have no way of knowing how Troost used these materials in class. It’s possible that he discussed the male or colonial gaze critically. But I’m thinking that for such a discussion, one would need to complement the material with other images that either subvert such gazes or offer a very different way of showing the subject matter in question. Such material seems largely absent here.

This is not to say that there is no value in Educational Archive, quite on the contrary. Let’s face it, anyone dealing with aspects of visual education and/or literacy will inevitably fall short in the eyes of her or his later peers: visual literacy evolves through an increasing awareness of problems and restrictions and through changed perceptions of either what images show, what they show given a specific context, what they show based on who made them, etc. As easy as it might be to feel smug about the shortcomings of someone who came before you, always remember there will be people coming after you.

Thus, Educational Archive is a pointer of a time and place. Part of that pointing is done not only by what is stressed but especially by what is excluded. Visual literacy always includes being able to read clearly what exists and being able to read clearly what is not represented.

The breadth of what is included in the book for sure is a good starting point for many discussions. At some stage, though, these discussions would need to address what’s missing, why it’s missing, and how what’s missing can be rectified. Visual literacy is an endeavour, a practice — and not something set in stone forever.

An Educational Archive of 2863 Slides; images collected by Frido Troost; essay by David Campany; 400 pages; Art Paper Editions; 2020

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[To pick up a book about stones]]> 2021-01-04T17:44:45Z 2021-01-04T17:44:45Z

As I leafed through Claudia den Boer‘s To pick up a stone, I found myself double checking whether I had in fact turned a page or missed one. It is a combination of two separate facts that led me to this: first, the low humidity in my home, which has been caused by having to run heating for the winter, as a consequence of which my hands’ skin has become dry; second, the variety of paper stocks used for this book, combined with the occasional trimming of half a page at the top or bottom, which leaves behind a smaller page.

As viewers or readers, we often do not think much of a book’s tactility, of its literal surface qualities that respond to our touch. But photobooks are visual media and they’re also objects. As objects they communicate through the various ways they respond when being held, when they’re being handled. Good photobook makers will be aware of this aspect of their craft: it doesn’t only matter what a book looks like, what it feels like is just as important.

From there, it’s but a small leap to Den Boer’s subject matter, stones. If I asked you to describe your experience with stones, their weight probably would be the first thing that comes to mind (in the UK, “stone” is still used as a unit of weight). Afterwards, there might be what they look like or what it feels like to touch them. Who hasn’t experienced finding a neatly polished stone in or near a body of water, to marvel over its shape and the smoothness of its surface? Who hasn’t picked up a stone in an unusual landscape, to marvel at how suddenly, there is the very landscape — or rather a small part of it — right in one’s own hands?

Paper is an organic material — however processed it is, it’s made from trees. Consequently, much like the fingers with which I am handling the book, a book’s pages will age (whether more or less gracefully than myself remains to be seen). Stones, in contrast, are inorganic, and they take a lot longer to change with age. I’d like to think that instinctively, we know about this. There is no connection with another person when we pick up a stone: it’s merely a small part of the otherwise uncaring universe in our hands. I can put it on my bookshelf, and someone else might pick it up only as the stone it is — and not like the book from my library (regardless of how many other libraries it might exist in).

Consequently, to make a book about stones is a lot harder than making a book about trees: in some form, the trees are in a viewer’s hands, whereas the stones simply aren’t (unless you make a very old-fashioned book in stone-tablet form — it shudders me to think of the person who comes up with that idea: this might be a very hard sell at a photobook fair even with the most hardcore photobook hipsters being present). But you can take the idea of tactility, present in both stones and trees, and bring them to the book. This is what was done here.

The book presents photographs of individual stones and of landscapes in which they might have been found. Photographically, the line between the two at times becomes blurry. A landscape filled with stones essentially is nothing more than a collection of stones. But to view it that way misses the aspect of scale: in our daily lives, there is a huge difference between being in a landscape and being in front of a single stone. This is because our own bodies provide an element of scale (and presence).

In a photograph, the absence of markers of scale (trees, human figures, etc.) can result in uncertainty over what one is actually looking at. As a consequence, if in real life there never is any confusion over whether one is dealing with a landscape or a stone taken from it, in a photograph that distinction can disappear. The book plays with the consequences of this, at times making it impossible to figure out what exactly one is looking at, or more accurately: the scale of what’s on view.

In addition, there exists a variety of photographic artefacts throughout the book. Some images very clearly betray a digital source. Others might be the result of a different process: some look as if they were taken with Polaroid-style materials, some look as if they had been run through a photocopier, etc. This makes the book center as much on what photography itself actually does as on the stones/landscapes themselves. In the book, this fact is driven home by the choice of different paper stocks (I mentioned this already).

Given I’m merely describing to you what’s going on in the book, it might come across as cerebral (which in part it is — not that that’s a bad thing per se) and tedious — the kind of photobook you expect to come out of the Netherlands where design and production play such big roles (to the point of them at times becoming self serving and thus gimmicky). But the book isn’t tedious at all. In fact, without any of the production choices it would be tedious. Here, though, the visual engagement provided by the photographs is supplanted by the tactile delight of moving through the book.

One final comment: in a day and age where so many photographers work on impossibly complex narrative-driven photobooks, I’m being asked more and more often whether this has become the norm. As To pick up a stone demonstrates it has not. A good photobook (or photo project) is not defined by the presence of narrative any more than through its sheer complexity. Here, there is a very simple idea behind the book (remember the difference between simple and simplistic), which is executed very well.

The key to any book is not how snazzy or clever or complicated it is — it’s simply how well it is done within the parameters set by its own materials. Seen that way, To pick up a stone might as well serve as a study case for photographers (and, hint hint, publishers — I’m so tired of all those Tupperware container books!) for how to make an engaging photobook that forcefully and elegantly communicates the idea of the work.

To pick up a stone; photographs by Claudia den Boer; 120 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.0

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Alice Rose George 1944-2020]]> 2020-12-28T16:27:51Z 2020-12-28T16:27:51Z

De mortuis, a Latin saying decrees, nihil nisi bonum (Of the dead, [say] nothing but good). As if I needed to be reminded of this, remembering Alice Rose George who just left us. She was one of photoland’s many invisible hands who brought greater good to all of us.

A proud and fierce Southerner, Alice contributed all that is highly spoken of from that region — without any of that which is unspoken but all-too present. She was courteous, independent, and lively, and she knew of and acknowledged the human condition. She loved a good drink, and I have yet to meet another person able to match her incredible, yet vulnerable wit, used to great effect when telling her often marvelous stories of the people she had met and interacted with (I will not re-tell her anecdote of André Kertész encountering the work of Diane Arbus — it still makes me laugh).

Alice could make you see the beauty in a photographs that previously might have eluded you. Taste being taste, you might not end up agreeing with her regarding the overall merit of a group of pictures or book. But you had been made to see differently, finding enjoyment in the previously unenjoyable. I fondly remember our disagreements more than the agreements, given it is the former that had me realise the extent of our shared devotion to looking at and living with photographs. I’d like to think that we learned from each other, even though I’m sure that most of the learning must have happened at my end.

Alice was generous and open to new experiences in an environment that more often than not merely pays lip service to the idea. Unlike many other people I’ve met, she was just as comfortable in the company of pictures that had been deemed to belong to the canon a long time ago as when seeing photographs made by someone much younger than her and with a very different life experience. She would devote time to someone starting out, someone in need of a trained set of eyes, to help them see the way she saw, reminding us of the subtle difference in the expressions “to have time” and “to make time.”

When a group of Saudi terrorists flew airplanes into New York City’s World Trade Center, Alice became instrumental in organising a communal processing of the then shared grief through exhibiting photographs, photographs taken by professionals who happened to be there as much as all those nameless others with their cameras. Here is New York, an exhibition and later book that stated: here is the multitude of all of us. We stand together. We will not be divided. A few short months later this idea was betrayed by the Bush administration.

Alice didn’t suffer fools lightly, whether in photoland or elsewhere. It shudders me to imagine her horror of seeing what the country has become under the crass real-estate developer who came out of the New York City she loved so much. Obviously, she knew the type, having lived in the city, having had jobs in the cut-throat publishing world, having worked at Magnum Photos, having dealt with wealthy art-world types. Her wit would have helped her through all of it.

Photographs don’t suffer fools lightly, either (even when they were made by them). Alice would select the good pictures out of a pile of bad ones in less time than it took me to write this sentence. A force of nature of supreme visual literacy, Alice was not “able to see”: she simply saw, making everyone feel that what they thought of an ability to be learned with difficulty was something she had been born with. Having picked the gems, however many or few she had found, she would then gently yet firmly probe their maker over her or his intentions.

Alice’s interests were not limited to photography. There was a piano in her living room; whenever we met she told me about a book she had just enjoyed, urging me to read it, too; and she wrote poetry, some of which she had published in books and magazines — this she never talked much about. What we summarise as culture or art meant a lot to her, and she saw photography as a part of it. The crassness of today’s world, the one she has now left, makes it difficult to see how believing and partaking in the value of art can make a difference. For Alice, it simply did — this might be her final lesson for us all.

Rest in peace, Alice.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Photography’s Neoliberal Realism]]> 2020-12-21T18:13:28Z 2020-12-21T18:13:28Z

Some time during this past summer, I was offered the opportunity to expand what originally had been a book review into a longer essay, to be published as part of MACK‘s DISCOURSE series. I had already planned on expanding the piece shortly after I had published it. In fact, the beginnings of what ended up as Photography’s Neoliberal Realism already existed on my computer (alongside a number of other pieces, some finished, some little more than ideas).

I have written extensively about photography, large parts of it for this site. Over the past few years, my thinking has expanded from focusing on what usually is called visual literacy to looking at photography’s superstructure: the very systems that not only maintain it, but that also shape its overall messages. In part, my interest in this has been fed and accelerated by reading writings by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer.

I have come to admire the very wide net cast by Benjamin and Kracauer more and more. They both looked a wide range of phenomena observed during the Weimar Republic, in particular its mass culture (which included photography) and how it actively and passively was tied to larger forces: the democratic republic as much as capitalism itself.

In contrast, I feel that today we look at photography as this practice that somehow manages to record what is in front of the camera without being influenced by any of the many entities it actually is completely dependent upon: the photographer’s society and culture, her or his personal background, the person or entity that hired him to take the pictures, the gallery (or publishing) system that helps her or him to sell them… The list goes on.

To insist on a photographer’s autonomy is both a feel-good exercise and an enormous deception. This is not to say that any of the entities or ideas that have a photographer take certain pictures while not taking others are bad or evil. But they can be. If they’re bad or evil, our insistence on a photographer’s autonomy cuts off a lot of discussions that could and often should be had.

Just to give one example, look at how in the area of photojournalism, it’s always the photographers who get the flak — but never the editors or the owners of the corporations that hire them. While it’s important to talk about the pictures, it’s also important to understand why and how they were taken, and why and how this person took them and not that person. Otherwise, you will not be able to fully address issues such as, for example, representation — whether it’s how how a topic is represented or who is allowed to represent whom.

If photographers are not autonomous, then the discussion of their work ought to incorporate talking about what I called the superstructure above. How do you do that, though, in particular if you only have the pictures? As Benjamin, but especially (Weimar-era) Kracauer and later Roland Barthes (Mythologies) demonstrated, you can infer a lot from pictures about the superstructure.

In a nutshell, that is the idea behind Photography’s Neoliberal Realism. In the book, I look at the work of Annie Leibovitz, Gregory Crewdson, and Andreas Gursky, and I argue that it can be seen as an expression of neoliberal capitalism’s core beliefs, including for example the infamous (and flawed) trickle-down theory. I could have included a large number of other photographers, but focusing on some of photoland’s biggest stars seemed like a good idea.

I had originally called the idea Capitalist Realism. While working on the book, I realised that I needed a more precise term. There already is a book by Mark Fisher with that very title (in which the term means something different than what I have in mind). But there was another, more pressing problem.

I grew up in West Germany under the country’s social market economy. Much like neoliberal capitalism, that system had relied on certain images. But these images were very different than the ones we are surrounded with now. The West German imagery was very paternalistic, which betrayed the tempering of capitalism’s forces by well-meaning people in power (obviously, the idea of a well-meaning tempering forms the core of the ideology) as much as the sexual politics at the time (people in power meant: exclusively men, except for maybe the family ministry).

West Germany’s economy was capitalist, but it was a different kind than the one we live under now. Thus, I needed to be more precise with my term to account for the differences in the two imageries. Hence the term Neoliberal Realism.

It’s not clear to me whether my biographical background is the reason why what I call Photography’s Neoliberal Realism sticks out so much to me. It might be. After all, what one is very familiar with is a lot harder to look into. Many things are simply taken for granted. In fact, I only started thinking about the imagery around West Germany’s social market economy while writing the book, realising that I had simply taken its messages for granted.

In the book I attempt to show how when you read the works by these three artists, you find expressions of neoliberal capitalist thinking expressed very clearly in the pictures. It’s all right there, hidden, so to speak, in plain sight.

After the book was published, I ran into some very interesting — and telling — reactions. Some people were openly dismissive of even looking more deeply into the work by Leibovitz. This was because, I was told, it is “just” commercial stuff anyway, the implication being that commercial photography could not possibly speak about anything other than what it depicts on a very basic level.

Other people were aghast that I had added Gursky to the mix: his work, they said, is clearly so much deeper. Well, sorry: no, it isn’t.

These reactions confirmed some of my suspicions that had me write the book in the first place: in photoland, we have established hierarchies of photographers and/or categories. One consequence of these hierarchies is that a lot of interesting discussions aren’t being held. Like I mentioned, what is there to discuss in commercial or editorial photography anyway? Quite a lot actually.

My main argument is the following: photography expresses who we think we are. If someone has a photograph made for some specific purpose, whether it’s the cover of a magazine or whatever else, there are many motivations behind that decision. Some of them are more directly tied to who or what is depicted (let’s say some magazine’s Hollywood issue). But there are larger motivations that might not even be acknowledged and that hint at larger beliefs or ideologies. Much like Benjamin, Kracauer, and Barthes did, we need to talk about these as well.


Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Biggest of All Small Miracles]]> 2020-12-14T18:24:09Z 2020-12-14T18:24:09Z

Looking through Rinko Kawauchi‘s as it is, I couldn’t help but think that all of her previous work was merely a preparation for this, a book about the birth and first years of her daughter. It’s not an experience I am familiar with from my own life, but I have always imagined the birth of one’s child to be the biggest of all small miracles. This book showed me that indeed it is. It’s filled to the brim with deeply touching photographs of Kawauchi discovering a plethora of beauty in her young daughter’s discovery of the world.

For me, this artist has always shone the brightest when she used her camera to capture the world’s small miracles. That said, as much as I enjoy the earlier work (such as, say, うたたね [Utatane]), those pictures now feel cluttered compared with the incredibly reduced and deeply concentrated photographs in as it is. I could speculate whether this is due to the subject matter or the increased maturity of the artist. But such speculation would feel mostly besides the point here.

I should note that this new book thankfully follows the model of the earliest books. It’s a very nicely understated softcover book, avoiding the unnecessary pomposity with which Western publishers have treated Kawauchi’s photography too often. A coproduction between France’s Chose Commune and Japan’s torch press, the book was designed and printed in Japan, and it has the form that the photographs and subject matter ask for. This is crucial.

Photographed between 2016 and 2020, the book follows a chronological approach. The baby is born, and we witness her slowly get older. Initially being in the gentle and caring hands of those closest to her, more and more she begins to be her own little person, becoming aware of the world around her. You can see her eyes beginning to focus. While it’s impossible to know what’s going on in her mind, as viewers we can imagine: this must be the easier time from childhood that often we yearn to be able to get back to.

Kawauchi has often worked with pairings of photographs. If in the past I had any misgiving about that, it’s that often, the pairings were too simplistic, too on the nose: this looks like that. Here, the pairings are much more relaxed. They feel less self conscious. Often, they’re metaphorical, which helps to bring out the added value that can be had when two pictures are being paired.

As I already noted, the photographs also feel more reduced. It’s tempting to connect this to Japan’s embrace of simplicity and minimalism. In actuality, that embrace is more complicated than the often superficial caricature it is presented as in the West. If anything, that embrace is a mind set more than anything else. I sense it behind these photographs: the more you focus your attention on one thing, the more of the world falls aways. At the same time, the world reveals itself anew.

The soft whisper of what is left becomes clearly audible. Here, a plant’s seed caught in the young girl’s hair at the back of her head suddenly means so much, and the bud of a flower is almost too much to bear. There’s a bright green, young plant against a black background, there’s a little frog clinging to a window covered with rain drops.

The book contains a few inserts with words written by the artist. In the copy of the book I bought they’re in English and French. By chance, I discovered that the voice employed in the English and French texts is rather different. This has me wonder which one is closer to the Japanese original. But that might just be an impossible question to ask, given the differences between Japanese and English/French.

In essence, the words substitute pictures that could never be taken, and they expand what is on view in the photographs. In some of her earlier books, Kawauchi had already used text, and I’m glad that she decided to do it again.

Here I am, at the end of a year that for obvious reasons will be remembered well, yet not fondly. Two of the three photobooks that deeply affected me were made by two very different Japanese women photographers (the other one is Yurie Nagashima). As a childless middle-aged Western man I don’t share their life experiences. But through their sharing of their life experiences in the form of two photobooks, I was able to gain access to something formerly inaccessible to me.

What I gained access to was not only something they experienced and put into pictures. In addition, I was also made to look at my own life more closely, using different angles than the ones I had been so familiar with.

I can’t know this for a fact, but I think that you could have a baby and unlike Rinko Kawauchi you’d still not be aware of the world’s wonders. Hers is not only a book about having a child. I see it first and foremost as a book about what happens when you open yourself up to the world and let some more of its beauty in, a beauty that is available to all, regardless of whether you capture it in pictures or not.

This is not to deny the ugly truth of the world that has been exposed to us this year — in particular in the US, where the pandemic has revealed the systemic cruelty in the country’s very heart, its very eagerness to disregard people’s suffering and death.

Without us being able to see an alternative (an alternative that’s no just slogans that might win or lose an election), we are not going to get anywhere. Part of that alternative will have to be an open embrace of beauty. It is the arts that can show us what that might mean.

This book, as it is, is what we needed this year. It is a miracle itself.

Highly recommended.

as it is; photographs and text by Rinko Kawauchi; 144 pages (plus inserts); Chose Commune/torch press; 2020

Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.8

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[An Attic Full of Trains Flattened in Time and Space (in which the reviewer short circuits)]]> 2020-12-07T17:13:50Z 2020-12-07T17:13:50Z

Writing entails thinking and editing as much as writing itself. Mind you, writing itself isn’t thinking. You’ll learn as much when you look at your writing and realise that somehow there’s something different than what you had envisioned. Thus, you edit. You edit depending on whether you want to accept what you wrote. After all, it didn’t come out of nowhere, or you edit based on what you thought should be on the page or screen.

Usually, editing involves a mix of these two types of work. What you write about should have some resemblance with what you set out to do — especially if someone pays you to do it (which, alas, doesn’t happen quite as often as I wish it would). Then again, what you write can be just so much more interesting than what you had in your head when you started out.

When writing a photobook review, I feel boxed in. The book(s) in question should be discussed, even though sometimes, I feel that there isn’t much to say. By that I don’t mean that the book might be bad. Rather, an intelligent and attentive viewer for sure could do the work on their own, while they might benefit from a larger framing of the work. It sometimes feels outright reductive to me to delve into a topic, only to spell out why some book deals with the subject matter well.

Still, what is a book review without the book discussed at least in some detail?

Plus, I need an angle. By that I mean some idea how to approach the book, given that I am very interested in tying a book to something else: its context or anything that helps a viewer understand and/or approach the book better. That’s the goal anyway. I can’t tell whether I’m succeeding because writing, especially online, has much in common with shouting into a void.

But sometimes, it just won’t come together. Then, you have to either give up and move on, or somehow salvage what you have. This happened to me when I tried to write a review for two recent books last weekend. After a long day of work, I was stuck with maybe 500 words that just wouldn’t get anywhere. To make matters worse, I dreaded the thought of having to salvage.

A couple of days ago, it occurred to me that I could do something very different. Why should a book review be about the books and not about the process of writing? This might actually be interesting, I thought, especially for those readers who have been following along here for a while.

The task at hand… more precisely: the task I had set myself involved two books that seemed perfect to discuss as a pair. Off we go:

The lives of two Italian men, both roughly born at the same time, both dead by now, are told through and with photographs in An Attic Full of Trains (MACK; full disclosure:MACK is also the publisher of my own Photography’s Neoliberal Realism) and Flattened in Time and Space (Witty Books), two recent photobooks that are so similar in some ways (down to their physical sizes) and so radically different in others.

I had felt so good about the idea of comparing these two books, both of which had enough overlapping aspects, that I thought the review would be a breeze. Writing is at least 80% self-delusion. After the first paragraph, I already noted I had maneuvered myself deeply into that territory. It’s not that the idea is bad. It’s just that I realized that I was running into problems. Still, I kept going:

To begin with, we might note that most viewers are very likely to feel drawn a lot more to one than the other. Attic — photographed by Alberto di Lenardo and edited by his granddaughter Carlotta di Lenardo — is going to appeal to those who are drawn to what we can think of as the standard model of art photography, in which each picture is intended to be its own exquisite self. The book is filled with good pictures, which is likely to have someone wonder whether we’re here dealing with another discovery of a previously unknown master photographer.

I don’t want to say that my own bullshit meter went off after I had written this. we might note that most viewers are very likely to feel drawn a lot more to one than the other — that’s not necessarily bullshit as much as just some pretty lame writing. Then again, there is some merit to pointing out that more often than not, personal taste is a hindrance for many people when approaching art: why spend time with something you don’t like when you could just look at what you do like?

OK, I thought. Onwards. (You might have noticed that I was basically bullshitting myself in the previous paragraph.) How do you write about art? There are many ways to do it, but a mix of description plus references plus some judgment isn’t bad:

Out of the 8,000 photographs left behind by her grandfather, Carlotta di Lenardo has very deftly edited a selection that make it tempting to come to this conclusion. Whether or not there truly was an incredibly rich archive or whether di Lenardo “merely” managed to pick the few good ones is besides the point. More often than not, what is on view is incredible, with echoes of, let’s say, Saul Leiter and occasionally William Eggleston in the work.

As it turned out, I had to add the previous paragraph when I realized that if I simply continued with the following one, I’d lose my point completely — how do you compare two things without telling people what they actually are in some detail? Having given some references, I added one to the following paragraph, which became:

In contrast, Flattened does not contain all that many masterpiece photographs. But it is this very absence and the use of other photographic strategies that make it interesting. Where Attic might evoke the spirit of Vivian Maier, this book operates along the lines of the various artist books made by Ed Ruscha in the 1960s (for example: Twentysix Gasoline Stations), albeit in a vastly expanded form. What is more, there were more than one photographer involved, Angelo Vignali plus his “mother, friends and strangers”.

Everybody compares a newly discovered archive with Maier’s; I felt I had to throw that in. Honestly, though, the spirit in Attic is very Leiterian, with Leiter’s nudes being replaced by di Lenardo being very interested in women’s behinds.

Actually, the book’s cover and very first picture both show a young woman from behind. This reminded me of a comment made in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (can’t remember which one). Some movie started out with the camera following an attractive young woman climbing up a ladder, filmed from below, and Joel yells: “Hey, they’re giving away the plot!” (it’s such a Joel comment, isn’t it?).

If anything, what I just wrote doesn’t mean all that much other than me realizing that while I enjoy the photographs di Lenardo had taken (he obviously was a very gifted photographer), there is plenty of male gaze on steroids. And I wanted to write that in my review, but I couldn’t find a way to finagle it in. Anyway, I was in the middle of discussing the other book anyway, so why would I be thinking so much about this?

Visually, the photographs betray their vernacular sources through their aesthetic such as colours that while never having been that faithful having shifted even more with time or occasional streaks and patterns caused by subpar film development. Divided into five chapters, there is ample repetition, or rather pictures taken from slightly different vantage points frequently follow each other. As a result, most chapters invoke a moving through a space (much like in, for example, Yutaka Takanashi’s Towards the City, albeit using a different aesthetic).

Some description, plus another reference that, however, felt a little bit like showboating to me. Did I really need that? At this stage I had already realized how little I was getting out of my idea for the review. But I had put hours into it already — hours because as things weren’t going anywhere, I kept checking my email to see if someone had written me (nope, there isn’t much of that on the weekend), I kept checking the news to see if something had happened (ditto), I kept checking Twitter… You get the idea.

I was really fucking stuck, and the worst part was that it was all my own fault. That’s always the case with writing: you fuck up, and it’s all your own fault. It’s not even just that you don’t want your readers to see this, it’s not that you don’t want them to read a bad piece. You also don’t want to live in those moments where you realize that writing (much like any other creative endeavour) entails constant failure. And at times that failure can be crushing.

These differences notwithstanding, …

I had a bad feeling when I wrote this. Honestly, I knew that metaphorically speaking I was basically throwing good money after bad. Oh well:

These differences notwithstanding, I’m somewhat certain that the lives of the two men who are at the centres of these books would not have been that different, their possibly different socio-economic statuses notwithstanding. Seen that way, I see these books as companion pieces, where one informs the other: however much we attempt to understand another person through photographs, whether their own or other people’s, in the end, we are left to realise the futility of that endeavour. For all we learn, there is an infinity of other aspects of their lives that will forever elude us.

Here, I’m basically refusing to let go off my original idea — hey, good idea to compare these books because they’re kinda the same. Are they, though? Well, no, they’re not the same, neither in an obvious sense, nor in a larger one. Unless, dear god, I make this whole review turn on how photography works in which case I might as well give up. Which is what I did after seeing into what sorry corner I had written myself.

Where does this leave you, the reader? Well, I do think there’s enough in the above for you to get an idea of these two books. And maybe you’re smarter than I am and can tie together their comparison. I’m also thinking that if you have been reading this site for a while, you now know well what I think about these books (my apologies to all readers who aren’t regular followers).

The reality is that writing (the outcome) is only as interesting as you can make it (the process) for yourself, the writer. I have been reviewing many books over the past decade. While I mostly enjoy doing it, maybe it was the strange combination of all kinds of factors this year that finally had me face the fact that in terms of the craft, I’m somewhat bored with it.

Don’t worry, though, I will continue to write to write reviews in a conventional manner. At times, though, I will also try to find a new way (obviously, not the one I used above because you can only do that once).

An Attic Full of Trains; photographs by Alberto di Lenardo (edited by Carlotta di Lenardo); 232 pages; MACK; 2020

Flattened in Space and Time; images by Angelo Vignali; Text by Ilaria Speri; 368 pages; Witty Books; 2020

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Small Town Portraits]]> 2020-11-30T19:30:04Z 2020-11-30T19:30:04Z

Sandwiched between a news agent and a clothes store, Dinneen’s Bar is housed in a small building on Main Street in the small Irish town of Macroom, which is roughly 15 miles west of Cork in southwestern Ireland. From the 1950s until 1985, the bar was owned and operated by Dennis Dinneen and his wife Claire, who lived upstairs with their five children. A “room at the very back of the bar [functioned] as the family kitchen”, the website dedicated to Dennis’ work informs us, the work being the result of the fact that he also was a photographer.

“Dennis provided photos for passports and driving licences, took individual and family portraits, and captured images of the bar’s patrons. […] he also photographed weddings, religious ceremonies, theatre productions, sporting events, and a variety of other local occasions”, leaving behind an archive of thousands of negatives (before his death in 1985, more than half of the archive was destroyed in a fire).

An assortment of backdrops was employed by the photographer for much of his portraiture: blank walls, curtains, some cloth pinned up, a little screen designed for slide or movie projections. For the work, Dinneen employed a square-format camera with an added flash. The passport or driving-license pictures would be cropped later (a common practice all over the world when a photographer didn’t work with a dedicated camera for the task at hand).

If this sounds like there might be an incredible wealth of photographs to look at, that’s exactly the case, as Small Town Portraits makes clear. The book presents 75 photographs, edited by David J. Moore, the archive’s director. Without exception, he always presents the uncropped photographs, which reveal a plethora of detail around the sitter, including a (recurring) Kodak poster, boxes of Lucozade (a soft drink intended to boost energy a Google search informed me), and more.

The charm of collections such as Dinneen’s is universal, regardless of whether they were compiled in Mali (Malick Sidibé), the US (Mike Disfarmer), Japan (Shoichi Kudo), or elsewhere: a usually utilitarian approach, combined with a lack of pretense, possibly some idiosyncratic choices, and sheer — often very playful — talent combine to yield photographs that give a sense of locale in ways that are usually hard to come by.

Not surprisingly, several of these archives have been raided (“reclaimed”) and exploited by people eager to cash in on the art market. In fact, I don’t even know why so often art-world acceptance (in the form of representation in galleries, shows at museums, and/or a write up in some famous newspaper’s “Arts & Entertainment” section) is seen as the ultimate validation of such archives. More often than not, the work itself takes a hit — such as when, for example, Malick Sidibé’s photography suddenly end up as very large, contrasty prints despite the fact that they would have never been seen that way in their original context.

But there always is some context switching involved when such an archive is being made public. This inevitably comes with a re-presentation of the pictures at hand: uncropped passport photographs originally were not intended to be seen as such. For me the key to all of this is whether the re-presentation serves to speak of the photographer’s overall spirit (as in this book) or the moneyed interests that might be behind the changes (as in, say, the Disfarmer case).

Small Town Portraits focuses on presenting the world depicted in its pictures. It’s doubtful that the photographer would have OK’ed this particular selection of photographs. Obviously, we have no way of knowing. But I think in the end, he would have come around to appreciating what has been done. After all, the photographs powerfully speak of Macroom and its people, with the Dinneen bar serving as one of its social hubs.

Here, through the eyes of Dennis Dinneen, the unremarkable becomes remarkable, inviting us viewers to maybe pay attention to the unrecognised beauty all around us, in whatever unremarkable location we might find ourselves in.

If I had to describe what I want from a good photobook, I’d say that it should have good pictures that are presented in a well considered package. I’ve written about this before many times, but the latter still is more of a bonus in the world of photobook making than it should be.

This particular book could serve as a good example of what happens when attention is also paid to graphic design and production. The design feels very contemporary without trying too hard to chase current fads: it’s understated, yet elegant. And I like everything about the production: the book’s size, the cloth cover, the relatively small square, …

In other words, Small Town Portraits demonstrates how a fairly conventional catalog can be produced in such a way that not only the pictures but also the object “book” are made to shine. That should always be the goal.


Small Town Portraits; photographs by Dennis Dinneen; essay by Doireann Ní Ghríofa; 160 pages; murmur books; 2020

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[New books by Sibylle Fendt and Michał Adamski]]> 2020-11-23T17:33:26Z 2020-11-23T17:33:26Z

“Hundreds of thousands of people have fled across the Mediterranean Sea this year to escape war and persecution,” the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR wrote at the end of 2015. Two of the key events listed in the article have now resulted in photobooks.

In early September that year, after thousands of refugees decided to walk from Hungary to Germany, things accelerated very quickly, with Germany accepting over one million of them (please note that while the use of the word “refugee” in this context is contested — see some details here, I decided to stick with it, given it’s the term used in the UNHCR article).

As you can imagine, accommodating over a million people would strain the resources of any country. In what now can be considered the long term, Germany did very well; but of course the lived reality of all those who arrived with next to nothing varied considerably. A group of young men ended up in a former guesthouse in the Black Forest, located far from the next village and shopping facility.

Black Forest — that might sound nice, unless you imagine being stuck there in the legal limbo that German authorities only slowly managed to lift. “The mills of justice,” a German saying goes, “grind slowly” — and let’s not even get into discussing what’s contained in that term, justice. How do you even deal with such justice, which might insist in all kinds of paperwork, when all you have with your are the clothes on your body and, possibly, a few possessions? How can you prove anything in a country whose culture (if that’s the word) relies on requires written proof, usually in notarised form?

What do you do with your spare time (of which you have a lot), given you’re not allowed to work and the next village is far away, when you’re confined to what actually is a pretty shitty dump?

These questions sit at the center of Holzbachtal, nothing, nothing, a book by Berlin based photographer Sibylle Fendt. Over the course of a few years, Fendt drove to the shelter to spend time with the men. “I spent hours, days and weeks there,” she writes, “without anything happening. […] Usually, I was welcome, I was often invited to dinner and was allowed to pass the time in their company. Every so often however […] they wanted to be alone.” (quoted from the book’s brief afterword)

In a sense, the book is completely devoid of a story — what would be the story of “nothing”, of waiting endlessly for something to finally happen? How can you make “nothing” the story, in particular in and with photographs?

Fendt solved the problem the way any photographer would do it: by photographing the inhabitants of the shelter while they were going about their business of spending time until the moment when something happens. Phones provided a window out into the world, and where young men gather with nothing else to do, inevitably there will be weights to be lifted.

The (mental) proximity Fendt established with the men clearly comes across in their photos, whether they’re portraits or pictures of them doing something. In between, there are photographs of parts of the house, which was little more than a grimy mess — a mess one would imagine many of their peers would have also found themselves in after their arrival in one of the richest countries of the world (to imagine that some right-wing dipshit would inevitably complain about how good these refugees had/have it makes one’s blood boil).

A view towards the Black Forest from the same vantage position at various times of the day and year serves as the book’s introduction. Time somehow passes even as that passage of time does not appear to result in any meaningful change for the better. Maybe now that we’ve all gone through living under the pandemic, we have all caught a glimpse of what it might be like to wait somewhere for something better (obviously, unlike these refugees, we have had all our creature comforts while we were or are in lockdown).

I’m always hoping that getting a real glimpse of someone else’s suffering might make us better people. But we already know from history that that’s probably not going to happen. Why then even bother photographing or making books like  Holzbachtal, nothing, nothing? Because doing nothing is an even worse option. I’m here speaking for myself and not for Sibylle Fendt. I have known her for quite some time now, and I’m thinking she might be more optimistic. Either way, here’s a book about the ongoing refugee/migrant crisis in Europe.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, the country whose opening of the borders with Austria (literally a cutting of holes into a fence) accelerated the collapse of the East German communist regime, its autocratic leader Viktor Orbán built a new border fence, ostensibly to keep refugees out, but also to drum up even more support for his utterly corrupt regime.

The European Union has now started to look into the corruption, causing Orbán to rail against the organisation that his country decided to join. It’s not even that the EU minds a violation of the rules all countries agreed to abide by, it’s also not clear why European citizens should essentially pay to line Orbán’s and his allied oligarchs’ pockets.

Two tailed dog is Polish photographer Michał Adamski‘s portrayal of Hungary. The book is named after the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party, a satirical party that has achieved some actual electoral success. I’m liking what I’m reading on Wikipedia: “The party participated in the 2019 European Parliament election. Despite receiving 2.62% of the votes, it did not win a seat. Its campaign promises included building an overpass above the country for refugees, opening six Nemzeti Dohánybolt stores outside Hungary, introducing mandatory siesta and banning the Eurovision Song Contest.”

In a traditional political sense, such a party might appear being cynical. However, building an overpass above Hungary for refugees is only an absurd solution if you accept the problem as real. The moment you start asking the question why refugees shouldn’t be left into the country, such an overpass is not all that much more absurd than Orbán’s solution, the fence. In a nutshell, such parties subvert the widely shared assumption that elections should focus on determining which technocrat can provide the best solution for some technocratic problem (while autocrats and neo-fascists run circles around them).

In the book, a collection of scenes encountered in Hungary over the course of three years, quotes from either the Two-Tailed Dog Party or Viktor Orbán are presented. Outside of their context, they’re impossible to tell apart: both offer slogans that are grandiose and vague at the same time (along the lines of “Make America Great Again”) and pin the blame for any problem or crisis on outsiders (much like all autocrats, Orbán is both extremely nationalistic and more or less openly racist).

There is a clear disconnect between what is depicted in the photographs and the quotes — and it is this disconnect the drives the overall message home: some things are too complex to be understood with simplistic slogans. We better re-acquaint ourselves with that idea — instead of relying on “deeply divided” narratives that only serve as cash cows for today’s intellectually impoverished media landscape.

I can’t help but think that even as the Iron Curtain has come down, there still exists a clear divide between photographers from what used to be west of said curtain and photographers east of it. For a large number of reasons, that divide should not exist. But I bet a lot of people in the West would have a much easier time naming a British, German, or French photographer than a Polish, Czech, or Hungarian one.

In light of the fantastic work coming out of Eastern Europe and in light of how the same stories take on very slightly different meanings when told by someone from there, we ought to be doing more work to bridge the divide.

Holzbachtal, nothing, nothing; photographs and texts by Sibylle Fendt; 168 pages; Kehrer; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.4

Two tailed dog; photographs by Michał Adamski; appropriated text; 96 pages; Pix.House; 2019

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 3.0 – Overall 3.1

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Locusts]]> 2020-11-16T17:51:38Z 2020-11-16T17:51:38Z

In the US, it currently feels as if the country is finally getting out of an incredibly abusive relationship. With the exception of the hardcore “MAGA” crowd, everyone seems to be taking that much needed deep breath, knowing that very soon, nobody has to listen or pay attention to the malignant-narcissist-in-chief any longer. It’s not clear what will come next — there still are ample reasons to worry; but at least the noise level appears to have gone way down.

As a consequence, I’m thinking (or maybe just hoping) that we’re going to find more time for nuance again, in particular those small moments when something reveals itself that is unexpectedly beautiful. Photography is very good at dealing with that. This is not necessarily why I personally look at photographs (and I don’t think I have much hope of finding it with my own camera). However, without such photography my experience of dealing with the medium would be vastly impoverished.

The most recent photobook to have made me think about all of this (even before the election) is Jesse Lenz‘s The Locusts. When I first received the book, I was surprised to see its photographs. The book itself is rather large and imposing — unlike the vast majority of its pictures, which depict a fragile world in a very gentle manner.

In a variety of ways (and using a variety of cameras), the photographs centre on small moments in a world seemingly inhabited only by children and animals.

In particular the square pictures are real showstoppers. In one, a little toad is shown, sitting on a leaf of much larger plant, possibly enjoying the sun. In another, a little boy with what might be a mix of a drawing and a temporary tattoo on his face looks at the camera while clinging to an apple tree bearing fruit. The pattern of the shadow cast on his body has him partly blend into his environment.

It’s precious moments like these that connect the work beyond its immediate American predecessors to other photographers all over the world who find beauty in small moments that won’t last long and that might not be seen by anyone else. I’m thinking of Rinko Kawauchi, for example. There are many small moments in most of the photographs. As Kawuchi has demonstrated, that already would have been enough for a good book.

But The Locusts adds other elements. There are many pictures of children playing. When you’re a child, the world is your playground. I don’t know at what stage one loses this approach to one’s surroundings — I suppose at a certain age, you’re just “too old” for this (which, if you think about it, really is a shame — maybe we’d collectively be a little bit happier if we regained our sense of play).

And then there is mortality. In the bucolic setting the photographs were taken in, death is a lot more visible than in a city. Here it appears in the form of a dead coyote lying in a field or, one of my favourite pictures, a black cat staring intently at a little mouse right in front of it. In one picture, a child holds a (different) cat, and two pages later, there is a photograph of what looks like the same cat being prepared for burial — a cardboard box with what looks like a towel wrapped around the body serves as the coffin.

I never had children. But I’m guessing that for all the work and worry of raising them, they also offer bringing a sense of the world’s possibilities and joys — if, that is, one is receptive to it. One doesn’t need a camera to pay attention to what the world has to offer, but sometimes, having one helps. Lenz appears to have had at least one available on many occasions, which for sure explains the plethora of work on display in the book.

While I feel that the book probably should have been a little more intimate and not quite so hefty, and the edit could have been tighter, The Locusts for sure is an impressive debut book by a photographer who I’m sure we’re going to see and hear a lot more of in the future.

The Locusts; photographs by Jesse Lenz; 144 pages; Charcoal Press; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 2.5, Edit 1.5, Production 5.0 – Overall 3.5

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Vaterland]]> 2020-11-09T18:27:48Z 2020-11-09T18:27:48Z

Seventy five years after the end of World War 2 and 30 years after reunification, Germany is being assaulted by right-wing extremists again.

The aughts saw a series of killings that German police quickly dismissed as “döner murders” (the majority of the victims were part of the Turkish community) — only to find that they had in fact been committed by a group that called itself National Socialist Underground. In late 2019, Stephan Balliet, a 27 year-old neo-Nazi, attempted to enter a synagogue in Halle with a number of guns. It was only one sturdy door that prevented mass murder. Less than half a year later, Tobias Rathjen went on a shooting spree in Hanau, targeting two shisha bars. He killed ten people and wounded five others (all of the victims had a migratory background), before returning to his home, to kill his own mother and himself.

And on 29 August, 2020, a large mob of people consisting of neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists attempted to storm Berlin’s Reichstag, the iconic building that since reunification has served as the seat of the country’s democratically elected parliament. There, due to the government’s so-called Grand Coalition the far-right AfD party currently constitutes the largest opposition faction.

For me, living in the United States for the past 20 years has vastly increased the relevance of what is at stake in Germany’s second attempt to establish and maintain a democratic republic.

In a lot of ways, being physically removed from the country I was born in has had me engage with Germany a lot more closely than I think I would have had I stayed. Physical distance resulted in mental distance, and after a while, something in me rebelled against that mental distance. Especially in light of Germany’s Nazi past, being away felt too much like trying not to be connected to a historical burden that I cannot deny.

At the same time, the Germany that revealed itself in the 2000s was a lot different than the one I had grown up in. Suddenly, there were all the neo-Nazis and far-right politicians crawling out of their holes.

But there was also the Germany that would welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015, the Germany where the public sphere would see many citizens of migratory background play a major role — unlike the (West) Germany that I had grown up in.

I didn’t set out to create what would become my first photobook, Vaterland, when I started photographing in 2016.

Originally, I wanted to explore the region in Europe’s heart whose largest parts are made out of Germany and Poland, Central Europe. On my trips to Warsaw, Germany’s past became something that would always only be another serendipitous photographic discovery away.

At the same time, the 2017 federal elections in Germany, after which the far-right AfD ended up becoming the largest opposition party on a national level, caused enormous outrage in me — outrage combined with a deep sense of shame. That outrage only grew as parts of the conservative spectrum belittled the danger that I have been perceiving the country to be in.

I’m neither a journalist nor a documentarian. With Vaterland, I don’t attempt to be either one of these.

I intend the book to be what in German is called a Stimmungsbild — a metaphorical image expressing a mood.

I don’t have any explanations for what I see in Germany. But for sure I know how I feel. Vaterland is an expression of my unease, of my worries, of my upset, of my realization to what extent Germany and its past are an integral part of my own life.

You can find more photographs from the book here.

Vaterland is published by Kerber Verlag. If you would like to get a copy from my own pre-sale, please send me an email (

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Social Photo and Collective Modern Life]]> 2020-11-02T17:37:39Z 2020-11-02T17:37:39Z

The dominant Western model for creation in the field of visual arts is one that puts the individual front and center. According to this model, art, in whatever form, is created by a single person: the painter, the photographer, the print maker, the sculptor… An extreme form of this idea is provided by the artistic genius who, we are led to believe, creates her or his work out of thin air, through a combination of incredibly talent, hard work, and an outstanding personality.

In reality, making art is not that simple, and the history of art cannot be told simply as a succession of such geniuses. To begin with, many artists relied or rely on a larger number of helpers that work in their workshops or studios. However, in a world focused on artistic genius such approaches to art making will get folded into the general narrative. For example, whole legions of art historians now work on determining whether a painting was in fact produced by some famous artist or by someone in the workshop. In the contemporary art market, an artist might have never touched a piece of art in question, but it still is attributed to them (and not to the usually underpaid and anonymous minion responsible for its creation).

This approach neatly ties in with capitalism, which has resulted in an elaborate set of rules and laws to make sure the genius artist can legally defend her or his work, regardless of whether or not it was actually made by her or him. The topic of plagiarism, for example, almost always comes down to determining whose copyright was violated, who, in other words, stole something from whom. In fact, the idea of plagiarism itself also rests on the model of one artist being the sole creator of a piece of art.

Perhaps because it is such a technical and relatively new medium, photography has internalised these ideas to a very large degree. The history of photography is told as the succession of a few eras — some more arbitrarily defined than others — each of which was triggered and/or dominated by a very small number of practitioners.

When during the era of postmodernism a number of artists began to subvert some of these ideas, there quickly was an intellectual mechanism created that cemented the status of the single artist. Appropriation was seen not as a sharing of authorship — something that intellectual property rights have no easy way of dealing with, but as one author creating something that is uniquely their own out of some other author’s visuals. This approach works well for the economic interests in the background — large galleries that profit from an appropriator making money off someone else’s work; but in a legal sense, it can lead to some very, very iffy outcomes (just look at the various famous lawsuits in the world of art, many of them involving Richard Prince).

That all said, the idea that an artist pulls something out of thin air is actually very, very unlikely. Art historians have done a good job at connecting pieces of art to earlier pieces of art. In much the same fashion, contemporary artists are usually very adept at describing their work in a way that acknowledges some influences, while making sure that these influences do not overshadow their own contribution.

As Roland Barthes noted, the traditional approach to authorship is flawed. For example, we almost never have access to an artist’s intentions, ideas, or biography. So, he argued, isn’t it us readers or viewers who create the meaning of a piece of art? There’s much to be said for this approach to art — unless, of course, you’re an artist or someone selling art, in which case you want to retain the Deutungshoheit over what’s on view (Deutungshoheit is such a beautiful German word, translated here as either “interpretational sovereignty” or “prerogative of interpretation” — so many characters in such complicated words for such a simple German word!).

I like Barthes’ idea, but I don’t think it goes far enough. In his relationship between a piece of art and its reception by an audience, the arrow points only in one direction: the piece of art exists, and its reception is then contingent on its existence. That makes a lot of sense for most pieces of art, especially those who were created a long time ago, before we — the contemporary audience — were alive.

What about today’s art, though? In particular what about today’s photographs?

If we were to approach the problem using a Gedankenexperiment (another beautiful German word that has already made it into English), we might ask what the inversion of that arrow would look like. As it turns out, our Gedankenexperiment already is a reality.

In fact, ever since photography has become the visual currency of social media, the vast majority of photographs is produced in a way that essentially subverts what we could call the classical model of authorship, in which a single author creates something based on mostly her or his ideas.

I want to call these pictures “social photographs.” In essence, we take social photographs not despite the fact that everybody else takes them, but because we all take them. None of the considerations that might guide artists apply to social photographs. Social photographs are obviously not original at all — how original is a photograph of a sunset? In fact, social photographs are not even being taken for their own sake — to have a photograph. Instead, they are being taken because to do so means participation in a larger, agreed-upon setting.

For example, when we travel we take social photographs of sites that are part of the larger social canon. A trip to Paris, for example, would be incomplete without a photo of the Eiffel Tower, much like a visit to the Louvre would be incomplete without a picture of the Mona Lisa (or actually the crowds around it — because that is the event, not the painting).

In a legal sense, when I take a picture of the Eiffel Tower, it is still my photograph. It is a unique photo, regardless of how much it might resemble thousands of other pictures. But to approach my Eiffel Tower photo this way is a pointless exercise. I am actually not the author of the photograph, much like none of the other people who take a picture of the Eiffel Tower are their authors. Instead, we share a collective authorship.

This collective authorship is completely at odds with standard ideas of what it means to be an author. My photo of the Eiffel Tower exists because I took it, knowing that by taking it I allow myself to become a part of a larger group of people. In other words, my taking of the picture is a social act. By construction, social acts do not rely on exclusivity. In fact, exclusivity or creative genius is completely at odds with social acts.

Social acts rely on people doing things based on the situations they’re in. They’re not fixed, but they’re agreed upon. For example, once the pandemic hit and people realized that shaking hands when greeting each other would run counter best medical practices, elbow touching became a thing.

I’ve never met someone who uses the handshake because that’s an activity they really enjoy (there might be such people). It’s just something you do, much like how in certain countries you hug or bow or exchange a kiss (or more) on the cheek(s) etc.

What this means is that to approach social photographs as if they were pictures created by artists is completely misguided. Such an approach can only lead to the absurd ideas and theses that are promoted in photoland when photos of sunsets or selfies are discussed. The dismissal of the selfie as a narcissistic exercise only shows how far removed from the lived experience of people’s lives large parts of photoland actually are.

People take social photographs because that’s what you do. A very obvious consequence of this fact is that social photographs are being shared. But neither the photographs nor their sharing actually matters all that much. It’s just what you do. When you photograph a sunset and put the picture on Instagram what you really do is to partake in the experience of what it means to be alive as a human being. This is not to say that you need to take such pictures. But when you can and you do it, then that’s being part of the human condition.

Who, after all, does not admire a beautiful sunset? (If you don’t, you might want to discuss this with your therapist.) Who does not enjoy the experience of being at a concert or on a trip that you’ve been looking forward to for so long?

Our social photographs have their predecessors in picture postcards. I’m old enough to remember that not so long ago, going on vacation almost inevitably included buying postcards and sending them to friends and family. Of course, you would pick the postcard(s) you liked the most — out of a selection that offered the very same motifs. Photographically, those postcards weren’t that great. Often, the colours were radioactive, and there were all kinds of goofy design elements added to them. But you wouldn’t buy a postcard for the photography; you’d buy it to send it, with a few short notes added. Even those notes often weren’t particularly memorable. The point was to send the postcard to a friend or family member because that was part of being on vacation as a member of a social group.

As I noted, there are many other social acts that we somehow have agreed upon, whether it’s shaking hands, kissing under a mistletoe, saying “Happy Birthday” on certain days, or saying “Gesundheit” when someone sneezes. Photography has simply become a part of the social activities we are engaged in.

Nobody is forced to participate. You don’t have to take a picture of a sunset, much like you don’t have to shake hands or kiss under a mistletoe. It’s up to you.

With social acts all ideas of originality or individual authorship go out of the window.

When I spoke of inverting the arrow in the relationship above, it is exactly the creation of something that we all already know what it looks like. In a Barthian sense, the meaning of social photographs is created by us viewers, but the actual meaning does not lie in the pictures. Instead, it lies in their making.

One last comment, with the above I’m not arguing that social photographs are necessarily profound. Many of the social acts we perform — someone’s sneezing: “Gesundheit!” — aren’t profound. Profundity is besides the point for social photographs. Or rather it’s not the pictures that are profound, it’s the social connections behind them.

As a consequence, the fact that we don’t look at most of the social photographs we end up with on our smartphones or computers is completely besides the point. In much the same fashion, we don’t dwell on the fact that we said “Gesundheit!” to a complete stranger when we heard her sneeze, and we don’t remember the handshakes or elbow bumps we used. The only thing that these photograph point at is the fact that we engaged with the world in a social fashion.

Consequently, social photographs do not devalue photography in any way. Instead, they show us that the act of photographing itself has become an integral part of our collective modern lives.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Goraiko]]> 2020-10-26T19:03:13Z 2020-10-26T19:03:13Z

Having dreamt of waterfalls, Tadanori Yokoo decided he would have to paint some. Given there were no actual waterfalls nearby, he started looking at postcards collected over the years. But he had too few of them, so he started asking people to find postcards of waterfalls for him, not realising that the request would turn into a veritable deluge that was as difficult to stop as an actual waterfall. In the end, he turned the 13,000 postcards into Waterfall Rapture (Postcards of Falling Water), which was published in 1996.

The book is mesmerizing for a number of reasons. To begin with, the postcards are organised by type, content, and/or era. For example, there are spreads that show postcards with lenticular images, spreads that show postcards of waterfall in the fall (red foliage), etc. (Someone must have taken the time to do that work.)

Furthermore, certain tropes repeat, but the number of actual tropes is surprisingly large. (Would this also hold true for sunsets?) Not surprisingly, some waterfalls feature more prominently than others. But their depictions might vary in terms of the tropes used, or the very same photograph might look very differently based on when it was hand-coloured (or possibly by whom).

In the end, the many postcards of waterfalls tell us a lot more than we might imagine. They’re only superficially postcards of waterfalls, but mostly expressions of our human engagement with them, with our wanting to share the joy (or maybe obligation) of being in the presence of a waterfall.

In Japan’s Shinto religion, kami — which you can think of as gods or spirits — play an important role. I’m simplifying this terribly, but much like people, kami need to be housed somewhere, which leads to the concept of shintai, “physical objects worshiped at or near Shinto shrines because a kami is believed to reside in them.” These could be a variety of objects, including mountains, which “were among the first, and are still among the most important, shintai, and are worshiped at several famous shrines”. Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain (and an active vulcano), is the most prominent one (for a lot more details about Mount Fuji, see this article).

As a brief aside, Shintoism sees the kami of mountains as goddesses. However, in the past, this fact led to women being barred from mountains (or tunnels). Kittredge Cherry explains in Womansword — What Japanese Words Say About Women that this was because “the female mountain spirit enjoys the attentions of men so much that she would get jealous if a woman were around to distract the guys.” (p. 27) Amazing how even when believing in goddesses the sexism in Japanese society was still able to restrict women’s rights.

When I first encountered Fiona Tan‘s Goraiko, these aforementioned ideas came straight up for me. The book is a catalog published at the occasion of an exhibition at Sprengel Museum Hannover in 2019 after the artist had been awarded the SPECTRUM International Prize for Photography of the Stiftung Niedersachsen. The exhibition’s main piece was Ascent, a 77 minute long projection of images, sounds, and voices (there also exists a movie — I have seen neither).

After a series of install shots from the exhibition, the bulk of the book consists of a section entitled A selection from the archives. Essentially following Yokoo’s approch, Tan had first collected her own photographs and postcards before asking the general public (through an appeal facilitated by the Izu Photo Museum, which is located near the mountain). She then compiled the images into Ascent, with sound and spoken text added.

The archives section follows Yokoo’s approach from Waterfall Rapture. Specifically, every spread contains four images that each show Mount Fuji in a very similar fashion: the snowy peak, clouds around the mountain, cherry blossoms, trains running in the foreground, World War 2 era war planes above the mountain, crappy pictures taken from a rapidly moving vehicle, people posing against the mountain’s background… The list goes on and on.

In light of what I wrote about Waterfall Rapture, it might not surprise the reader to learn that the more of these types of tropes show up, the more interesting things get. It is akin to looking at a contemporary version of Katsushika Hokusai‘s Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (the inevitable art-historical reference). But where the ukiyo-e artist’s concern was purely pictorially dealing with Japan, Tan’s is photo-sociological, diving into the uses of the nation’s most famous symbol.

Another brief aside: Mount Fuji might be the only specific “object” that is represented by two emojis: directly as the mountain itself — 🗻 , and indirectly through Hokusai’s famous wave, most closely followed by the Apple version of the wave emoji — 🌊. Of course, Hokusai’s wave only exist because it crests on top of the mountain in the image’s projected view.

As becomes obvious from Goraiko, the real value, the real meaning of photography can only be found beyond its photographs. These are just stepping stones through which we communicate with one another.

This fact becomes especially clear in the case of Mount Fuji, given that its prominence in the landscape and the nature of that landscape itself allow for a variety of uses that simply do not exist for most other landmarks.

Seen that way, it is not surprising that Hokusai would produce his Views at a time when photography almost existed (remember, around the time photographs were already made, but all efforts focused on fixing them, to prevent them from fading away). There’s something proto-photographic about ukiyo-e, in the sense that it tapped into the same sensibilities that photography would most successfully exploit.

Already a Shinto icon, Mount Fuji thus became a cultural icon, whose relevance quickly became known outside of Japan as well. Flying into Tokyo twice, I did crane my neck to see it out of the airplane’s window. It really is spectacularly beautiful, given its striking symmetry that is almost perfect. But Mount Fuji also is something that I knew and felt had the larger relevance I had heard of and I was now able to connect. I didn’t take any pictures, though.

Goraiko; images by Fiona Tan; texts by Lavinia Francke, Stefan Gronert, Fiona Tan; 176 pages; Van Zoetendaal Publishers; 2019

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Hiroh Kikai 1945-2020]]> 2020-10-19T17:13:43Z 2020-10-19T17:11:25Z

To claim that the pithy captions of Hiroh Kikai‘s long-term portraiture endeavour Persona would be able to stand on their own is not to take anything away from the photographs they were paired with. “A man who burst into tears when he heard my Tohoku dialect, saying it reminded him of his departed friend.” “A person who was carrying a paper bag containing a potted plant and a big box of mosquito coils.” “A man who lives alone and confesses that, even though he has suffered a subarachnoid hemorrhage, he can not stop drinking.” Much like photographs, writing can carry small worlds, and if anyone was able to masterfully pair them it was this Japanese photographer.

In conversation, Kikai would take off in all kinds of directions, making it clear that — good for him! — photography only interested him as a means to an end. He understood and spoke some English, but like many savvy non-native speakers, he did so selectively. Inevitably, having used the extent of his English, or having maybe realised things had to take a different turn, Kikai would launch into his type of speech, delivered in what to this foreigner sounded like an intense staccato of fiercely clipped consonants; at which point one of the other Japanese people present would attempt to translate. You would always hear afterwards how his Northern dialect was difficult to understand.

When you’re a stranger to another language or attempt to learn it, it always sounds as if it were spoken at an incredible pace. But with Kikai it was never the pace that seemed to overwhelm, it was the sheer intensity of conviction that was being conveyed. I’m sure he could have ordered a loaf of bread in a bakery, and I would have been impressed by the delivery, thinking I had just witnessed a truly profound human transaction.

But there is something truly profound about any human interaction, even when it’s just about a loaf of bread. This, in a nutshell, was being stressed by Kikai when he spoke of or about photographs. “If you’re not in need of anything,” he once told a student, “nothing will come out of your photographs.” “If it’s not challenging you,” another one heard, “it’s not interesting.”

For Kikai, things never had to be challenging or interesting for their own sake: “It has to be as simple as ‘I love you’.” And his photographs are simple. Persona, the body of work he is most well known for, is simple in terms of content and execution. For years, the photographer would go to Sensoji temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa area, hang around, observe people, and occasionally approach someone to take a picture. The photographs would always happen against one of the temple’s walls, and the person would be centered in the square frame of his Hasselblad camera.

Decades of this endeavour resulted in a variety of books, with the last one entitled The Final Chapter 2005-2018. Something had come to an end, Kikai had realised. Indeed, compared with the earlier ones the viewer can sense a change in these latest photographs. The earlier ones were published by Steidl as Asakusa Portraits . If you’re looking for those pictures, given the Steidl book is out of print, you might as well look for a copy of one of the Japanese Persona books (the printing is vastly better). The later photographs show how Asakusa had changed, depriving the photographer of the rich canvas of people to choose from; the canvas had been replaced with a more generic variant.

In his life time, Kikai produced a large amount of writing, most of it not translated into a Western language. When I last saw him he proudly told me how there were translations into Chinese prepared (there had been a growing interest in his work in China). Asakusa Portraits contains some of his essays, and they’re almost entirely devoid of any mention of photography. Instead, there is ample talk of doing the laundry, of going out to the temple to wait for pictures while observing people, of getting food at some lunch joint. “It’s not about photographs,” the photographer once said, “it’s about living.”

While Kikai is mostly known for his Sensoji portraits, there are other bodies of work that made it into book form. He had traveled to Turkey and India and photographed there. The resulting photographs are deeply steeped in a classical humanistic tradition, and many of them are good. But none of them managed to reach the magic he appeared to find so effortlessly around that temple in Tokyo.

“The most important message a photograph can deliver,” Hiroh Kikai once summed up his belief in the medium, “is that it’s worth it being a human being.”

Hiroh Kikai died on 19 October 2020 in Tokyo.

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Heart of Darkness]]> 2020-10-12T16:01:26Z 2020-10-12T16:01:26Z

Seen against the trajectory of his artistic path so far, Ron Jude‘s new book 12Hz comes out of left field (full disclosure: MACK is also the publisher of my own Photography’s Neoliberal Realism). For two reasons, I find this development most welcome. To begin with, I’ve always found Jude’s previous works a bit too carefully controlled, too mediated. Obviously photography lends itself to exactly that, to mediate an experience through layers of introspection and control. But as a viewer I want to experience more.

Second, the new work seems entirely fitting for the times we live in. It’s dark not just in a literal sense; it’s also dark in terms of what it conveys. Even though most of the photographs technically are as controlled as his earlier work, I can’t help but feel that something broke through this time. The end result is an overwhelming sense of dread when faced with the hostile world we live in.

We humans tend to think of the world as something we control. If anything, the whole idea of the anthropocene is based on that: look at us, we humans now managed to change the planet on the largest possible scale. We’re the masters of our universe — and much like Goethe’s sorcerer’s apprentice, we now find that we can’t control the forces any longer that we unleashed.

The reality is, after all, that the Universe is entirely indifferent to us. Assuming we manage to survive long enough as a species, in a few billions years our own sun will undergo a massive change as it nears the end of its life, causing it to expand and completely destroy the inner parts of the solar system, including our planet.

Putting a value or moral judgment onto the world is a pointless exercise. In the now infamous words of the malignant fool currently occupying the White House, it is what it is. The Universe is indifferent to us. Still, we can’t but help project a judgment onto the world because that’s what we do with everything and everybody.

It is exactly this conflict between an uncaring world and us humans hoping, wishing, thinking that our own preconceptions and feelings are somehow met with something comparable that appears to have spawned the pictures in 12Hz. Of course, this is the basis of the idea of the sublime.

To make the photographs in the book, Jude ventured into what looks like the wild — locations, the colophon informs us, in Oregon, California, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Iceland. The majority of the photographs in the much larger first section depict tightly cropped views of rocks, ice sheets, raging bodies of water, with only occasional minor appearances of flora. The photographic description serves to stress the hostility to most forms of life in these locations.

There is an interesting push and pull between pure description (photographic formalism) and crossing the threshold of having pictures communicate something entirely different. I still have not been able to make up my mind how I feel about this fact, so I can’t write more about it other than the following. Given the presence of this push and pull — where some picture describe, whereas other allude to something way outside the frame, I’m left to feel that Jude’s feelings towards these locations were adversarial.

Thus, even though at a surface level, there is a large degree of similarity between this work and Awoiska van der Molen‘s, these two artist’s photographs end up speaking about something very different. Where the Dutch artist’s work is accepting of the world in front of the camera, Jude is not. I couldn’t say that I prefer one over the other; all I could say is that I prefer not to see their work next to each other.

There is a second part in 12Hz, which is printed on a different (much thinner) paper stock and which is much shorter. In an obvious sense, it’s the complete inverse of the first, with depictions of (again) tightly cropped parts of vegetation. These pictures are obscene, and I neither mean this in a sexual sense nor do I want to imply a value judgment.

These pictures of garbled messes of vegetation depict the world just as hostile to us as in the photographs of rocks or ice sheets. Maybe I’m using the word “obscene” because there is life depicted in the pictures, but boy, what kind of life it is. It shows no restraint.

This then brings me back to the times we live in: aren’t they obscene and revolting in so many senses of these word, whether it’s the sheer crassness of so many of our leaders or the widespread indifference to humans’ and animals’ suffering? Wherever you look, it feels as if the next abyss to stare into is not just around the corner — it’s already right in your face.

Of course, this obscenity is man-made (it is, after all, mostly men responsible for it); in another sense, however, it only mirrors the world’s sheer indifference to human life. And it is exactly this that is on display in 12Hz.

It’s a book I can only look at during the day. For sure it is one of the best books published this year.


12Hz; photographs by Ron Jude; short text by Paul Kingsnorth; 128 pages; MACK; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.2

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[A Few Fragmented Thoughts on Michael Schmidt (In No Particular Order)]]> 2020-10-05T16:26:10Z 2020-10-05T16:26:10Z

To begin with, I can’t talk about Michael Schmidt without acknowledging how much of an inspiration some of his work has been for my own photography. I’m thinking here in particular of his masterpiece Ein-Heit and to a lesser extent 89/90.


Whatever you might think about Schmidt’s work, whether, in other words, you like it or not, I think it’s impossible to deny his ability to shape it both through the form of the photobook and the form of the exhibition. In fact, while many artists can be thought of as preferring one over the other, often for somewhat superficial reasons, Schmidt excelled in executing both equally well.


The books are what we’re left with. But there also is the major retrospective that is currently on view at Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof (it’s due to travel to a number of other venues afterwards), which, alas, I am unable to visit and see. The retrospective comes with a massive companion catalog that provides the basis for these thoughts.


The presence of Thomas Weski as the person in charge of Schmidt’s archive is most fortuitous, given his deep insight into and knowledge of the late artist’s process and thinking. It is Weski who curated and organised the retrospective and who made available a variety of previously unseen material: work prints and other previously unpublished materials, book dummies, exhibition posters and cards, and more.



I only met Schmidt once, roughly a decade ago at his gallery in Berlin. At the time, I didn’t know all that much about him, which in retrospect might not have been such a bad thing. For sure, I would have been able to ask more specific questions, had I known more about, say, Ein-Heit. On the other hand, when I walked with him to a restaurant in the company of a group who only spoke English and I felt I had to engage in some small talk (which is not something I’m very good at), asking the kinds of questions you don’t ask when you know more about an artist turned out to be a gift. For all I heard about him later — he was said to be famously gruff with people (to the point of grudges still making the rounds in today’s Berlin), he was warm, honest, and open when he spoke of his beginnings as a photographer.


When you heard Schmidt speak, you heard a real Berliner: theirs is the German dialect and attitude most likely to offend all other Germans (if you want to learn more about it, this video is very good). If as a foreigner you think Germans are rude, given they tell you what they think (in Germany, to do the opposite would be rude), in Berlin you’re really going to get it. Berliners sound as if you’ve just offended them (which, granted, you might have, maybe by being a bit too coy or precious). I personally find this rather endearing; your mileage might vary. While Schmidt’s general filter might have been a bit on the weaker side, delivering “the goods” with a Berlin dialect for sure helped cement his reputation.


Schmidt also was a self-made artist in the truest sense. Born into a rather modest family background and self-trained as a photographer, he never managed to stop people mentioning that his first job had been being a policeman. Add to that the fact that he was not very tall, and you had all the ingredients for what you could think of a bulldog: someone who felt the need to be incredibly assertive while dotting all the i’s. In the catalog, you see a larger number of materials that hint at Schmidt’s attempts to present himself in a very specific way.



Given that Schmidt had to learn how to be a photographer without much of a formal education, the form of his books and exhibitions for sure comes as no surprise. He worked incredibly hard on them because he felt he had to. There was no other option. There was no room for sloppiness. Sloppiness would have had people talk about the former policeman who now wanted to be an artist (Germans can be ruthless when they want to). And what he demanded from himself, he demanded from others (which in general isn’t a good idea).


In the book, there is a letter he wrote in which he detailed his method of photographing. “In order to learn more about a district, I drive down each street twice in both directions using the district map; this means that I have seen every street and its buildings in the district usually at least twice, but often even more often. […] Per day, the task is to cover and view roughly 1/20th of the district. On my map, I mark each path that I took or drove.” (p. 32 in the catalogue’s German edition; my translation) In light of this, a body of work such as Berlin nach 1945 with its variants of views of the same street becomes instantly clear: Schmidt was looking very, very hard for pictures.


This is a very interesting approach to inspiration: you don’t wait for it to come and then start work. You work and work, and things will take off when it arrives — in part because it will be triggered by something you encounter while working. But it might not arrive for many months.



Schmidt also looked very hard at pictures, his own as much as other people’s. The catalog unfolds a breadth of work that makes it clear how much he must have looked, how much he must have taken in from others. I found myself surprised at this breadth. I also noticed how certain motifs kept recurring (not necessarily in the same form, though).


There is, after all, the Schmidt beyond the Waffenruhe one, beyond the Ein-Heit one. One was steeped in a New Topographics approach (as in Berlin-Wedding and Berlin nach 1945). There was the early Schmidt who was clearly inspired by classical social-documentary approaches, which today are mostly dismissed for the wrong reasons (it is as if some people can only imagine a Waffenruhe Schmidt). There’s the late Schmidt who’d occasionally misfire (as with the dreadful Frauen), and who’d then move on to bring back colour and considerable experimentation with Lebensmittel. And yes, colour had been a part of Schmidt’s early commercial work, as is being shown in the catalogue.


I find it interesting how consistently Schmidt managed to arrive at high quality. Of all the books I’ve seen I can’t think of one where there are too many or bad pictures.


I don’t necessarily want to speculate about the man’s personal life. But I’m thinking that it can’t have been easy being Schmidt. I remember Thomas Weski showing binders filled with contact sheets at the archive. Going through an in-between year provided a glimpse at the stark reality of relentless art making or rather: of failing to make art. Schmidt strove to at least partly re-invent himself after a finished body of work, and that was evidenced by his contact sheets. The process must have been a painful, with talk of a former policeman pretending to be an artist just one misstep in the final result away.



At the end of the day, there will have to be a re-writing of the history of German photography. That new history will have to accommodate the fact that for a while there were two strands of German photography, an East German one and a West German one. Their joint tradition notwithstanding, there were clear differences. Schmidt clearly was a West German photographer. Berlin is said to have been his subject, but no, it was West Berlin.


The difference between East and West German photography does not come down to good or bad. Instead, it’s a matter of recognition. For the most part, the history of the medium has a lot of work to do to give East German artists their due: A future history of German photography must not follow the lead of “re-unification,” which in reality and form was an incorporation of East Germany into the West German federal structure with very little, if any adjustments by the West (the consequences of this fact will be with Germany for a long time).


Back to Schmidt: here we have a West German photographer operating in West Berlin, making West German work. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but we also need to be very clear about it.


Having seen the archive and the previously unpublished material in the catalogue has left me wondering to what extent there is something else in Schmidt’s oeuvre that could be unearthed by a curator. Of course, this is where things can get iffy: after all, to what extent can you, should you look into something an artist decided against publishing during their life time? For sure, Schmidt’s case is bit different than Winogrand’s (where there were all those undeveloped rolls of film — if an artist doesn’t even look at their work, why should anyone else?). In fact, you could already extract a few unrelated photographs from the catalogue and create something different.


With some of Schmidt’s books re-issued (Weski has been doing a stellar job bringing the photographer’s work back), the one still missing is Ein-Heit. As I wrote above, I consider it as the by far best body of work. Its ambition and scope is unsurpassed. It’s dense and opaque. It doesn’t necessarily make for the most rewarding experience unless a viewer is prepared to immerse her or himself repeatedly. Given its many historical references, a reissue might want to include a study section that reveals some of the historical references (the catalogue shows the sources of two images appropriated by Schmidt).


The catalogue contains a number of in-depth essays by authors who worked with and knew Schmidt and who are able to provide more context around the different stages of the artist’s career. It’s a most attractive and hefty package. If you have almost 5cm/2″ to spare on one of your bookshelves, do yourself a favour and get a copy.


Michael Schmidt: Fotografien 1965–2014 (or Photographs 1965–2014 in the case of the English language version); essays by Ute Esklidsen, Janos Frecot, Peter Galassi, Heinz Liesbrock, Thomas Weski; 400 pages; Koenig Books, London; 2020

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Portraits and Dreams]]> 2020-09-28T17:38:26Z 2020-09-28T17:38:26Z

I have long thought of photography as being centred on what you do with cameras and photographs — instead of merely as being centred on cameras and photographs. In other words, I see photographs as means to an end — and not as the end itself. Of course, I enjoy a lot of photography that ends with printed pictures in expensive frames. But ultimately the fetish of the print bores me (it helps that all the photos I like are priced way out of my reach).

There’s something very restrictive to having photography centre on the fetish of the print, or maybe the printed picture. Over the past few years, I’ve seen a lot of photography that looked great as part of the stream of images on Instagram but fell completely flat when printed. This is as much an issue of translation (screen to print) as of context. Some pictures rely on the context of the stream: instead of losing their lustre (as critics like to claim), they actually gain from sparkling as the gems they are when surrounded by mediocrity.

If you instead think about photography as what you do with cameras and pictures, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll end up in social contexts, the same social contexts that under neoliberal capitalism have become increasingly impoverished, to the point where we now mistaken typing short messages into our smartphones in isolation as being “social.”

In a social context, there is a give and take — this sits at the core of something being social. The opposite of this would be to only take. Photographers take pictures. Thus, on its own, and if it ends there, photography is an extractive practice.

Over the past few months, I’ve seen this word used more and more: extractive. To extract is to take something and make it your own. Extraction is inherently tied to capitalism, especially its neoliberal kind that does away with any social obligations.

But photography can be more than extraction, because there is what you do with pictures. Like I noted, you can print your pictures and hang them on a wall, adorned by expensive frames. That way, you mostly aim for beauty (let’s ignore the inevitable commerce bit). The idea of beauty is social, too: if I find something beautiful and I can’t find a single other person on this planet who does as well, is that still beauty?

The appreciation of visual beauty, however, is not social (especially when compared to music). At San Francisco’s Pier 24, they only allow in a small number of visitors so each person can enjoy the photographs on their own. I personally find this not enjoyable at all (it’s actually rather creepy).

I would rather go to a museum and not only look at pictures but also notice other people looking and reacting to what is on view. I personally prefer the shared experience, even as what is shared is literally only the fact that something unsharable — an interior experience — is happening in the presence of strangers.

I suppose what this comes down to is that I enjoy photography that is made to be shared. This is part of the enjoyment I get out of good photobooks: beyond the pictures, there’s something else happening, someone thinking about how to shape a unique experience. With its many different options, the photobook also allows for photography to move beyond its extractive state.

A prime example of how photography can overcome its extractiveness is provided by Wendy Ewald‘s Portraits and Dreams: Photographs and Stories by Children of the Appalachians, recently reissued by MACK in an updated and expanded version (full disclosure: MACK are going to publish an expanded version of one of my essays as part of their Discourse series.).

In 1976, fresh out of college, Ewald moved to a very rural part of Kentucky and started teaching photography to children there. Like many parts of the United States, Appalachia has a stereotype affixed to it. If we just stay with photography this has resulted in its people being portrayed in ways that might be unique for the US: typically, it only is regions — or whole countries — elsewhere, far away, that were or are being depicted in such a skewed and cruel manner. To learn more, this interview with Roger May is a good starting point.

“The students,” Ewald writes, “bought ten-dollar Instamatic cameras from me; I hoped that by buying the cameras they would value them as things that had worked for and would have as long as they took care of them. If they didn’t have the money, they earned it by mowing lawns, or holding a bake sale or a raffle. I supplied the students with film and flash.” (p. 113)

The majority of photographs in the book were taken by the children — as is evidenced by their technical qualities. In one of the texts in the book, there is talk of a Hasselblad camera Ewald used. There are some photographs that clearly look as if they had been taken with such a camera. Mostly, though, the pictures have an Instamatic look.

In addition, the majority of the photographs come with a name and caption underneath. For the most part, these captions are prosaic descriptions, even though at times, the children also talk about the ideas that went into the photographs they made (“I dreamt I killed my best friend, Ricky Dixon” — Allen Shepherd, p. 96).

There also are extended texts that read like transcriptions of what the children told Ewald. Again, these texts range from the prosaic to the profound — in a way that only children could come up with. In a nutshell, it is the children who tell the story of their part of the world through their photographs and words.

The children’s photographs were the outcome of assignments: make a portrait, make a picture of a dream. How does one go about making a picture of a dream? Adult artists would probably agonise over such an assignment. But children just do it: there’s the dream, so you assemble your props and, where needed, a friend, and then you make a picture.

“In 2008,” Ewald writes, “[…] forty years after I began collaborating with the students whose photographs appear in the book, many of them, now in their forties, started to get in touch.” This is the first sentence in her brief essay that marks the beginning of the expansion of the original book. Here, some of the students speak about their lives now, again with a mixture of text and photographs.

Portraits and Dreams offers such a strong counter model to photography’s extractiveness that it deserves to be seen for that alone. At the same time, though, the book also provides an endearing look into the lives of people who grew up in Appalachia, often with rough family lives.

At the end of the day, every photographer will have to make her or his own decision concerning how to deal with what the medium has to offer. As I have argued before, s/he will also have to deal with the fact that the age of innocence in photography is truly over (assuming it actually ever existed). There just is so much baggage from the history of the medium that many areas of photography are incredibly problematic.

This does not necessarily have to translate into a prohibition of entering those areas: maybe there are other ways of dealing with a subject matter that avoid obvious problems? As Wendy Ewald demonstrated when Portraits and Dreams was first published, you can make work in Appalachia that does not reduce the area to the bad stereotypes that, sadly, are still being produced today.

It is exactly here where thinking about photography as a social practice — and not as some fancy craft — can help. For the fancy craftsmen any discussion of (for them) unforeseen consequences of their work always amounts to something unpleasant. More often than not this outcome would have been completely avoidable if the process of photography had not been stopped with the pictures.

If anything, Portraits and Dreams demonstrates what is gained from allowing your subjects to enter your work as active participants — instead of being merely subjects whose picture you take. Or, in Wendy Ewald’s words: “these students taught me the guiding principle of my life’s work: to frame the world according to others’ vision, as well as to my own.” (p. 125)


Portraits and Dreams; photographs and texts by Wendy Ewald and her students; original introductory essay by Ben Lifson; 160 pages; MACK; 2020

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[How to Add Words to Pictures]]> 2020-09-22T01:40:40Z 2020-09-21T16:06:47Z

How do you go tackle writing about your photographs? This question poses possibly the most vexing challenge for most photographers. I keep coming back to it because I write about other people’s pictures, and I listen to or read what photographers say or write about their own work. In some ways, the preceding is going to be a variant of older pieces (you can find them here and here). However, now I feel that I have more clarity about the subject than before.

Very few photographers have experience with writing, or rather with “serious” writing. After all, we all know how to write. But it is one thing to write an email, and it is quite another to write a project statement. Why is that?

If you feel you are unable to write about your work for sure you can talk about it? That ought to be a lot easier. But often, it is not.

If you have a tough time talking about your work, you’re not alone. Many photographers are terrible at talking about their work. You could probably easily remember a case where you were thinking just that. Maybe you attended a talk by someone; or you listened to a photographer attempting to talk about their work on any of those various internet channels that have become very popular ever since the pandemic hit.

Thus, the question changes from how one writes about one’s work or how one talks about it. Instead, it becomes: why are you so bad at talking about your work?

You might find solace in the old excuse that you’re an artist, and as such you’re not a writer or talker. Instead, you aim to express yourself visually. This sounds very good, but — I hate to break it to you — it’s complete bullshit. That’s the first thing you want to do: ditch it. Don’t settle for excuses.

After all, if you can’t talk to other people about your work, how do you make sense of it when it’s you and the pictures? In other words, how do you approach your pictures when you’re in your studio or in front of your computer?

You might have an inborn talent to do that. But the reality is that even if you do that talent is somewhat useless unless you work on it, unless, in other words, you exercise it over and over again — at which stage you’re moving from dealing with talent (which you can’t control) to creating an ability to do something (which you can control).

For example, one of the things I learned about myself is that I’m pretty good at dealing with languages. Learning languages and grasping how they work comes relatively easy to me. Over the years, I have tried learning a number of languages. But in most cases that didn’t go anywhere because talent alone will not learn you a language. You will have to practice over and over again. That involves cramming vocabulary and grammar, listening to what a language sounds like, and trying to speak it. So I have a talent for languages, but I can only speak two because I have been too lazy to do all the work necessary to speak more.

On the other hand, I do not think that I have a talent for writing. I now am able to write reasonably well because I worked on it for many years, a process that entailed writing on a regular basis. Usually, writing is not something that I enjoy doing (I like it better than cramming vocabulary, though). But it’s a useful tool for me to do some of the things that I enjoy doing. For sure, it has given me deeper access to engaging with photography.

Thus, even if you’re a very talented artist, your talent is not going to do much for you if you don’t put in all the other added work. For a photographer that means developing one’s skill set and engaging with the work: giving it that very hard look necessary to understand what it is doing and why the good pictures are better than the bad pictures.

One of the most crucial parts of understanding your work is the following realisation. There is where the work is coming from, and there is what it is about. Unless you’re a conceptual photographer, these two aspects are not necessarily identical. There can be some or considerable overlap, but there also might be no overlap. Understanding these two aspects is the crucial ingredient that will allow you to talk and write about your work.

It’s easy to know where the work is coming from: that’s the set of ideas and thoughts that you had when you started taking pictures. Your ideas and thoughts might have changed while photographing, but for sure you’re aware of that.

It’s a lot more difficult to know what the work is about. After all, how can it even be possible that you take photographs with some idea in mind, but then they somehow speak of something different? The answer is simple. Photography might be a technical medium, but in the hands of a human being the machine might be guided by more than merely the conscious mind.

How do you find out what your work is about? Your photographs will tell you. It’s what’s in the pictures and what’s communicated by the pictures. It is the only thing that someone other than you will have access to when they come across your work.

The overlap between where the work was coming from and what it is about depends on the photographer. Each and every photographer has to find out for her/himself. Inevitably, the process of doing that involves overcoming the resistance to deal with anything other than all the ideas and thoughts one has about one’s work.

The task becomes a little bit easier if you realise that usually it’s not a terrible loss if the work is not only (or possibly not at all) what you thought it was. For every aspect that is lost, another one is gained. But it’s not a zero-sum game, either. You might gain a lot more than you lose, or you might not gain quite as much as you lose. If you think of yourself as a creative person, that’s the price you’ll have to be willing to pay.

There is no creativity if you restrict what you’re doing to what you already know. Creativity arises from everything that comes beyond.

Thus, you will have to sit down with your work and figure this out: where is it coming from, and what is it about? To what extent do these two overlap? And what does the work teach you?

There is that moment when you will realise that your own photographs can teach you something about yourself: this is when as an artist, you’re at your most vulnerable. At the same time, that’s the moment when you also realise how you have just grown as an artist and possibly as a person. It’s the most gratifying aspect of making art.

After you’ve done this work, you can speak about your work a lot more clearly. Knowing what your work is about and where it was coming from makes for great raw material to speak and write about it. This is where it gets interesting for an audience. The audience will be able to see what the work is all about, but they have no access to its maker’s motivations and intentions.

When talking about your work, don’t spend too much time on description. Your viewers aren’t blind and they aren’t idiots, so don’t treat them that way. Also, if there are hidden details, do not explain them or give them away.

At the same time when talking about your work, don’t only talk about your ideas and intentions, in particular if they’re far removed from what the work is actually about. Unless you’re a very gifted storyteller (some of the most famous photographers are successful not because their work is so good but rather because they’re very good at selling it), talking too much about your own inner life will leave viewers puzzled.

Instead, talk about the overlap between what the work is about and where it came from. Inevitably, this means allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of strangers. You can decide beforehand how much you want to reveal. You will have to be comfortable with whatever you reveal. But by revealing something you learned, something that challenged you, something that messed with your mind, you have a unique opportunity to connect with people.

When you talk (or write) about your work, you don’t have to spell out your most private problems. Remember, you are only going to speak about your work, your pictures. But the dichotomy of what it’s about and what you originally set out to do is comparable to a larger dichotomy in our lives: what we know about ourselves and what we allow others to see. We all can relate to how scary it is to reveal something.

When you talk (or write) about your work, do it using the language you feel most comfortable with. One of the biggest problems with writing by photographers is how dreadful it can be. More often than not, photographers attempt to write as pompously as possible. Don’t do that. Talk or write in a manner that feels natural to you. When having the choice between simple and complex speaking or writing, always be on the simple side.

At the end of the day, the words you choose to talk or write about your work are only an addition to it. They help the viewer or reader understand more about you and your pictures. Don’t try to use words to impress people.

Lastly, this all is a matter of practice as well. When working on speaking or writing about your photographs, allow the process to take some time. If your first attempt is a failure, make sure that there are many more failures so you will get to the point at which you’re finally succeeding. Some people are lucky find it easy to talk about their work. If you’re not one of the lucky ones, you’ll have to put in the work.

Ultimately, the person who will benefit the most from you being able to speak and write about your photographs is you. You will understand your work better, and you will have become a better artist. First and foremost, practice speaking about your work for your own growth. Being able to do it in front of an audience is merely a bonus.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Tree and Soil]]> 2020-09-14T16:45:46Z 2020-09-14T16:45:46Z

Unlike in the West, in Japan what we call paganism has survived into the present day in the form of its Shinto religion. But also manifested through, let’s say, yōkai. Consequently, the natural world isn’t seen only as a passive canvas that can be dealt with willy-nilly. At the same time, the Japanese landscape has been subjected to a large amount of modifications, which usually are incredibly stylized (even where they are merely concrete barriers set around rivers).

“Universal principles make up nature,” Donald Richie wrote in Japan: A Description, “but nature does not reveal these principles, in Japan, until one has observed nature by shaping it oneself. The garden is not natural until everything in it has been shifted. And flowers are not natural either until so arranged to be. God, man, earth—these are the traditional strata in the flower arrangement, but it is man that is operative, acting as the medium through which earth and heaven meet.”

A little further down he continued: “A garden is not a wilderness. It is only the romantics who find wildness beautiful, and the Japanese are too pragmatic to be romantic. At the same time, a garden is not a geometrical abstraction. It is only the classicists who would find that attractive, and the Japanese are too much creatures of their feelings to be so cerebrally classic. Rather, then, a garden is created to reveal nature. Raw nature is simply never there.” (You can find the essay in A Lateral View: Essays on Culture and Style in Contemporary Japan.)

This reveals a very different sensibility towards both the natural world and the constructed environment than the one we know in the West. With this in mind, you can probably see how a disaster such as the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant after the 2011 tsunami created a stunning catastrophe.

This statement would be true for any country (on second thought, I’m not so sure any longer the statement applies in the US, given the sheer indifference displayed by large parts of the population towards both the pandemic and the enormous wildfires in the West). But a country with such a specific relationship between the natural and man-made world could only have been shaken up by the fact that there is one more addition to the various invisible forces that guide the world: radioactive material whose presence potentially creates a huge hazard for anything and anyone exposed to it.

This is the background of Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth‘s Tree and Soil, a book that combines photographs from around the closed-off areas near the Fukushima plant with images of a collection gathered by Philipp Franz von Siebold, an explorer who collected material in Japan (this is now housed at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands).

If you’re expecting to see a lot of photographs of abandoned buildings in empty towns, you’re going to be disappointed by the book. There are some of these pictures. But the majority of photographs taken in Japan focus on the land itself, on forests, streams, boulders — all those entities that in the country’s traditional thinking habour a spirit.

That said, one of the most arresting photographs is of an abandoned building. Not quite halfway into the book, one of the many gatefolds open to show a row of five vending machines that are housed under a protective roof (much like what you see at gas stations, with the vending machines replacing gas pumps). Its English language signage indicates the presence of a “drink paradise” (the Japanese text, Google Translate tells me, is more prosaic, saying it’s a liquor store). Curiously, two of the machines are still fully lit, which has me believe one could still get a drink.

The area around the stricken power plant was evacuated in haste. But somehow, even years later, nobody thought of cutting the power to those vending machines. In the larger scheme of things, it’s an irrelevant detail. It’s the details and their seeming irrelevance that gives art true meaning: after all, in a strictly neoliberal sense, the people who had to leave these towns ought to just rebuild their lives elsewhere. But such thinking only dispenses with what makes life truly meaningful and displaces it with a culture so shallow that it were an affront to even remotely consider the word “depth” in its description.

With its photographs of forests and of specimen and drawings created by Von Siebold, its reproductions of traditional Japanese art and of scientific studies, and its occasional giving voice to humans, Tree and Soil evades descriptiveness, instead embracing an atmosphere. It asks of the viewer to think about their engagement with the natural world: when you leave your house, do you register the chipmunk’s warning signals that sound as if it were a bird? Could you tell the difference between the cardinal’s babies’ cries for food from its parent’s chirping? Or do you simply go on, get in your car, and drive away?

The book was made with the typical attention to detail that we’ve come to know from photobook making in Holland. The dust jacket can be taken off and unfolded, to reveal a double-sided poster of sorts. There are ample gatefolds whose function and necessity, however, isn’t all that clear to me: what is revealed isn’t any different than what’s already visible elsewhere (with the exception of those vending machines). Occasionally, pictures will wrap around pages (which for sure is going to rankle traditionalists).

Thus, Tree and Soil becomes its own precious object, and its preciousness only serves to enhance its overall message. You’ll have to go through the book many times. I suspect that each time, something else will have to be discovered. It is through the reproductions of scientific reports that the topic of radioactivity is being brought up. While it’s difficult to imagine how else one would go about it, that type of description almost isn’t needed. Throughout the book, it’s easy to pick up on the idea of something having gone awry.

But then, don’t Von Siebold’s specimen and beautiful drawings connect with those scientific reports? Isn’t the thinking behind them essentially the same? Couldn’t there be a straight line drawn from the Western explorer’s colonial idea of Japan as a country that needed to be deciphered, sliced and diced to the disaster caused by the consequences of the very same thinking, namely that nature’s sole purpose is to be exploited?

Turns out that radioactive materials aren’t easy to control. When they’re out of control, their terrible power will make any yōkai monster seem tame in comparison. Actually, the Japanese already have a monster created from radioactivity even though it’s not thought of as yōkai: Gojira.

What exactly will it take for us to finally take care of our natural environment? I’m writing this article as there are huge fires in the (US) American West, that clearly are one of the many consequences of global warning. Billions of years into the future, before it dies our sun will expand massively and scorch the surface of this planet, making life impossible. It’s as if our plan was to do the very same ourselves, just a lot earlier. What’s wrong with us?

The book’s colophon tells me that it’s the “[f]irst and only edition.” The publisher’s website speaks of a “unique edition of 925 copies, of which 400 copies are for sale.” If you want a copy of the book, you might have to move fast.

Tree and Soil; photographs by Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth; essay by Erik de Jong; 112 pages with 10 gatefolds; Hartmann Books; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.0

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Photography in Racial Time]]> 2020-09-07T16:43:11Z 2020-09-07T16:43:11Z

In a world dominated by photographs and video, visual literacy is one of the most important skills. To be visually literate means to be able to navigate the world while being able to detect where someone is trying to tell you something about yourself or other people. I called visual literacy a skill because it is that more than anything. It is not just knowing photographs — even though for sure that is a part of it. Beyond that, it’s being able to understand how photographs operate in a given context when seen by specific viewers, how, in other words, photographs acquire what we like to call “meaning.”

Photographs don’t come with meanings, and a photograph’s meaning can change radically depending on how it is used in a specific context. In photoland, many practitioners operate only in one specific context and are puzzled by my insistence on this basic fact. Switch context, though, and what has been taken for granted often takes on very different facets. As a consequence, being visually literate does not necessarily mean being able to read photographs in just one specific context well. Instead, it’s much more important to understand the use of photographs in different contexts.

Seen that way, visual literacy centers on photography only in a very basic sense. It’s not necessarily about understanding photographs (even though that’s a large part of it). Instead, visual literacy centers on understanding visual communication — much like literacy in the world of literature doesn’t just focus on discussing vocabulary. This might sound daunting, but I think it should instead be seen as liberating: if visual literacy is a skill that relies on a method, then that’s something that can be learned, something that can be improved over time through practice.

I’m very drawn to an approach to photography that starts out by looking at pictures, to see what they show and how they show it, and that then examines how pictures are used, given the context they’re in, and how that use, given its time, ties in with larger societal and/or cultural aspects, to form a meaning that, more often than not, is not stable in time. Ultimately, such an approach amounts to cultural or societal or political criticism. A brilliant recent example is provided by Mark Sealy‘s Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time.

(An unrelated aside: formerly a voracious reader, it took me months to realize how the pandemic has disrupted my habit of reading regularly. Many back issues of the New York Review of Books — my only subscription — have been lying around unread all over the apartment, and the pile of books waiting to be read has only grown since roughly mid-March this year. One of the many books in the pile was Sealy’s — already published last year. So in that sense, this article is late. But then, it’s never too late to talk about a good book, is it?)

In the book’s chapters, Sealy dives deeply into six separate topics. In each case, he starts out with the initial photographs, to then discuss their makers, their dissemination, the original contexts, and how the photographs in their context were viewed their audience. That audience splits up into two group. The first group is the one that might have found itself depicted or that would have identified in some ways with the depicted. The second group is the one that remained an outsiders while at the same time being the intended target.

This dichotomy in audiences is one of the most important aspects in many areas of photography, in particular in photojournalistic or documentary settings. It forms the basis for the most pressing issues in photography, whether it’s the male gaze, othering, representation, etc.

The book explicitly focuses on photography’s colonial uses, so these two groups are those subjected to colonial rule and those exercising that rule. Sealy manages to accomplish a variety of things. To begin with, he discusses in detail some of photography’s most ghastly episodes, episodes that, I suspect, are not as widely known as they ought to be. Photography played a major role in most (all?) of humanity’s most recent atrocities. That role has to be understood especially since its repercussions are still with us.

For example, I don’t think anyone can engage with photography in Africa without taking into account the role photography played in the colonical context. In the first chapter, Sealy discusses Alice Seeley Harris‘ photographs of atrocities in what then was the Congo Free State. These photographs and the accompanying presentations across the UK and the US could easily be seen as the kind of revelatory material that still is being used by photojournalists today. However, the photographs’ and especially their maker’s background and motivations make this topic a lot more complex than one might naively imagine.

Sealy: “What surfaces from the images as we look back at them with the benefit of hindsight is that a multiplicity of meanings emerges, the most obvious being the scopic pleasures in looking at the African as both the exotic Other and the photographic origin of the image of the helpless victim. These historical photographs of violence in the Congo provide the perfect photographic moment for benevolent Christian ideology to work within a continued visualisation and infantilisation of the African subject.” (p. 61)

Photography cannot run away or ignore these facts any more than I, someone born in Germany, could run away or ignore the fact that my grandfathers’ generation brutally murdered millions of people during World War 2.

In this particular case, the “exotic Other” as much as the idea of the “helpless victim” (to quote Sealy’s words) are still with us. Such photographs are still being made as I write this, and they are viewed by their target audience in very similar fashions as Alice Seeley Harris’ lantern slides were by their target audience back then (except that our lantern slides are slide shows online). The onus is on their makers as much as on us as viewers to understand what is going on visually, so we can break out of what often is little more than colonial photography done with digital cameras.

I suspect that some of the chapters in Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time could serve as the basis for a whole class, given the breadth of the material and background resources covered and given the profundity of insight offered by Sealy.

For example, in chapter 2 — entitled Race, Denial and Imaging Atrocity — the famous 7 May 1945 issue of Life magazine becomes the a jump-off point for a discussion of how to picture atrocities (here: concentration camps in Nazi Germany), how to put such pictures in the context of the actions (or lack thereof) of those who present the pictures, how the pictures of an atrocity can be viewed one way by one group and another way by another, how one atrocity might invite comparisons with another, and much more.

What makes this chapter so strong is that Sealy treats the magazine as a whole, instead of dissecting it into its separate, seemingly unrelated, parts. He connects the depiction of German concentration camps with pictures of US and Russian soldiers meeting up, with pictures of Russian delegates at the landmark San Francisco conference, and more. In some ways, this is a very obvious approach: after all, all these things happened at the time. But much too often, such discussions end up being atomized, being isolated, as a result of which crucial deeper connections and insights are not to be had.

It is the making of connections across time that brings the real value of the book into focus: the reader not only learns a lot about the main issue at hand — photography’s ugly history of serving as a handmaiden of colonialism and racist violence, s/he also learns about how to connect photographs through the larger topics they relate to, which, crucially, includes an awareness of one’s own vantage point as much as knowing about someone else’s (in particular the group depicted).

I’d like to think that reading Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time will make every photographer more aware of the history of their own medium. It will also enable them to approach their own photography at a deeper level, in particular if that photography centers on other people. For those two reasons, this is an absolute must-read. Teachers in any serious photography program might want to include this book in their required-reading list.

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[At the Foot of the Long Wall]]> 2020-08-31T16:49:00Z 2020-08-31T16:49:00Z

After I received Xiaoxiao Xu‘s Watering my Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall, I realized that I actually didn’t know all that much about what in the English-speaking world is known as the Great Wall of China (in the following, I’m going to abbreviate the title as Long Wall).  I knew that it had been constructed over time, and I had seen photographs of what I’m assuming are the most well-preserved parts that are easiest to reach for tourists and visitors from Beijing.

I’ve never been to China, so I don’t know what it’s like to live somewhere near the Wall. But in my life time, I have had the opportunity to see other very old human sites. I once visited Pompeii, which made for a deeply touching experience. A few days later, I went to Ercolano to see the excavations of Herculaneum. I remember walking down an extended ramp from the city into what looked like its exposed bowels. There it was, the ancient city — if you looked up, you’d see parts of the modern city just above.

There were people living right next to the remains of Herculaneum. The same rather basic and seemingly not particularly deeply insightful fact is true for many other places in the world: people live right next to remnants of antiquity. In Ercolano, I couldn’t imagine living right there. Wouldn’t I be spending all my time looking out of my window in awe of what was on view? I later realized that I wouldn’t. Even if I did for a few days, at some stage, I’d take things for granted. I’d get used to it. And if I had been born there, I might not even notice.

So the relevance of all the buildings, artifacts, and pieces of art left behind by older or even ancient generations is a mental construct more than anything — and it tells us a lot about ourselves. Seen that way, they are mirrors that we can look into to learn about ourselves. Photographs can operate the same way.

Much like you can travel down the Mississippi and take a bunch of pictures of old mattresses to speak of your loneliness, you can travel along the Long Wall and photograph people living their lives near it to connect to something inside you. This is the basic idea of Long Wall.

In the book, photographs from a variety of locations are combined with a number of folk tales and other text pieces that provide some insight into a variety of aspects of Chinese culture.

The photographs show a China that is very different than the one that has attracted the attention of so many photographers over the past two decades. Instead of gigantic megacities and huge crowds of anonymous masses, here rural areas, many of them not very well maintained, dominate.

In light of the sheer extent of the Wall, this shouldn’t surprise us. Still, it’s a good reminder that our ideas of what China might be are woefully inadequate if the focus is only on recent developments in shiny megacities. There still are people who are plowing their fields in teams of two — one man pushing the plow, the other one pulling it.

There also still exist many other aspects of an older Chinese culture that its Communist Party has tried very hard to go away, for example its religions (such as Buddhism). So Long Wall invites the viewer to get a glimpse of a different China, one tied a lot closer to older traditions and a culture that has existed for thousands of years.

The challenge for the Western viewer is to be able to exposed to all of this without automatically applying ideas of economic utility: well, yes, you could view much of what is on view as underdeveloped — but why would you approach everything as if you were an economist working at the IMF?

A viewer would do well to simply look what is on view, look at the landscapes, look at the buildings, look at the faces of the many people portrayed in the book. The sheer variety of the photographs makes for a very engaging experience.

Having said all that, here’s my major concern about the book. The Eriskay Connection is a Dutch publisher that has produced a series of very well made photobooks, many of them relying on a combination of text and image. I usually look forward to seeing their books.

Unfortunately, I find Long Wall overdesigned and visually much too messy. Almost every spread shows a cluster of images, with configurations changing spread after spread after spread. As a consequence, almost all photographs find themselves in competition with other pictures, and the viewer hardly, if ever, can focus on an individual photograph.

Where they are single images across the gutter, those images mostly tend to be rather bland (the fact that the book doesn’t open wide enough for the full image to show doesn’t help). Maybe the worst aspect is that with the exception of the main essay, the bulk of the text is crammed into small spaces. That tiny text is very hard to read.

As a result of the bad design, it took me a few attempts to get into the book. In a photobook, layout and design should help transport the message — while making for an engaging experience for the viewer/reader. Here, the complete opposite is the case. I find this very, very unfortunate.

Watering my Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall; photographs by Xiaoxiao Xu; essay by Maria-Caterina Bellinetti; 112 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 1.5, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.1

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Adam and Dyba Lach’s Look at Poland]]> 2020-08-24T15:59:40Z 2020-08-24T15:59:40Z

Over the course of most of its history, Poland suffered greatly from being sandwiched between Germany and Russia, as a consequence of which the country was moved around on the map many times — when it wasn’t occupied or even parceled up and absorbed by its neighbours. The country re-emerged on the map of Europe in 1918 after it had not existed as its own entity for over 100 years.

Twenty one year later, it was occupied again, this time by Nazi Germany, which led to enormous losses of life and cultural property. The subsequent liberation by the Soviet Union led to a de-facto occupation, which lasted until 1989. Thus, in the 20th Century Poland was a free country for little more than three decades.

Given this history, it should be very obvious why the question of Polish nationhood plays such a huge role in the country and why many of its politicians are so virulently anti-German and anti-Russian. At the same time, Poland has an incredibly rich culture, which often is at odds with focusing on nationhood.

Poland’s rich culture isn’t as well known abroad as it should be. For example, Poland’s interwar years were just as rich as neighbouring Weimar Germany’s. Polish writers have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the more recent one being Olga Tokarczuk (if you haven’t read her Flights, order yourself a copy). There are incredible movie directors and so much more. And there is a lot of photography to be looked at, with a very rich and active scene of younger artists.

As it turned out, joining the European Union in 2004 helped the country in many ways — Europe funneled huge amounts of money into the country. However,  a country that historically has needed to assert itself against its stronger neighbours is now increasingly finding itself at odds with the European Union, in particular since the far-right PiS party came to power, which has worked on turning Poland into a pseudo-democratic authoritarian state.

Add to all of that the fact that the Catholic church plays a huge role in Poland, and you got a volatile mix. This mix provides the background for Adam and Dyba Lach‘s How to Rejuvenate an Eagle. Through a combination of photographs and text, the couple attempts to provide an answer to the question: what is Poland?

Having traversed the country and visited a large number of locations, many people’s voices appear directly, transcribed from what might have been conversations. It’s not clear what exactly they were asked, but they speak of their country and what it means to them.

More often than not, the simplistic and at times cartoonish idea of Polishness advocated by the current government is thoroughly shattered, as minorities speak of their identity, young people talk about a lack of opportunities and a willingness to move to a different country, etc.

Photographically, the book deftly plays with ideas of Polishness as well, while, at the same time, looking very deeply into some of its real aspects. This is where political definitions of the essence of a country are so fraught: while there always is a real core, what’s constructed around it as much as what is omitted creates an artifice that demands paying lip service more than having actual conviction.

Over the past years, with authoritarian and want-to-be authoritarian politicians ascending all over the world (incl. the United States), we’ve see this mechanism in play frequently: none of the strongmen (it’s mostly just men, isn’t it?) offer much that’s even remotely worthwhile looking at. But their followers aren’t interested in reality. Instead they’re interested in belonging, in following what they might have openly criticized a few years earlier — even if belonging encompasses little more than being against everybody else.

While this is a scary development, it’s also one that’s great for photographers. All you need to do is to train your camera on what’s on display. More often than not, the spectacle is simply ludicrous. That said, there always is the temptation to rely on only making fun of the spectacle. That’s a recipe for disaster, because nobody learns anything from that.

In this book, the photographs deftly move back and forth from showing some of the more outrageous stuff along with scenes that don’t invite easy and obvious reads. I suspect that the book will be read differently in Poland than elsewhere, given that people outside of the country aren’t familiar with some of what’s on view. So for someone outside of Poland, visual cues might be different. I don’t think that matters all that much — unless you want to insist on a very particular read of the book (which usually is a bad idea).

Like most book designed by Ania Nałęska-Milach, How to Rejuvenate an Eagle uses a few nifty design and production choices. With white and red being Poland’s national colours, text and photographs are separated by being printed on two types of paper, one being red, the other being white. The text pages intersperse the book, which makes for an engaging viewing (regardless of whether you decide to read the text or not). And it’s a frequent reminder of Poland being the topic at hand.

This particular book is just the most recent addition to a long string of refreshing, very well made photobooks coming out of Poland. I’m hoping it will be seen widely. Self-published, its print run is relatively small (there are only 200 English language books). So if you want to get yourself a copy, don’t wait.


How to Rejuvenate an Eagle; photographs by Adam Lach; text by Dyba Lach; 136 pages; self-published; 2020

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

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[Max Zerrahn’s Snake Legs]]> 2020-08-17T20:51:37Z 2020-08-17T20:51:37Z

When I first looked at Max Zerrahn‘s Snake Legs, I immediately remembered being in Japan with a camera and trying to make a picture. Unless you’re a street photographer or tourist (in which case you’re mostly replicating what other people have photographed before you), Japan doesn’t lend itself easily to photographs if you’re not very familiar with the country. Its surface is either hyperpolished or too quaint.

I suppose I need to qualify the above by stating that obviously, it always depends on what you’re looking for. As someone who has lived in a foreign country for two decades now, I know that it takes a long time before one is able to see in ways that aren’t a foreigner’s any longer.

Outside of the world of the news, I don’t think there necessarily is a reason why an outside or an insider should or should not take certain pictures — as long as they’re both aware of their own shortcomings and as long as they challenge themselves (meaning: as long as they also make themselves aware of the history of their medium), they ought to be able to produce something interesting.

But it’s difficult to make interesting pictures in Japan as a visitor. During my first trip, I gave up all ideas of making something original and shamelessly focused on all those things that were just too obvious to ignore. This included the sheer number of cones (traffic and otherwise — there must be one or more for every Japanese person), the rotating platforms used in garages, covered cars, and a few more things. This ended up being a better exercise than anticipated, and I really got those items out of my system. The second time I went, I barely noticed them any longer.

I see these photographic difficulties weave through Zerrahn’s book. I don’t mean this as a criticism in any way. I have a book of photographs that Nobuyoshi Araki took in New York, and if it weren’t for the presence of the occasional sleazy nude (I suppose he just couldn’t help himself) I doubt anyone would be able to tell who the photographer is.

Actually, I do think that Snake Legs is a lot better than the Araki book, because a lot of the very obvious stuff is not included — or almost not included. There is one photograph of what might be that enormous Shibuya Crossing but it’s small in the book and in black and white.  For the most part Zerrahn stayed away from the expected and went out looking for something else.

In the world of Japanese photography, which has been centered on the book, the idea of the single photograph has historically been very different. While Western ideas have obviously made it into the country, the insistence on each and every photograph being a remarkable masterpiece is a lot less important than the whole, the book, communicating something (this obviously doesn’t mean that Japanese haven’t made remarkable masterpiece photographs).

In contrast, our Western ideas seem centered on the individual photograph that ought to be as brilliant as possible. You then build up a “project” in such a way that it’s a coherent “best of” of your good pictures that also happens to communicate something larger. I don’t necessarily find fault with that, because it’s a good method (so it’s great for teaching). But it’s important to realize that it’s only one of the possible methods: there are others.

To begin with, one might wonder why individual pictures have to live in projects after all? Aren’t projects mostly marketing or teaching tools? Why does every picture have to live in a project, and why is a picture only allowed to exist in one project?  You’ll notice that there are artists who will deviate from this simple model. But for the most part, the model holds a stranglehold over the world of art photography.

And then there is the fact that the accumulation of photographs that aren’t masterpieces could still result in a truly amazing book. The most well-known example might be Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu (The Map). The book is completely mind blowing in a way that the vast majority of its constituent photographs are not.

Having now said all of that, I do think that Snake Legs falls into the category of books where the accumulation of a number of photographs produces something a lot larger than its parts. There are pictures in the book that I quite like (obviously, my favourite photographs shows a cat). But the enjoyment of the book comes from going through the book and having its individual photographs slowly add up to more and more.

I suspect that this makes the book a bit of a hard sell: I could imagine picking up the book at some book fair, only to miss what it has to offer by going through it too quickly. Say whatever you want about book fairs or even the internet, but there are a lot of things that just cannot be communicated in brief intervals of time.

The book is also relatively diminutive: at 5.5×7.5″ (14x19cm) it’s at the small end of small books in my library. But this serves as another much needed reminder that more often than not, photobooks are simply too overblown. I get it, you’re working on your photobook, maybe even your first photobook, and you want to make a splash (full disclosure: I’m working on my first photobook right now).

But bigger isn’t always better, and at least in principle looking at a book is an intimate affair: it’s you and the book. Snake Legs feels right in that sense as well. I could imagine taking it on a trip, to look at it while traveling (most of the photobooks I own I can’t bring because they’re too large, too heavy, and/or too precious). And a trip might be the perfect occasion to look at the book — when you’re away from home and find yourself in a location you’re not familiar with.

In light of the above, I’m not going to apply my photobook-rating system here. I like the system for what it allows me to do, but I’ve also come to appreciate the fact that some books just fall outside of its domain.

Snake Legs; photographs by Max Zerrahn; 144 pages; White Belt Publishing; 2019

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Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Living Mountain]]> 2020-08-10T15:31:51Z 2020-08-10T15:31:51Z

Before writing this review, I thought that the “hive mind” in the form of Wikipedia might help me with the question why I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. ‘The English idiom “don’t judge a book by its cover”,’ I read, ‘is a metaphorical phrase that means one shouldn’t prejudge the worth or value of something by its outward appearance alone.’ I suppose there are more than enough cases where this might in fact be useful. But the world of the photobook is one where adhering to this idea often can be ditched.

Take Awoiska van der Molen‘s The Living Mountain. It’s easily one of the best photobook covers in a long time, and if you were to judge the book by its cover you would do it absolute justice.

The photograph on the cover (which is not repeated inside, so we might as well treat it as a photograph from the book) shows a landscape somewhere in the mountains where that landscape is defined almost entirely through it being impossible to see. Against a darkish sky, there is a mountain that is flanked by two large trees, and everything beneath the mountain is hidden in a sea of black.

Throughout the book, almost every page uses a card stock that is treated on only one side. The printer had been tasked to saturate each page with ink, resulting in very well defined tones, with an intensely dark black at the extreme end. This makes it very difficult to photograph the book — whatever you see online is merely an insufficient approximation of what you’re going to encounter when you’re in the book’s presence.

To speak more about the book’s production choices is not going to take away anything from its sheer beauty — on the contrary. To print photographs on both sides of this particular paper means that they appear differently, depending on which side they find themselves on. The pictures on the treated side have a luster feel to them, and the viewer is tempted to see the ink sitting on top of the paper. In contrast, the untreated side has the ink sinking into the paper, and the overall texture of the paper stock adds to the way the pictures look. It takes a confident contemporary artist to accept this choice by the designer/publisher, Hans Gremmen, one of the most sophisticated photobook makers in the world.

I find the overall effect very luscious. Despite the fact that it’s a softcover book, it feels very precious, doing the work full justice. In fact, I don’t think producing the kind of expensive art book that the more conservative crowd might imagine would yield quite the same effect. You’d essentially end up with some catalogy hardcover book (catalogy — I know that’s not a word, but now it is), and frankly would be so boring.

What is more, the production choices resulted in a book that looks and feels precious despite only costing 30 Euros. Of late, I have become attracted to books that are not only less ostentatious, but that also are affordable for a larger audience.

Moving through the book, one encounters an experience that is not that dissimilar from Van der Molen’s previous works. There are variations here and there, and there are some added new avenues. This works very well for me: I feel as if I were in the presence of someone who is confident to know what she is doing while being aware of her own ability to expand her horizon, to find new things. What is new does not feel new for the sake of being new, and what is in line with earlier work convinces the viewer through its sheer astonishing beauty.

The work is a collaboration with composer Thomas Larcher, the performance of which was delayed because of the pandemic. In the book, the composer’s score is included in the center of the book (using a different type of paper), which makes for a neat addition to the book. I can’t read music (well, I can, but it’s much too slow to be useful), so to me the score mostly looks like an element of design, and the clusters of notes and their evolution resembles some of what can be seen in the pictures.

With The Living Mountain, Van der Molen demonstrates a few things that are worthwhile pointing out. To begin with, the Dutch artist has established her presence in the world of contemporary photography, showing how the old-fashioned landscape still has so much to offer. What is more, the work clearly arrives at its beauty through its maker being very receptive to what was in front of her: this is not a recording of what was in front of the camera — this is a being with the natural world and the taking of some of that, to craft photographs that speak of both an internal and the external world.

At the risk of inviting a lot of emails (or social-media “debates”), photographers aren’t necessarily known for being good listeners. All-too-often, they present themselves as these god-like creatures that impose their vision onto the world (this is in part related to what I discussed in my article about photography’s macho cult). This morning, I read a (completely unrelated) post by Yurie Nagashima on Instagram that ended with “In Japan, old people often tell children why we have one mouth and two ears. It’s because that [sic!] we should listen to people twice as much as we talk.”

To listen to others, to listen or be receptive of the world — there’s so much we can do to learn something or to expose ourselves to something we’re not aware of. Especially during these troubled times, maybe we should really listen a lot more, be more receptive. As Van der Molen demonstrates, being able to listen allows for the making of some very beautiful photography. And there is tremendous consolation to be had from sheer beauty.

Highly recommended.

The Living Mountain; photographs by Awoiska van der Molen; musical score by Thomas Larcher; 48 pages; FW:Books; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.5

Jörg Colberg <![CDATA[The Incredible World of Photography]]> 2020-08-03T16:17:39Z 2020-08-03T15:55:18Z

You wouldn’t necessarily know this from the History of photography, but the medium is possibly the only one that not only allows access to what ordinary people were making and looking at, it also does so rather easily (in its capitalized form, with History of photography I’m specifically referring to the written history, which largely follows art-historical and other conventions; in non-capitalized form, I speak of the full history, regardless of whether it has been canonized or not).

That being said, while those studying written statements can get access to what people were thinking, anyone looking at photographs is barred from exactly that: photographs are mute — they do not communicate their makers’ intentions or thinking. For an incredible example of what accessing people’s written records can reveal, see Walter Kempowski’s Swansong 1945, and if you’re able to read German, you might as well read the monumental Das Echolot. Ein kollektives Tagebuch. 1.1. – 28.2.1943.

For the most part, photoland approaches pictures made by those who didn’t or deem themselves photographers along the lines of the world of art’s outsider art: where it is celebrated, it’s usually the more outlandish examples that, however, can possess considerable charm (see, for example, Erik KesselsIn Almost Every Picture). Instead of outsider photography we call that vast cache of pictures “vernacular photography.”

It is true, the vast bulk of vernacular photography is not terribly interesting. But neither is most of the photography shown in galleries and museums (however much it’s embellished by often outlandishly silly statements by either photographers and/or curators). In effect, all the “vernacular” label does is to turn the vast majority of photographs made into something that somehow isn’t worthy of our attention (this, in turn, makes non-vernacular pictures all the more precious). So we might as well call that bluff and drop the label.

Ever since it became feasible and up until the moment in time when other, digital forms became more convenient, the book — in the form of the album — was possibly the most valued way to express what photographs meant to both their makers and those in the pictures. More often than not, there was clear overlap between these two sides — such as in the case of families. An album would tell the history of a family, or some relevant part of it: a form of personal propaganda.

Possibly the biggest difference between physical albums and digital ones (that exist on social-media sites) is not the materiality (or its lack thereof) but instead the fact that digital albums can (and usually are) easily shared with others. Those others might be more or less complete strangers, even when they’re “friends” or “followers”. It will be interesting to see how future historians will deal with digital albums: is there actually going to be a way to do that, given that so many of them exist on corporate platforms?

In contrast, historical (physical) albums are increasingly simply disappearing where they haven’t done so already. For the most part, access is gained by finding them on eBay, at flea markets, or on piles of trash. In this, they share the fate of other private materials that over the course of history have simply gone lost — while the voices of those who managed to commission artists often are carefully handed down to younger generations.

We don’t know all that much about how ordinary people lived their lives during, say, the Roman Republic because there are very few traces of them left. It would be a real shame if the same would be said for all those societies that have had access to photography: whatever observations we might come to (there are going to be many that are less than flattering), the visual access photographs can offer provides a wealth of information.

An exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel entitled The Incredible World of Photography now does just that: to access as wide as possible the wealth contained in a very large collection of photographs, assembled by Ruth and Peter Herzog (I’m stuck in the world’s worst covid hot spot, so I’m relying on the catalog for this article). Among other artifacts, the collection includes 3,000 albums, produced all over the world. Make sure to check out the website the museum created for the exhibition  — it’s very impressively done.

Exposure Time, the catalog, is billed as A Photographic Encyclopaedia of Man in the Industrial Age by the publisher. Publishers obviously have an interest in selling their wares. But in this case, this is a pretty good description of what the book has to offer — you’ll only want to add the disclaimer that it’s European and North American men (and women).

I’m tempted to think that given its breadth, the Herzog collection might provide a very good starting point for a deeper dive into the history of photography, or at least for a dive that adds a lot of usually neglected material to the medium’s History.

I admit that one of the most startling aspects for me when reading Kempowski’s Echolot, a set of books ultimately so disturbing that I was unable to bring myself to finish it, was the sheer banality of what was on offer.

The book centers on the period of time at the beginning of 1943 when Nazi Germany would lose its entire 6th Army at Stalingrad (the same army had participated in various war crimes before). I’m not entirely sure what I had expected before attempting to read its 3,033 pages, but I remember that I thought that the focus would be very much on that siege. It wasn’t. Most people were going about their daily lives as if… as if what?

Well, I’ve been living through the so-called War on Terror, with its ill-fated invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and I have been living my life as if it had nothing to do with me (I’m not a US citizen, but I’ve been paying my taxes here, so I can’t claim that I have no part in any of it).

So if I tried to understand, let’s say, the Iraq war through what I have produced, the utility of that would be limited. Or rather, the utility would be limited only as far as those far-away wars are concerned. In much the same fashion, in Exposure Time, a lot of the major events (whether wars or Europe’s colonialism or the fight for universal suffrage) barely show up. There are a few traces here and there, but for the most part, people go about their lives.

Instead, though, there are other things that do show up, related to what you can do with this initially new medium. For example, you can use it for scientific purposes, and there’s always a nasty spin off (police classification and surveillance, for example). I find this tremendously interesting: photography doesn’t necessarily show you important events with the weight that might be placed on them after the fact. But it always shows you how people think they can use a camera.

The number of uses of photography in Exposure Time is bewildering, and for each completely amazing one — maybe someone’s family dog dressed up for a picture — there’s a terrible one — a dead whale’s corpse being pulled ashore.

I think it’s the uses of photography that offer us a chance to connect with those in the past. Technology’s temptation is to draw attention onto itself, more precisely onto the latest new gizmo. But there are relatively few genuinely new technologies available. There are, in other words, very few actual quantum leaps. Even where there are those, the desires and solutions of those using older or newer technologies might align more than one might imagine.

We want to connect with those who lived in the past not necessarily to judge them (even though that’s something we have to be prepared to do). Judging someone who is long dead tends to come easy, and there often is little gained from it if the judgment comes with the implication that we, the judges, are somehow better than them. Let’s face it, often we’re not. At the same time, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to approach the past by stating that some things simply were acceptable back then so we should accept that. Well, no. Such an approach is only useful for our times if we are prepared to interrogate what we believe in.

The truly interesting aspect of many of the photographs in Exposure Time is that it easily create a connection to our daily lives. At the same time, there is incredible overlap with many of the artists that we think are so special, given they’ve been written up in our History of photography. The reality is that a lot of photography is not as original as we might think it is. Originality is not a very good pointer to approach photography.

Ultimately, photography is a way for us to describe and understand the world in this deceptively easy and seemingly purely technical manner, where the technology allows for all our motivations, ideas, stereotypes, ideologies to become hidden. In retrospect, we have to excavate them, and it is large collections such as the Herzogs’ that allow us to do that.

The book is a hefty object. Both the selection of the images and the relatively large number of insightful essays (that each center on one particular aspect) make it an indispensable tool for anyone interested in excavating the past through an accumulation of photographs left behind.

There is much to be said for a vastly expanded (and more critical) new History of photography. What has long been dismissed as vernacular photography ought to have its proper part in that endeavour.


Exposure Time: Photographs from the Collection Ruth and Peter Herzog; Paul Mellenthin, Olga Osadtschy (ed.); essays by various authors (the book is available both in English and German); 360 pages; Kunstmuseum Basel/Christoph Merian Verlag; 2020

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