Conscientious Photography Magazine https://cphmag.com Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 04 Mar 2024 13:51:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Rental Person Who Does Nothing https://cphmag.com/rental-person/ Mon, 04 Mar 2024 13:51:43 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3833

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women at Work https://cphmag.com/women-at-work/ Mon, 26 Feb 2024 13:55:48 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3828

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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Deutschland im Herbst https://cphmag.com/d-im-herbst/ Mon, 19 Feb 2024 13:42:59 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3823

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ordinary Things https://cphmag.com/ordinary-things/ Mon, 12 Feb 2024 13:45:58 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3821

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Laurie https://cphmag.com/laurie/ Mon, 05 Feb 2024 13:44:37 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3816

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

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Gerry Johansson — The Beginnings https://cphmag.com/beginnings/ Mon, 29 Jan 2024 13:34:38 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3811

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A new view of photography https://cphmag.com/a-new-view-of-photography/ Mon, 22 Jan 2024 13:32:29 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3806

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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Packing My Library https://cphmag.com/packing-my-library/ Mon, 08 Jan 2024 13:18:56 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3804

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

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

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

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

I still believe in fairness.

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

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

And yet, here we are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about diversity?

Do you publish roughly as many men as women?

If not — why not?

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

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

If not — why not?

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

If not — why not?

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

If not — why not?

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

If not — why not?

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not fair.

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Was Ray a Laugh? https://cphmag.com/was-ray-a-laugh/ Mon, 25 Dec 2023 15:52:42 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3799

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

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

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

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

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

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

÷

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

÷

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

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

÷

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

÷

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

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Hurting each other in human ways.

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

÷

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

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

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

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What am I even doing here?

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

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My father. Where to begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

÷

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

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

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Claire Dederer’s Monsters https://cphmag.com/claire-dederers-monsters/ Mon, 18 Dec 2023 13:20:15 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3801

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Monsters! That’s how you do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh well, I gave away the conclusion after all.

What a brilliant book!

Very highly recommended.

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how shall we greet the sun https://cphmag.com/how-shall-we-greet-the-sun/ Mon, 11 Dec 2023 13:13:14 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3800

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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Koechlin House https://cphmag.com/koechlin/ Mon, 04 Dec 2023 13:18:48 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3789

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sapper https://cphmag.com/the-sapper/ Mon, 27 Nov 2023 13:21:07 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3784

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that might well be the case.

I have no way of knowing.

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

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

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The Oldest Thing https://cphmag.com/the-oldest-thing/ Mon, 20 Nov 2023 12:59:48 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3779

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

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

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

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

Oh well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji https://cphmag.com/thirty-six-views-of-mount-fuji/ Mon, 13 Nov 2023 12:56:40 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3774

When Katsushika Hokusai set out to produce what would become one of the most well known art works originating from Japan, a woodblock print entitled The Great Wave off Kanagawa, his ideas had nothing to do with creating a precious artifact that would hang in art museums. Of course, such museums did not exist in the 1830s in Japan. But if I’m imagining bringing the man with a time machine to see his work in such a setting, he would be bewildered. Instead, he might enjoy seeing the motif printed on, say, a t-shirt in the museum’s gift shop.

Ukiyo-e prints were produced as a form of mass entertainment, and they formed a large part of the visual culture of Japan’s Edo period (the time between the wave of wars that would result in Japan’s unification and the opening to the West). As that, they conformed to the very same principles that still dominate mass entertainment today. They were affordable — a print would cost a little bit more than a bowl of soup (according to this article), and they were mass produced. They were in no way seen as precious. In fact, some of the prints reached Europe because they had been used as wrapping paper for traded items.

Ukiyo-e prints are thus extremely interesting, because historical artifacts made for the masses — as opposed to the wealthy and powerful — often are inaccessible to us. Here, we have access to them. Furthermore, there were genuinely great artists behind their making. And lastly, the ukiyo-e industry offers insight for today’s world of photography.

It would be straightforward to argue that the photobook has some similarities to those prints. Photobooks are relatively affordable (of course, you won’t be able to buy most books for a little bit more than the price of a burger or a döner kebap). They’re mass produced (even as “mass” here is much more limited). And the way they are conceived both by their artists and publishers could be compared with how artists such as Hokusai made their series.

The Great Wave was one print out of the 36 contained in Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. In fact, you might remember the print mostly for the wave that crests in such a dramatic fashion over the volcano that is set far in the back. If Mount Fuji plays a minor role in the image, so do the sailors that cling to dear life in the boats that are tossed around by the stormy sea. For a large number of reasons, the image is incredible, down to the way the turbulence of the water is rendered.

If you look through the prints that comprise Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, you obviously find the volcano in all of them. While Fine Wind, Clear Morning is a breathtaking rendering of Mount Fuji, many of the other prints focus on specific settings in Edo Japan. For example, there is an image of Nihonbashi Bridge, which depending on your travel direction formed the starting or ending point of the important Tōkaidō road.

It would be straightforward to argue that as a series, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji is not really centered on the volcano. Instead, it’s a depiction of a number of important, well known, and much talked about locations in Edo Japan. Mount Fuji serves as the visual device to link these images together.

But the volcano is not just some volcano. It did play an outsized role for Japanese people, and it does that today as well. To begin with, it’s stunningly beautiful, especially if the top of the very symmetric cone is covered with snow. It’s a dormant volcano. While it’s not clear when it will erupt, experts agree that it will at some stage in the future, which might in fact be near. Nobody knows. An eruption would cause considerable damage, especially given that the volcano is located only 100 km (62 mi) from Tokyo.

Much like during Hokusai’s times, you can see Mount Fuji from Tokyo, the weather and built environment permitting. What this might look like, you encounter in some of the photographs in Takashi Homma‘s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (please note that in the following, the title will always refer to this artist’s work). As the title implies, much like the Edo period woodblock artist before him, the contemporary photographer uses the volcano as a device to make work around the parts of Japan’s Honshu island that offer a view of the volcano.

But it is the differences in the approaches used by these two artists that make the new work so good. I suppose that a photographic re-creation of Hokusai’s portfolio might be interesting. Someone might seek out the locations (or possibly their contemporary equivalents) and produce photographs of the land and cityscapes with Mount Fuji somewhere in the frame.

Homma had something different in mind. He employed a range of different processes to create his photographs. The very first picture in the book centers on Mount Fuji and its iconic snow-covered top. But the volcano is shown upside down, and the depiction lacks the crisp clarity one would be able to achieve with the latest generation of cameras. Instead, the image almost dissolves into bands of colour and some texture, conveying a faint echo of a Rothko painting.

You would arrive at such an image were you to construct a camera obscura, which inverts the scene and displays it upside down. That there indeed must be similar processes at play becomes clear in the second photograph, which is black and white and comprised of three parts. Each part betrays traces of developing fluids. Thankfully, the book withholds that kind of information (sadly, too often the world of photography becomes bogged down in pointless discussions around craft and process).

The third photograph, set right next to the forth, again dissolves the landscape into bands of colour (assuming you want to accept black as one). Set far into the distance, Mount Fuji merges with the landscape, which in the light of the setting sun lacks all definition. The final remaining rays of sunlight illuminate a few clouds in a sky that appears oddly greenish-blue. The high contrast and the gaudy colours have me think of digital camera sensors.

Following this approach,  Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji moves through what it announces in its title. While Mount Fuji can be found in each image, much like in Hokusai’s case it often is not very prominent at all. However, unlike in the Edo artist’s work, the landscape itself — much like the cityscapes — often also are not clearly visible.

As a largely mechanical or photo-optical device, the camera is unable to hallucinate. But for sure the combination of all of these photographs evoke this very effect.

With Mount Fuji having such an important place in Japan’s collective consciousness and with Japan itself — what it might mean to be Japanese — still being such a contest topic, portraying the most well known and potent symbol of the country in such a hallucinatory manner opens up a new way of looking not at the volcano or the country, but at the act of looking itself (whether literally or metaphorically).

It’s probably a fair assumption to think that the work will be seen differently in Japan than in the West. But it’s also equally fair to say that challenging the way the country is seen for any number of reasons is a good idea. After all, isn’t it a contemporary artist’s task to make us see anew?

How do you see something anew that has been seen so many times before? Takashi Homma shows us.

Recommended.

Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji; photographs by Takashi Homma; essay by Pico Iyer; MACK; 2023

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RePose https://cphmag.com/repose/ Mon, 06 Nov 2023 12:12:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3770

In the late 1970s, Marianne Wex published a massive set of work entitled Let’s Take Back Our Space (subtitled “Female” and “Male” Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures). It was shown in the form of panels arranged in exhibition spaces, and there also is a book. A form of visual sociology, Wex used photographs she took alongside photographs from publications and advertising plus art-historical images to talk about how male power (the patriarchal structure) expresses itself through body language — and vice versa (David Campany wrote about the piece).

What’s interesting about Wex’s work is not only its visually persuasive power: you can literally see patriarchy if you pay attention (a statement that I don’t think will surprise many — if any — female readers of this site). But there is more, given that the mix of materials — photographs made for specific purposes such as advertising, photographs made by observing everyday people in the streets and elsewhere, and art-historical artifacts — shows that the relationship between the different aspects is complex.

While it is tempting to take the title of the work literally, it carries more meanings than women merely re-claiming physical space that is being taken up by men. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. And keep in mind that Wex made and published this work decades before people started to become vocal about manspreading. Talk about visionary work!

But the re-claiming Wex was after extends beyond physical spaces into larger, non-physical ones. Reclaiming space here also (and explicitly) entails re-claiming the power over one’s own representation — a rejection of what came to be known as the male gaze around the time the artist assembled the work. Specifically, rejecting the male gaze simply by placing oneself behind the camera is no guarantee that the desired goal will actually be achieved (just look at, say, female fashion photographers who perpetuate the male gaze to this day).

This fact makes the mechanics of the male gaze — much like patriarchy itself — altogether more complex and noxious than you might imagine. Fighting it and thus re-claiming the power over how one is being represented visually thus can include any number of photographic choices. One of them entails placing one’s own body into the very circumstances from which its depiction is supposed to be liberated. This seemingly paradoxical approach was used by artists such as Jemima Stehli (if you’re curious, this interview has you covered), Yurie Nagashima (this interview is really good), and now Tarrah Krajnak in RePose, published in conjunction with an exhibition in Amsterdam.

The structure of the book is very simple. In every photograph, you see the same woman strike a pose, dressed in bright clothing that set her off against the darker backdrop. Eventually, you will notice the device that triggers the camera’s shutter. Often,  it’s in her right hand, but occasionally, it is placed elsewhere. What might be going on? I’m tempted to think that at some stage, however early or late in the book, you will recognize the pose in a photograph: it is something you have seen before.

For me, this happened a few pictures in, when I discovered a re-creation one of the well-known photographs that documented the performance of Interior Scroll by the late Carolee Schneemann. The photographs in RePose are re-creations of well-known depictions of women. At first glance, it might seem strange to discover both Schneemann’s photograph and a recreation of what I believe is known as The Wet Chair Dance from a popular 1980s movie.

I have never seen that movie; yet I am familiar with this particular scene. And that, I believe, is why the photograph from Schneemann’s decidedly feminist performance sits alongside the polar opposite of that — the male gaze on the worst type of steroids in a 1980s Hollywood movie: these images have become at least partly decontextualized and have become embedded in our larger cultural consciousness, each in their own ways defining a part of how women are to be depicted.

This is a very interesting and provocative approach that acknowledges how even after decades of feminism, there still is so much more work to be done. Patriarchy, bolstered by capitalism itself, has the capacity to appropriate even the most feminist imagery to ultimate neuter it or, even worse, to turn it around against its original goals. Hence the re-creation of the images by Krajnak in the work, hence the title of the book.

At some stage, the cycle will be broken; at some stage, the male gaze will have lost its power. Will there be the need for another book like Krajnak’s, much like there was the need for one roughly 30 years after Wex’s? I don’t know. These days, I find it especially difficult to remain optimistic. Still, at least there is the opportunity for us to look now — and then to try to attempt to understand.

RePose; photographs by Tarrah Krajnak; essay by Justine Kurland; 48 pages with multiple gatefolds; FW:Books; 2023

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The Enigma of Belonging https://cphmag.com/the-enigma-of-belonging/ Mon, 30 Oct 2023 11:34:07 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3764

A long time ago, I read an article online that argued that the Romans could have invented photography. Photography here has nothing to do with cameras; instead, it’s the type of photography that Anna Atkins engaged in before the invention of the daguerreotype. Obviously, the Romans did not have the required chemicals at their disposal. But they had something else that has existed all around us: plants. Using their leaves, you can produce chlorophyll prints.

Of course, a photographic concept is one thing. Marrying it to the photographs themselves — creating a meaningful connection between process and the larger idea — is quite another (this is where about 99% of all process-based photography falls short). In the case of chlorophyll prints, I find it difficult to imagine a better use than Binh Danh‘s in his Immortality: Remnants of the Vietnam and American War.

Danh arrived in the US as a refugee in the late 1970s. His family — mother, father, and three other siblings — had left their native Vietnam by boat. The exodus of Vietnamese people using rickety boats forms one of the first major news items that I remember vividly. I was just old enough to be able to take in the news on TV in a somewhat more conscious fashion. Growing up by the sea, I knew of its powers. How or why all those people would risk their lives that way my ten-year old mind was unable to comprehend. This might also have been the first time in my life that I became aware of what I would later understand as desperation.

Whatever his parents’ desperation might have been at the time, Danh was much too young to understand. Born in 1977, he arrived in the US when he was two years old. But growing up, there were early reminders of the fact that he was in fact somewhat different. In The Enigma of Belonging, he remembers fellow high-school students at school discussing a possible class trip to Mexico. “I chimed in that we just needed our green cards, and the other students burst out laughing.” (quoted from the conversation with Boreth Ly, p.157 of the white volume) Now, of course, there is the persistent anti-Asian sentiment in the country that periodically erupts into violence (more information here).

Under ordinary circumstances, you can’t bring much when you travel. When you flee your native country on a boat, you can bring even less. Maybe you’ll bring a few family photographs, such as the one of Danh shown in the book that looks like it was folded and stored near someone’s body. Photography is a way of connection with oneself and one’s biographical, cultural, and societal past — and present. If anything, that realization provides the red thread through The Enigma of Belonging.

With Immortality: Remnants of the Vietnam and American War, Danh created a unique visual record of the war that would drive him from his first home. He “etched” (if we want to call it that) photographs and parts of news-magazine reports on leaves using the chlorophyll-print technique. The outcome is more haunting than beautiful. This is not to say that the images aren’t beautiful. But whatever beauty they might have pales in comparison to the overall effect. Ever since I first saw these photographs, I had hoped they would one day find themselves printed in a book.

During the war, the US defoliated large parts of Vietnam, leaving behind a vast and terrible legacy in the country. Creating the images on leaves thus produces an immediate connection to the war. Even if these aren’t the actual leaves scattered on Vietnamese ground, you could imagine that these ghost images would have appeared at the time.

The Enigma of Belonging consists of two books in a slipcase (one has a black cover, the other one a white one). The black volume contains the images from Immortality along with another project that I will get to below. The white volume presents essays alongside what you could consider complementary material.

Most of that material centers on Danh’s family’s experience as “boat people” (that is in fact the actual term). There are family photographs and documents, there are photographs taken much later at the remnants of the refugee camp the family lived in for a while, and there are other photographs related to the Vietnam War that the artist collected. The combination of the essays and the supplementary material provides an indispensable background to Immortality and in particular to Danh’s life conundrum, which is also expressed through the publication’s title.

What does it mean to belong? Where or how does one belong? For many people, those questions are never an issue. But there are others for whom there are no simple answers — maybe even no complicated answers. Danh’s fellow students in high school had him realize that his situation was different than theirs. Back in Vietnam, though, he is — in his own words — a việt kiều, a Vietnamese foreigner.

This is an experience shared by many other people, whether in the US or elsewhere. I don’t mean to lump all of their life experiences into one. My focus here is only on the aspect of belonging. The reality is that when you stop belonging somewhere — or when you never belonged in the first place, then it’s very hard, if not impossible to get it back. I see the second major body of work in The Enigma of Belonging — daguerreotypes of US national parks — as an expression of exactly this underlying concern.

After all, what could be more American than going to, say, Yosemite, an area that has been used to express Americanness through photography (if you’re interested in finding out more about this, read Tyler Green’s Carleton: Watkins Making the West American)? But how can you portray these places in such a fashion that people will not immediately think of Ansel Adams?

This is where the daguerreotypes come in. If you have ever seen a daguerreotype in real life, you know how difficult it actually is to see the image. It sits on a polished mirror, which you have to angle just right to be able to see. In The Enigma of Belonging, the images were printed with metallic inks that sit on coated paper. This brilliantly bring the viewer close to the experience of seeing the original daguerreotypes.

The end effect, of course, is that you never see just the image. You’ll also see a lot of what’s around you reflected in the images, and if you hold the book just right, you’ll see yourself. How do you belong into these scenes? There’s no answer. There’s only the experience of it.

The Enigma of Belonging pulls all the right stops to achieve maximum effect. The books are very well produced, using a variety of different papers that each help communicate the material they’re presenting. The end result is a publication that is incredibly beautiful but in which the beauty does not distract from the haunting aspects that lie underneath the photographs: a gruesome war, a family seeking refuge in the very country that played a major part in brutalizing their home, a young son growing up and trying to figure out his own place in all of this.

Especially in these times, where so many other people are forced to leave their homes to try to find a decent life somewhere else, this publication is a landmark achievement. It should remind those with comfortable lives how important it is to be open to other people’s suffering and to other people’s attempts to also have a safe and happy life.

Highly recommended.

The Enigma of Belonging; photographs by Binh Danh; essays/interview by/with Binh Danh, Boreth Ly, Joshua Chuang, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Andrew Lam; two volumes in a slipcase with combined 276 pages; Radius Books; 2023

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

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Tout va bien https://cphmag.com/tout-va-bien/ Mon, 23 Oct 2023 11:51:00 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3759

Tout va bien keeps appearing in Vera Muratet’s drawings of birds and squirrels and other assorted animals. Everything is fine, all is well. All is not well in this world. But for the artist, a ten year old girl who loves animals as much as drawing them, all is well. We might as well acknowledge that for us, all is not well for reasons that are beyond this young girl’s concerns and that all-too-often should be beyond ours as well.

Tout va bien (subtitled Cahier d’animaux à Paris) showcases Vera’s drawings alongside reproduction from animal guides and photographs by her father, Myr Muratet. There is a photograph of Vera drawing, taken by the father. But careful attention has been paid by the book’s makers to give the young artist the recognition she deserves.

Aside from a drawn self-portrait, there also is an “about me” at the end of the book, in which Vera telling us what she thinks we need to know about her. “Aujourd’hui,” she writes, “je suis allée à l’école, j’ai fais des maths, du français, de l’histoire et de la lecture. Demain, je ferais des maths, du français et de l’art plastique et ensuite j’irai nager et m’amuser.” (All texts appear in French and English in the book.)

One of the most previous aspects of childhood is the ignorance of distinctions that as adults we take for granted. Unlike our own adult ignorance, which often is rooted in neglect if not malice, a child’s is innocent, devoid of second thoughts.

Seen this way, even discussing whether this book is for children or adults misses its point entirely. It’s simultaneously not for children and not for adults. The former might find the way it’s put together too complicated for reasons that aren’t clear to them. The latter might find what it presents too… well, childlike (except, of course, the proud parents).

But in reality, Tout va bien really is a book for children and for adults, and it’s the adults that can learn a lot from it. After all, even as children and (well, some) adults take great pleasure in observing the world, it is only children that are able to do it in an innocent fashion, a fashion devoid of an agenda.

You can see this in action in some of the photographs taken by Myr Muratet. There’s a great photograph of his daughter standing by a railing that has a bird sit right next to her. But there are other photographs that appear to have been made with much less effect in mind, such as the photographs of a bird’s nest that first show four eggs and then the four hatched chicks asking to be fed.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that what I’m writing makes sense to anyone but myself. What I’m after is what now commonly is called mindfulness. Unfortunately, to a large extent through sheer commercialization (and a dose of orientalism) this idea has become such a vague and shallow cliché that it’s almost useless.

If you trace it back to buddhist writing, you get a better understanding — even if understanding is exactly not the point: you want to be and take the world as it is, without projecting judgment onto it. Children are able to do it. But as they grow older and get more and more exposed to adult thinking, they lose their ability to experience the world that way, and inevitably they will adopt the cynicism that is the guiding principle of contemporary (capitalist) life.

Because Tout va bien contains traces of both — the childlike wonder and earnestness, and the adult calculation and earnestness — the book can help us remember some of what we have abandoned, traces of which we still carry with us. You couldn’t achieve the same effect by looking at books made for children. You can only do it by looking at a book that to a large extent was made by a child.

To be honest, I find it difficult to write more about this book without falling into utter despair. I suppose that I don’t have to tell you about all the violence and mayhem happening in the world right now. Where’s the way out? I don’t have a good answer — other than thinking (hoping really) that a rejection of the relentless cynicism that is underpinning our existences might provide a good beginning.

We have to re-train ourselves to see the world’s wonders again, the way children do. We have to understand that life — all life, meaning: every living being’s life — is precious, equally precious. This also means accepting that all suffering is equally horrible, and one being’s suffering must not be used to excuse another’s. If that means that we finally have to elect better leaders, then, well, we should do that, too.

Tout va bien; drawings by Vera Muratet, photographs by Myr Muratet; texts by Vera Muratet, François Chiron, Luca Reffo and Francesca Todde; 114 pages; Départ Pour l’Image; 2023

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Stills & Stones https://cphmag.com/stills-stones/ Mon, 16 Oct 2023 14:50:33 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3754

One of the bigger (yet inconsequential) mysteries of photography might be why analogue and digital artifacts have resulted in such different receptions. I think the world of photography’s inherent traditionalism is only partly to blame for that. In a purely aesthetic sense, analogue artifacts do tend to register beautiful, a fact that first played out on a larger scale during the era of Pictorialism.

Pictorialism was driven as much as by a desire to make photographs look like art as from the perceived coldness and unforgivingness of the latest photographic technologies at the time. The former says more about ideas concerning art. But the latter connects us with what we see today. Even as there is Hito Steyerl’s In Defense of the Poor Image, in actuality most photographers go out of their ways to stay away from exactly that: a poor digital image.

In contrast, those working with analogue materials have been embracing poor images for a long time. That embrace has happened in such a wholehearted fashion that even to speak of a poor image in this context seems wrong. Unlike digital grain — a mostly ugly conglomerate of jarring colours, film grain is widely seen as beautiful. Following the tradition established by the ideas behind Pictorialism, there have been different photographic movements that were built on equating what in principle are technical deficiencies with aesthetic value — possibly most prominently are-bure-boke from Japan.

The photographs in Mark van den Brink‘s Stills & Stones were mostly taken with a Minox camera. They’re studio still lives, and ordinarily you wouldn’t use this type of camera for such a purpose. After all, given that you have to control the light and focus, your tool should be convenient to use. Furthermore, at 8x11mm the camera’s negative is impossibly small. Assuming I did the math properly, you would need about 146 of such Minox negatives to cover the area of a 4×5″ negative.

But art making is not centered on efficiency. It is centered on someone’s vision. Consequently, that someone will have to work around the limitations of their tool, and this, of course, is where the fun and frustrations of art making lie. Van den Brink preferred the are — graininess — of his camera over what a view camera would have delivered for him. Produced by using available window light, the photographs evoke a much earlier era of photography even as they were made in the 2000s.

Most of the still lifes are set up in a simple fashion. A stone might be placed on something to support it, with a plain backdrop behind it. Often, scale is difficult to ascertain: how large the stone might be is not clear. At times, it isn’t clear what is actually depicted. Occasionally, the logic of what is on view is unclear: why are these bricks (are they bricks?) piled up the way they are?

All of the decisions behind the photographs force the viewer to engage with their aesthetic experience: the grain, the occasional wonky depth of field, the strange colours in the pictures that are not black and white.

There’s something about the work that has me think about a viewer’s relationship with the pictures. Even as photography is mass produced and thus accessible to any number of people (those who buy the book, say), looking at these pictures gives me the feeling that only I am looking at them. While this might in fact be correct, at least some of the time (who else is looking at them in this exact moment?), the literal aspect is not what I am interested in.

What I’m after might be hard to put into words. Unlike in most other cases of photography, somehow these pictures make me feel as if they were made for me — and for me only. I don’t mean the “for me” as “this writer”. This is not about me. Another person might have the exact same experience. I suppose a different way to express the idea would be to say that here, the very personal joy of making the photographs — in that Dutch studio — translates into a very personal enjoyment of looking at them.

In part, this might be because of the object I’m holding in my hands, a book made by Willem van Zoetendaal. I should probably note that Willem sends me his books, but he does not pay me to write these kinds of compliments. Still, everything about Stills & Stones is perfect: the size, the paper, the design, the printing (well, almost everything: I don’t care much for the square pictures). And you need to arrive at the perfect choices for these photographs, because the wrong package would undercut their appeal — and would probably not deliver the experience I have had with them.

Looking at photography should be enjoyable — maybe not all the time but certainly some of it. We could probably argue forever about what this means — enjoyable. Here, I mean that as a viewer, I want to feel a photographer’s enjoyment while making their work, and I also want to feel the publisher’s enjoyment while making the book. And that’s happening here.

Recommended.

Still & Stones; photographs by Mark van den Brink; text by Willem van Zoetendaal; 120 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2023

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Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

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Brief Experiments With Dall.E 3 https://cphmag.com/dall-e-3/ Mon, 09 Oct 2023 15:01:20 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3745

In the world of photography, There is a lot of talk about photo-realistic imagery created with the help of artificial intelligence (AI). There even have been some attempts to produce what we could loosely call art using AI. The efforts I have seen fall way short of what I consider meaningful art, so I’m going to simply ignore them here. But I’m interested in the general question: is it (or will it be) possible to use AI to create art?

To a large extent, the answer will depend on how you define art — or what you expect from it. In general, I prefer the latter approach to thinking about art. Trying to define art seems like the kind of futile endeavour that only serves to create ultimately end- and meaningless discussions (which, granted, fuel part of the academic discourse). Focusing instead on what one expects from art gets at whom art ultimately is made for: people with their own distinct preferences, biographies, socializations, etc.

That all said, my real interest in AI photography (let’s just call it that) originates somewhere outside the confines of art. To begin with, I have a background in the sciences (I have a doctorate in theoretical physics). I am very familiar with modeling ideas, running computer simulations, and related scientific endeavours.

Given that background, I view AI photography simply as such a project. For me, AI generated photographs are simulations of photographs that much like scientific simulations are intended to match what we could loosely call reality as closely as possible.

Computers are not sentient. When an algorithm produces what looks like a believable photograph, that’s interesting to me — at least to some extent: you can use input data (other people’s photographs) and “prompt” the machine to produce output data that mostly conforms to the conventions of the input data. I’m writing “mostly” because people typically do not have six fingers on their hands. My guess is that such problems will eventually disappear.


Attempt to re-create a photograph from my book Vaterland

But my real interest in AI photography centers on something different — even as it is related to the above. As a scientist, I know of the importance of algorithms and their input data. In a nutshell, that’s what I spent three pretty challenging years of my life on (I worked on cosmological parallel supercomputer simulations — essentially creating model universes in the computer). I know that what you put into the computer determines what comes out.

In that earlier life (if I may call it that), what came out of the simulations was being tested against what had been actually measured (by other astronomers). Inevitably, the simulations would fall short of observations, meaning we’d have to go back and run another simulation. This often involved changing input parameters, but it also meant trying to create more complex models (algorithms).

In the world of photography, the focus is the exact opposite: instead of looking at what you put in, people focus on the output — the photographs. I understand why that is the case, and I talked about that in the very beginning of this article. However, I find it a lot more interesting to study what the output might tell us about what was being put into the machine.

Unlike in the case of the work I did for my doctorate, I have limited access to the input or the model itself. The one thing I can control is the chain of words — the so-called prompt — that will have the machine make a picture for me. But that’s already interesting enough. I can’t claim to be a real expert in this. Unlike, say, Roland Meyer, I don’t spend a lot of time with AI-image generators.

My approach to such generators is very simple. In the sciences, you always prefer the simplest possible approach. If you can do something in two ways, one being a lot more complicated than the other, you pick the simpler one (the principle is called Occam’s Razor). I’m also a writer, and for pretty much all of my writing, I try to be clear and, again, simple.


Attempt to re-create a photograph from my book Vaterland

Thus, when I use AI-image generators, I work with very simple, often terse prompts. If the resulting photograph doesn’t quite look like what I thought I wanted, I usually do not change the prompt. Instead, it’s that difference that interests me: how or why does a simple, short prompt produce this picture? Obviously, I don’t know and have no way of knowing. But if I do this game often enough, I believe that I can find out about the generator itself and the input data.

In other words, I believe that the output of AI-image generators tells us something about the ideologies of both the algorithms and the input data. If this sounds too abstract for you, here’s a very simple way to understand it. If you decide to create an algorithm that produces portraits and you only feed it with photographs of white people — do you think that the output will reflect the entire population of, say, the United States? It’s easy to see how that won’t be the case.

Mind you, that’s not some generic example I came up with. That’s one of the main problems with many AI algorithms, which can have gruesome results for those whose data are absent from the input. I wrote an in-depth article for FOAM Magazine about this, so I’m going to refer to that if you’re curious to learn more (the article is called Event Horizon, and it was published in issue 56).

The other day, I found out about Microsoft/Bing’s Image Creator. It now uses Dall.E 3, the updated version of Dall.E 2. I had used Dall.E 2 in 2022 to re-create each photograph in my book Vaterland (you can read about the experiment here). In a nutshell, I found that Dall.E 2 was able to produce pretty good looking pictures (some were better than others); but when put together in a sequence, they simply didn’t work at all as a photobook.

I was curious to see how Dall.E 3 would do: Not so great actually. In fact, the outcome was so bad that I didn’t finish producing all the photographs. That’s why most of them are in their original colours here — I didn’t bother converting them into my b/w, given that this would have still not made them mine. (Given this article is not about my artistic strategies, I won’t dive more deeply into what I mean by this.)


Attempt to re-create a photograph from my book Vaterland

The first immediate problem I ran into was that unlike in the earlier version, Dall.E 3 produces images that look like they’re out of something like The Hobbit or any such Hollywood fantasy. I could have lived with that, but it got a lot worse. All of the portraits I produced looked like an assortment of hipsters.

Even worse, some of my prompts delivered what came across as a Westerners’ idea of a post-Soviet Eastern European wasteland. Parts of Vaterland had been photographed in Poland. Asking for “An empty billboard with paint markings on it in front of apartment buildings in Warsaw” delivered endless rows of brutal, desolate buildings. On Instagram, a Ukrainian photographer friend told me they reminded him of parts of the cities of Mariupol or Bakhmut (both now destroyed by the russian invaders).

In fact, none of my attempts to produce images “from Warsaw” resulted in anything credible or anything I actually saw in the various weeks I was there. When I asked the generator to produce images around the Palace of Culture and Science (the famous Stalin-era building), I ended up with some very strange cartoonish looking versions of it.

You might be tempted to tell me that I should use more complex prompts. It’s possible — I didn’t try this — that you could produce more realistic looking images of the Polish capital. However, I believe that things should work the other way around. You should have to prompt an image generator to get a cartoon — instead of having to try to get away from it.

It’s possibly too depressing an exercise to describe what exactly these cartoon images produced by Dall.E 3 represent. Roland Meyer might have more insight. But I think that this experiment can as a warning to all those who think that they can use AI-image generators and produce art. Maybe it’s art — but whose art is it? Yours — or the programmers’?

You can talk yourself into believing that you can refine your prompts until you get the desired result. But is this really the case? In a similar fashion, you could talk a different AI generator. But does that solve the actual problem at hand?

Furthermore, there are all the pictures you can’t make. For good reasons, companies restrict the possibilities of AI-image generators. Read this article if you want to find out why they have to do that. But such restrictions do not necessarily work in an artist’s favour.

If we simply stick with Vaterland, I was unable to use some of the simple prompts with Dall.E 2 because they contained words or terms that were forbidden. Mind you, my book is explicitly critical of both Germany’s culture of memory and of its neofascist AfD party. The Holocaust and World War 2 play important roles in the book. With Dall.E 2, I had to try to create some pictures without being able to say what they were.

To be honest, I don’t know how one would go about solving this particular problem. I’m probably glad that Nazis are unable to create certain images (even as the article I just liked to makes it clear that this is still a problem), even if this means that I can’t make other pictures that I use in an anti-Nazi content. Furthermore, none of this is a real problem for me, given that I make my pictures in the real world.

Whatever you want to make of the above, be aware that ultimately, AI-image generators are cliché-production machines more than anything else. The next visual cliché — informed by the many biases in the input (aka the source photographs) — is just one prompt away. So don’t focus on the spectacle — instead look at the machinations that produce it.

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The Oilmen and Their Rigs https://cphmag.com/oilmen/ Mon, 02 Oct 2023 14:10:19 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3734

Sometimes, the same books get made in very different eras. Almost inevitably, the books will look and feel very different, even if at their heart, they get at the same thing. Such is the case for Thomas Hollyman‘s The Oilmen and Tanja EngelbertsForgotten Seas. Both books tell their stories through a combination of photographs and texts. Both are very well made productions. To understand how these books deal with the same thing, though, you will have to ignore superficial differences.

The Oilmen was published in 1952 and is essentially a piece of corporate propaganda: “This book, telling the story of men and women at work in a great industry, was made possible by the corporation of the employees of Shell Oil Company.”

Forgotten Seas was published 71 years later. It is an art book that (in part) is being described as follows on the publisher’s website: “Forgotten Seas is a testament of seventy years of gas and oil drilling in the North Sea, an industrial landscape that is slowly disappearing.”

In these seven decades, a lot has happened with this particular industry. In a nutshell, we now live through the repercussions of its consequences by experiencing the climate catastrophe that has been long in the making. At the time of this writing, it does not appear as if we — and by that I mean the people who hold power, whether it’s derived from elections or money — are willing to do anything about that.

But a lot has also happened in the world of photography. Even as there still is the occasional lazy argument over whether the medium is art or not, for better or worse photography has entered art museums and is now being taught at art academies. The following might paint a picture with too broad a brush. But I think it’s fair to say that all in all, photography has mostly moved away from its subjects or subject matters, to instead approach them with a ten-foot pole.

You can see these differences on the books’ covers already. The Oilmen features a smiling oil worker who is photographed as if he were holding a drill bit over his head. The photographer must have placed himself on the floor of an oil rig, pointing his camera towards the top of the drill tower (all of that using a flash). The book’s title sits between the oil worker’s head and the drill bit, printed in bright red. In contrast,  the cover of Forgotten Seas shows a photograph of a sea-based oil rig that betrays signs of analogue or maybe digital artifacts. The book’s title sits at the very top of the page.

The Oilmen tells its story in what we now perceive as a very traditional reportage fashion. Differently sized pieces of text serve different purposes while sitting next to the photographs that are organized in any number of fashions across the various pages. There are captions, there are longer pieces of text, and there are what look like pull quotes, even if they are not that.

This combination is very dynamic — as are both the photographs and the various texts themselves. However you might feel about the oil business, Hollyman pulled all available photographic stops, often for incredible effect. And the text drives along, making one breathless proclamation after another. For example: “Once captured, oil never rests. These men measure it, clean it and pass it on”. Why, oil is being described as if it were a wild beast!

Much like The Oilmen, Forgotten Seas employs chapters. There are five: “Archive”, “Platform”, “Embarking”, “Horizon”, “Decommission”. Where The Oilmen focuses on the men and occasional women in the business, this book centers only on deep-sea rigs. Each of the chapters shows an aspect of their life time (as you can probably guess from the titles of the chapters).

In pretty much every fashion, the text is the complete opposite of the 1952 book. There are parts that read as follows. “twelve hour shifts / slumbering zombies // twelve hours on / twelve hours off” etc. In all fairness, some of the text is slightly livelier: “The Dutch, fresh-faced, a slight smile on their lips as if the joke is always on you. Then there are the silent Russians, the jokester Poles, the kind-hearted Norwegians.” But that’s about as exciting as it gets.

Photographs of human beings are mostly absent from the book. Instead, it’s many pictures of oil rigs; each chapter features assortments of groupings of such pictures in its spreads. There is ample repetition. However often I’ve looked at this book, the effect is quite numbing, with the turning of the pages turning into increasing tedium. Why, I wonder, am I supposed to care about any of this?

In fact, after I received Forgotten Seas in the mail I thought that there was no way that I would be able to write intelligently about it. I don’t want to claim that the book does not have a message or is not interesting. But I’m confident to write that whatever its audience might be, I am not a member of that group.

We’re now seeing an increasing number of exhibitions that focus on what appear to be very specific ideas of themes. They mostly feature photography that appears to have been made with the idea of looking as much like contemporary art as possible. And everything is tied together by some curator’s concept that is often explained in such a fashion that even after repeated reading I have absolutely no idea what they’re after. Again, I don’t think I am a member of the target audience of such exhibitions.

Truth be told, even as I am insanely critical of the way the fossil-fuel industry is actively destroying the very living conditions of this planet, The Oilmen has me a lot more engaged than Forgotten Seas. I know what the former is trying to get at, which offers me a lot of ways to respond to it, in part because the book is doing its job so well. I love the pictures and hate the message. In contrast, I have no idea what the latter is trying to get at. Oil rigs are constructed, they work, and they get disassembled? That can’t be it. But neither the pictures nor the text engage me enough that I feel compelled to dive in more.

I suppose what gets me these days is that so much of contemporary photography has such low blood pressure. At times, you don’t even know whether there’s a pulse! I want to look at photography that makes me feel something. It’s not that I mind the occasional cerebral exercise. But I find the steady stream of such exercises disheartening.

Mind you, what makes this realization even more bitter is that a lot of the photography that does not conform to this new trend merely copies old photographic strategies that are problematic for all kinds of other reasons.

I don’t know what the reasons are for what we’re observing these days. Is it all those art academies and MFA programs that are churning out “lens-based” artists? Is it the general dearth of a proper economic support system that has photographers reject more open messages, instead opting for the ten-foot pole approach?

In all likelihood, it’s just me. It’s my own fault. I want photography to be something that it mostly is not — or rather that photographers mostly decide to avoid, whatever their reasons might actually be.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

Much like journalism, photography criticism involves a huge investment of time and resources. When you become a subscriber, you not only get access to more of my work. You will also help me produce it (including the free content on this site).

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The Neoliberal Photo Museum Is Not Your Friend https://cphmag.com/neoliberal-photo-museum/ Mon, 25 Sep 2023 13:28:07 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3728

The main problem with the neoliberal photography museum — such as Fotografiska — is not that it doesn’t treat photography or photographers properly. To insist on such proper treatment is to miss the place’s mission entirely: what is on view is not photography. Instead, it is neoliberal capitalism itself as it manifests itself through a combination of consumption and of a proper mindset. The photographs on view are merely ornaments.

I should note that we’re stuck with a bad term — museum — that has us evaluate one locale against another. The are many glaring problems at a number of museums. The Whitney Museum board included a producer of tear gas, MoMA has ties to fossil fuel, the British Museum (and many others) is filled with looted goods.

So the fact that Fotografiska isn’t a museum in some ways (the way it is dealing with photography) but very much a museum in other ways (the unseemly control wealthy people control what is on view) tells us that to focus on the what a place might have to do to be called a museum is a grave mistake.

To begin with, though, the idea that you can’t have a museum without a collection is ludicrous. It only serves to preserve the power of existing museums. It’s also self-defeating, since many museums don’t have the purchasing power to operate in the contemporary art market.

In the end, what matters is the quality of exhibitions put on display. This includes not only curating in the narrow sense of assembling something under a theme (“Nudes made by female artists”) but also creating a solid framework around it that intends to enrich the audience’s understanding with wall text or multimedia presentations or simply old-fashioned catalogues.

In 1971, Hans Haacke was supposed to have an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York City. Haacke wanted to include a piece about real estate: “The works contain no evaluative comment. One set of holdings are mainly slum-located properties owned by a group of people related by family and business ties. The other system is the extensive real estate interests, largely in commercial properties, held by two partners.” It was not to be. The show was cancelled, the curator in charge was fired. (You can find Haacke’s words in the article.)

The 1971 Haacke incident obviously has nothing to do with Fotografiska Berlin. But it actually has everything to do with it. To understand this better we need to understand that the neoliberal museum serves more than one function. A minor and relatively unimportant part of the functions is to showcase photography (regardless of whether the staff are actually aware of this or not).

The main function is something different: it’s commercial. Fotografiska Berlin is part of a real-estate development in Berlin that is geared towards the very wealthy. The museum’s role is to serve as an ornament, as a token. It provides a veneer of culture in an environment that otherwise is devoid of it. Not every neoliberal museum is attached to an effort to zhuzh up real estate, though. But you want to always see whether there might not be some other purpose when another one of these places opens somewhere.

Neoliberal capitalism will happily appropriate anything and use it for its own goals (well, almost anything, I’ll get to that). And art in general provides a brilliant opportunity to kill a number of birds with a single stone: you can invest in art (satisfying your financial needs). But through that investment you can also buy cultural and societal cachet, and you can showcase how much you care or pretend to care about larger societal themes (such as diversity or feminism or whatever else).

If you think about it, that’s brilliant. What else can you buy that delivers such a broad return on investment? If you look at things from this angle, traditional museums are not necessarily exempt from the criticism I’m leveling here. As I already noted, the boards of many museums are filled with people who view their presence as a commercial investment and who will use their influence accordingly.

We need to be talking about all of these institutions in general — even as some might be a lot worse — or maybe blatant would be the right word — than others.

By the way, none of the above or of what is still to follow is intended as a criticism of the photographers who for some reason or other agree to have their work shown at these places. Theirs is the world of precarity that the people behind these institutions exploit. Specifically, the Berlin based artists exhibiting at the local Fotografiska are part of the many Berliners who have trouble finding or keeping affordable living spaces. In addition, they might struggle having or finding affordable studio spaces.

Fotografiska isn’t any more dedicated to photography than Pier 24 was. Founded by a wealthy venture capitalist, for a while Pier 24 upended the United States’ photography scene in general and San Francisco’s in particular, establishing itself as a locale where photography was going to be celebrated (never mind the insanely elitist way photographs were supposed to be viewed). This went well until the city stepped in and demanded a fair rental contract for the prime location in question. It was at that stage that it was announced that the collection was going to be auctioned off, with Pier 24 closing down.

Given that previously, the site’s focus and dedication to photography had been talked about so much, the obvious question is how much dedication there had been in the first place. I know that its staff very much care for photography (I’ve spoken with a number of them, and I admire their dedication to the medium). The photographs could have gone to local museums, or some other locale could have probably been found. But for its owner, Pier 24 might just have never really been about photography in the first place.

The interior of the Berlin Fotografiska, based in Berlin’s Mitte district, a completely gentrified hellhole of shallow consumption, features graffiti made by squatters who occupied the building until they were evicted. Given that the graffiti is legally protected (as noted by Berlin based newspaper taz), removing it would not have been an option. But gentrifiers love graffiti because it confers a sense of edgy credibility.

A lot of appropriation is obscene, but this one is particularly so. Visitors pay good money so that the new owners of an old building show them how adornments made by people hoping for a more just and equal society now serve to demonstrate how the state (city) conspired with capital to defeat what both saw as a threat to their dominance.

There’s a telling quote in a recent New York Times article about Berlin’s Fotografiska. “What’s happening in Berlin is, we had a great time drinking out of plastic cups,” Yoram Roth, the person behind the place, is quoted as saying, “But we have an audience now that wants a nice glass of wine, a sensible meal, and to be part of the cultural landscape.” That “we” in the first part — that’s the revealing bit. That “we” includes Roth and his peers: wealthy individuals, property developers, bankers, people who inherited money — the Mitte district crowd. And that “we” has now decided that it would rather swap out those who can’t be too picky about their drinking receptacles of choice for those who can. So it goes.

It’s the old story of gentrification: artists occupy run-down spaces, create a cool — if edgy — atmosphere, and rich vultures buy them all up and transform them into a “cool” shopping centers. And finally the well-off can finally enjoy “a nice glass of wine” and “a sensible meal” without having to worry about the creative underclass and their uncouth ways of living any — even as, of course, they keep their adornments for show.

Of course, it would really not be the New York Times if the article did not include gems such as the following: “Although their models might be different, there is some overlap between the Tacheles’s objectives and those of Fotografiska Berlin”. Someone from Fotografiska gets to explain why that is (I guess cribbing from the place’s PR notes would have been too obvious?). The article’s final line gives away whose perspective you’re reading: “In the meantime, maybe Berlin will finally offer a decent martini.” The New York Times writes for the “we” crowd.

I already noted that the neoliberal photography museum is not interested in photography. It is also not particularly interested in photographers. If there is support for photographers, that support is merely a side effect of the larger endeavour. Of course, at this stage the world of art photography is so starved of meaningful financial support that the moment someone steps in to offer anything, that will be seen as an incredible improvement.

However, I maintain that any initiative that does not address the systemically starved support system of photography is not interested in helping photographers — even if selected individuals might indeed rake in some money. Any initiative that does not engage and cooperate with already existing local photography institutions or museums is not interested in furthering photography in the particular city it appears.

What makes this all more complicated is the fact that the people behind Fotografiska are diverse. This should be the lowest of all bars but, alas, in Germany certainly isn’t. For example, over the past few years the main exhibitions at C/O Berlin have been dominated by very old (mostly white) men, many of them from the US. That’s just really, really bad.

However, even as the neoliberal museum and its patrons will indeed express a keen interest in societal issues, maybe even embracing intersectionality (the fact that individual topics should not be seen in isolation from each other), such intersectionality always excludes money and class. In 1971, the Guggenheim did not want to talk about money and class. Today’s neoliberal museums don’t want to discuss these, and neither do the denizens of Berlin’s Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg districts. This mirrors larger parts of the art world that has made itself dependent on capital.

We might note that historically, the arts have always been closely enmeshed with powerful wealthy people who threw artists some crumbs to further their own interests. I suppose for me it’s fascinating that I am able to observe in real time what I previously read about in history books, with contemporary Andrew Carnegie types throwing around a little money to whitewash their name while furthering their businesses.

What ended up driving me to write this article was not the emergence of yet another Fotografiska, the one in Berlin. Instead, it was the way Pier 24 folded after it was unable to extend its lease with the city. Deciding to close it all down and to sell off the collections — that struck me as such a temper tantrum. Who does that? Who builds up a pretty amazing collection of photography, talking about their love for photography — only to then just dump it?

And then I realized the type of person behind it: someone who has interests other than photography in mind. It’s pure neoliberal capitalism: if something doesn’t work, destroy it and move on to the next thing (regardless of who or what falls by the wayside). If something needs a little whitewashing — let’s say the gruesome gentrification of Berlin’s Mitte district into a neoliberal Disneyland — then let’s add on a little museum that ticks a few important boxes.

In 2020, Art in American described Fotografiska as one of the “virtue-signaling institutions”, and that seems about right. That is neoliberal capitalism as well: exploiting the planet and then sipping the wine (mind you, out of real glasses!) in front of art that, you see, is critical.

The difference between, say, MoMA and Fotografiska Berlin might come down to the following. The former is a museum that comes with a gift shop. The latter is a gift shop that comes with a museum. Both are controlled by wealthy people with very specific interests that are defined not by what is included in its spaces but what is excluded. Whether one is really so much better than the other is absolutely not clear to me.

Where this leaves photographers also is not clear to me. In a nutshell, as photographers we are in desperate need of a much larger and much more robust support system. We’re not going to get it from politicians, and for sure we’re not going to get it from the people who fund neoliberal museums.

So how can you go about what you want to do?

Obviously, individual photographers will have to make decisions for themselves. Like I said, I don’t have a problem with photographers working with neoliberal museums. If it makes you money or gets your work in front of an audience you think you want, that’s great. Just don’t forget about the larger picture.

What it comes down to, though, might be something a friend told me the other day. Museums might simply be comparable to malls: relics of the past that are failing. The question is what might replace them.

Given that many photographers share the same struggles, cooperatives or similar structures might provide a good way to create mutual support systems. Creating and working in a shared exhibition space also might be much easier if you can share resources and skills.

Given the troubled real-estate situation in places like Berlin, such spaces might simply be temporary. But temporary spaces might be able to re-produce some of the exciting and creative atmosphere that neither traditional nor neoliberal museums can offer.

For this to work, artists will have to consider their own needs much more than they do when they make themselves dependent on the trickle-down support offered by the wealthy.

They also need to reconsider who their audience actually is — or whether they really want to make art only for other artists, for curators, and for the occasional rich person who waltzes in to pick up another investment.

 

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Socorro! https://cphmag.com/socorro/ Mon, 18 Sep 2023 14:34:52 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3726

I don’t want to know how Lucy Raven’s Socorro! shadowgrams came about. I have my reasons. To begin with, knowing about the details of the underlying process collapses the images’ possible meanings and their impact.

For better or mostly worse, the world of photography’s insistence on overemphasizing the details of process often reduces such images to less than what they could be. Photography is a visual medium, and we ought to be able to engage with its imagery at that level — instead of jumping to explanations for why things look the way they do.

If photography really aspires to be a form of art, then photographers and anyone else involved in the field will have to learn to engage with photographs accordingly. This means to stop asking for explanations of craft/process (or, for photographers, to stop providing them) and to talk about the pictures on a purely aesthetic level. Not: why does this look the way it looks? Instead: what is this doing with me? What am I seeing, what am I feeling? And what might these two mean for me?

There also is the fact that I studied physics, and I am familiar with imagery that is similar. This is where my own life experience might differ from many other people’s: I am able to read many images that arise from a physics background because I was trained to do so. But I don’t work in that field any longer, and I do not want to read these images in a scientific fashion, regardless of their possible scientific background.

Socorro! is a relatively large book (27.9 x 36.3cm or 11″ x 14.3″). I’m immediately thinking that the images in the book are facsimiles of the originals, and I find that interesting. While a photobook’s viewer always is only able to see a translation of its source images, typically photobook makers intend to make that translation as accurate as possible. By “translation” I here mean that you try to get images that were printed using ink to look like images that arose from traditional photographic materials (silver-gelatin paper).

When I was much younger, I went to a concert where the band sold t-shirts that stated “The songs sound all the same”. On the one hand, that obviously wasn’t true. On the other hand, it kind of was (which created part of the appeal The Wedding Present). I suspect that a casual viewer will react to the images in the book in the same fashion: the images look all the same. It’s true, kind of; but it absolutely isn’t.

I find that interesting, too, and it is this fact that had me want to write about the work. Not so long ago, I started to appreciate music that is quite abstract and that broadly speaking falls into the genre of ambient music. It might not surprise you that when I listened to The Wedding Present, I would have considered such music boring. But it’s not really boring at all — quite on the contrary. Given that I don’t write about music but about photography,  Socorro! seemed like a perfect opportunity to understand and write about images that — and this is a terribly superficial comparison — are the equivalent of Martyna Basta’s music (I’m thinking in particular of Making Eye Contact With Solitude).

If you wanted to describe the images in Socorro! you might be tempted to reach for visual comparisons. Some of the images look like sections of a stained concrete wall whose material has deteriorated with age. Others resemble what out-of-focus X-ray images might look like (even though I have never seen one).

There are images that feature cones with objects at their apices, or rather their shadows. Here, I can’t help but think of images of a jet breaking the sound barrier, producing a shock wave around it. But I am also compelled to think of the imagery produced by a US newspaper that tried to visualize the effect of bullets from military-grade weapons tearing through the human body. And then there is a photograph by Shomei Tomatsu that I can’t help but think of as well.

Some images are pitch black and feature only a few dust specks sprinkled on them. There’s the occasional Gerhard-Richter-is-squeegeeing-a-canvase effect, and some images remind me of what happened when Idris Khan took a large number of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers or gas tanks and layered them on top of each other.

The less detail you have, the more you’re able to associate with the small amount of information given to you. I find this interesting. It points at something Siegfried Kracauer wrote: “If […] one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly.” I suspect I shouldn’t use the word “boredom” in a review. But I might as well point out the richness of experiences discussed in Documents of Contemporary Art: Boredom. I feel that the richness of those experiences is mostly underappreciated in the world of photography; this book brings me close to them.

Maybe you have experience with meditation, and you’re able to connect with these images in such a fashion. This is not to say that the images in Socorro! are meditative (they’re also not boring in case that wasn’t clear from the preceding). That’s such a terrible word to use to describe a piece of visual art (much like “poetic”). The images are not meditative. But you could engage with them in such a fashion that your experience might bring up aspects of meditation.

I remember that Ludwig Wittgenstein once said something to the effect of that when he went to a museum, he preferred to just look at just one painting. Unfortunately, I am unable to locate the actual quote online. But let’s pretend that he said that. I think that approach would be very good for the book. In fact, that’s how I engaged with it ever since I got it in the mail. I open it at some random location, and then I spend time with one of its images, however long I feel is right at that moment. Sometimes, it’s a short moment. Sometimes, it’s quite a bit of time.

I think that this approach might help those who struggle with the images. Unless you’re already attuned to this kind of ambient imagery, leafing through the book might tempt you to compare and contrast. You don’t want to compare and contrast these images any more than you want to come to any conclusions. You just want these images to be, and you want your thoughts and feelings about them to be. That’s enough.

It is a gorgeous book. Like I said, it’s rather large, and as is often the case with this publisher it’s very attractive. There are two sections that contain essays; these are printed on a bright yellow paper (a very different stock than the rest). I can’t say anything about the essays. I will read them once I feel that reading them will not spoil my ability to engage with the images.

Maybe I still can’t write anything coherently about these images. But I’m not sure that is a problem. If you’re an artist, you know about the importance of moving out of your comfort zone. As a viewer, you want to be able to do the same.

I know that I now see a little differently, and I experience photography a little bit differently. Not being able to write about it perfectly has me think that I’m still in the spot where the engagement is freshest. I know it will not last; for now I will cherish these moments.

Recommended.

Socorro!; photograms by Lucy Raven; essays by Pamela M. Lee and David Levi Strauss; 120 pages; MACK; 2023

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Confusion and Hostility https://cphmag.com/confusion-and-hostility/ Mon, 11 Sep 2023 15:11:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3724

“Today,” Sean Tatol writes, “the mere suggestion that some things are better than others, particularly in the arts, is met with confusion and hostility.” Tatol’s is a long piece that — almost inevitably — mixes real insight with what you might find questionable. Where in particular these two separate out — again almost inevitably — might differ from reader to reader. If anything, for me that’s the beauty of engaging with art: where else are you going to clash with someone else’s subjectivity in such an elaborate fashion?

For a critic, writing about criticism of course involves a large amount of naval gazing. This is inevitable. However, if you engage with it to confront your own contradictions, which I believe is Tatol’s goal, then there is insight to be gained not just for your readers but also, and this is the most important part, for yourself. After all, as a critic you periodically want to evaluate what you do and how you do that: Criticism can always only be imperfect, and it’s from that imperfection that its true value is to be gained.

I like reading about criticism, and I like thinking about how I approach my own. It’s not that I need to do it every day or every week or even every month. I just need to do it somewhat regularly. It’s finding pieces like Tatol’s that usually has me engage with it again.

What drives me doing this — meaning this site — is the goal that I will be growing both as a writer/critic but also as a photographer and a person. The hope is that some of that growth might be shared in some fashion with readers, however indirect that might be.

Rarely, if ever, do I go back to my old writing. It’s not that I dislike it. I think many writers cringe reading their old work, realizing that this or that aspect could or maybe should have been better. There’s that. But there also is the fact that the person who wrote some piece five years ago is not the same any longer as the one who reads it now.

Furthermore, I am frequently baffled by people telling me about something I wrote in the past, especially if that past is removed quite a few  years. I might hear that (this is just some random example) six years ago, I made a comment about a photographer in the context of talking about another photographer. But now, in a recent piece about the first photographer, I somehow did not address that comment. How come? Well, to begin with, I actually do not remember everything I’ve ever written or said. That aside, though, in those six years I’ve changed. There is no simple connection between past and present words even as there is the temptation to believe otherwise.

“The value of the arts,” Tatol writes further into his piece, “is the capacity to teach intelligence by learning to perceive intelligence, which is itself the content of art; the expression of perceptivity in whatever form.” I think that’s a really good way to express part of what makes art art. Obviously, there is more to intelligence that the intellectual kind. As long as you also accept emotional intelligence, you might find yourself in agreement with Tatol.

A number of ideas expressed in the piece come down to differences in taste, education/biography, or simply in style. As I said, I disagree with quite a bit; but none of that matters much for the larger point.

My main problem with Tatol’s piece is his treatment of what he calls bad art. “The disappointment of bad art is its inability to be anything more than what was expected,” he says. While that is true for some bad art (public art is maybe the best example), there is a lot of art that I think is bad for very different reasons.

Possibly my biggest disagreement focuses on the following: “Most contemporary art writing uses interpretation as a way of sidestepping the problem of quality, but interpretations are impossible to take seriously if the art itself is bad.” I’m going to ignore the aspect of quality that Tatol insists on throughout his piece. It is the latter — “interpretations are impossible to take seriously if the art itself is bad” — that I object to most strongly. I’d argue the complete opposite: interpretations are most interesting and important if the art itself is bad.

As a critic, you have to work so much harder if the art you want to write about is bad. Or rather if you think it is bad, because on its own a piece of art is simply a piece of art. The hard work involves writing a piece that a lot of people don’t want to read (especially not the artist in question and certainly not her or his publisher and/or gallery).

It also involves writing a piece that many other people want to read because a bad review is so rare; the spectacle that can (and usually will) be created from it plus snide social-media comments will almost inevitably mar the impact the piece could have if people didn’t freak out so much.

The hard work involves making yourself write about something that you don’t necessarily want to write about. Who wants to deal with bad art? The hardest part of that hard work is to somehow arrive at a piece that makes its case in an intelligent fashion. Often, you’ll find that your judgment is based on misguided ideas. At other times, it takes a lot of research and thinking to figure out why the art really is bad. It’s usually a lot of hard work. But it’s very rewarding.

In a two-part essay, Ben Davis uses a different approach to respond to Sean Tatol’s essay. There’s much in those pieces as well. I’ll just pick out one that especially resonated with me: “To Tatol’s three horsemen of the Critical Apocalypse—greed, indifference, and literal-minded sloganeering—I would add a fourth, slightly less voluntaristic: “degeneration of the media environment.””

If you look at the photography ecosystem, you might find yourself in agreement with Davis: “In some ways, more culture writing circulates than ever before, but with fewer resources invested in any individual piece of writing. What you get is a great sense of redundancy and thinness.” (I would like to think that you don’t find the latter on this site, but as always your mileage might vary.)

I still believe that this site should exist, and I still believe that there is value to it. It’s reading about and responding to pieces that center on criticism that re-ignite part of the passion that inevitably gets depleted when I’m writing into what often feels like a vacuum.

That said, if the ecosystem in which real criticism exists continues to get depleted even further, instead of talking about criticism we might as well be asking whether the descent of vast parts of photography into providing a feel-good adornment for glorified shopping/life-style centers for the well-off isn’t what we really need to be discussing.

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APP: Three Years Later https://cphmag.com/app-three-years-later/ Mon, 04 Sep 2023 13:32:18 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=3717

It was roughly halfway through a conversation with Polish photographer Rafał Milach when I realised that my original premise for this piece was misguided. But let’s start at the very beginning.

Poland’s ruling neofascist party, PiS, understands that for it to destroy the country’s democracy and cement its power it needs to undermine the judiciary. Finding majorities for its far-right agenda is sometimes difficult, especially since the courts might stand in the way of implementing measures that violate the constitution. Thus, a few years ago PiS set out to “reform” the courts. “Reform” here means stuffing them with lawyers who aren’t interested in the law but who instead do what they’re supposed to do (this might sound very familiar to Americans).

A huge fight erupted with the European Union (EU). The rule of the law is the main basis of the EU, and the EU would have none of PiS’ judicial manoeuvres in Poland. But the EU was powerless to prevent Poland’s “reformed” highest court from declaring that abortion was illegal (again, this might sound very familiar to Americans). In late 2020, Polish women thus became second-class citizens.

All over the country, huge demonstrations erupted. There had already been large demonstrations against the judicial “reforms”. But the abortion ruling triggered the largest wave of demonstrations since the fall of Communism. A large group of photographers joined in and took pictures of what was happening in their communities. This is where the situations in Poland and the US diverge.

The Polish photographers decided that their separate work needed to come together and live in a shared space: the Archive of Public Protests (APP). In addition, the work would be shared not only online but also in physical form, as a mass-produced newsprint publication that was going to be handed out at demonstrations: the Strike newspaper was born.

There quickly was a succession of these publications as the political situation in Poland spiralled out of control while a number of other crises popped up. There were additional Strike issues about climate protests and the migrant crisis at the border with Belarus. After the war in Ukraine started and a huge wave of refugees arrived in Poland, there was a newspaper about that as well.

As you might remember from a number of articles on this site, I have been extremely interested in APP and the Strike newspaper. I don’t believe in the idea that photographers should set themselves apart from the societies they live in. I also don’t think that it’s a good idea that photographers are only making work for their peers and a small select group of curators (typically trained in art history or curatorial studies, whatever the latter might be) and wealthy collectors.

Karolina Gembara handing out Strike newspapers in Warsaw

The Strike newspapers made these Polish photographers active participants in the protests. Not only did they share their photographs for free, they also incorporated slogans from the protests. Someone picking up a newspaper might use it at a protest or maybe hang it in their window for other people to see.

Now that about three years had passed, I was curious about how things had evolved. I decided to approach two of the members of APP that I know well, Rafał Milach and Karolina Gembara (I spoke with them separately).

Specifically, I thought, it would be great to learn about the impact of these newspapers. And that’s where I had it all wrong. Or rather I realised that while seemingly rejecting standard photoland thinking — where the impact of something is measured by how many copies it sells and by how much of a commotion it triggered, I had internalised that very thinking after all.

“We never had a plan,” Rafał tells me, “we were aiming for one edition of the first issue. I was receiving so many good images. I knew that they’re going to disappear, even if we put them in the Archive. It’s possible to find them, but it’s difficult. So when you have this tight edit of very strong images, that can bring you back to this time and energy around the protests.”

I suppose the lack of a plan cuts both ways. On the one hand, you’re driven by your energy, and you push things a lot faster than if you were to proceed more cautiously. And how could you be cautious if there’s a civic emergency right outside of your kitchen window?

On the other hand, once you roll the boulder down the hill (to use a rather imperfect metaphor), the hill — not you — will decide where it will go. “Recently,” Karolina says, “I participated in a workshop for activists with a focus on the theory of change. This is a theory where you sit down with your colleagues and discuss the change you want to make. There are certain steps and one of them is to establish the goal: what would be the outcome of our activity? And how do you measure it? How do you know that we achieved the goal? I realised that we applied none of this to our work at A-P-P.”

A simple way to measure impact would be to look at the numbers of newspapers produced. Rafał: “It’s certainly above 30,000 [newspaper copies so far]. Maybe more. It’s a lot when we think about the photobook world. It’s even a lot when you think about mainstream print media. Print runs are dropping because everyone is cutting costs. In the Polish market, weekly magazines that used to have 300,000 copies now operate at the level of 50 or 60,000 printed copies. Of course, we have a total of 30000. And I’m not saying that we compete with mainstream media outlets. It’s a relatively small, but relevant number of printed newspapers that can be used in the Polish context.”

“I would say that the newspapers contributed to the visuality of the protests in Poland,” Karolina says, “we see them in windows, in people’s houses, in cars. A lot of people send us pictures of these displays. They use them as a way to communicate — to their neighbours, to the streets, to pedestrians — what they stand for.”

It’s exactly here where my original idea for this piece stopped making sense. Looking at numbers of newspapers, thinking about a direct, measurable impact — this thinking reduces the whole idea to only a narrow utilitarian aspect.

Both Karolina and Rafał were a little stumped when I asked them about the impact their work has had. “The best feedback that we can possibly get,” Rafał tells me, “is that people are sharing images of the newspaper on social media. And we see how the newspapers are used in different locations, how they are reused. Very often, it’s in the background of mainstream TV broadcasts.”

The larger impact is hard to assess, though, as Karolina explains: “Sometimes we would send 100, 200, or 300 copies to a place that requested those newspapers, such as a university or a photography festival. We trust the people, we trust the kinds of events that the newspapers were used for. But their impact is hard to measure. Maybe newspapers got stuck in someone’s basement? Having said that I wish we had more resources, both in terms of people and money, to send it to more places.”

I suppose what this all comes down to is that if your work becomes a part of a civic engagement that explicitly rejects some of the mechanisms from the bubble you operate in, that engagement follows its own, larger societal rules. You drop the big stone into the pond and you allow for the ripples to move outwards — without expecting too much back in return. After all, real civic engagement lives exactly off of that: actions that are the means to an end that exists in a different sphere altogether.

Both Rafał and Karolina made it clear that there were a number of other aspects that in part were unforeseen (possibly in part because they might have been unforeseeable). “Photography has a handicap as a medium when it comes to communication,” Rafał says, “text is so much stronger. All the electricity is about the text, about the language, about the slogans, about something that is very much verbal and non-visual. I’m not saying that the visual representation [of the protests] is not important. But the most electrifying things are connected with the language and with the text. That is something I learned from these publications.”

I think in the world of photography we often think that our pictures will do more than they actually do, in part because we overestimate what they can do. Can a photograph compete with the symbol of the red lightning that’s part of the women’s rights movement in Poland? It would seem that the answer is no.

And there were other insights. “To me making a newspaper is a way of coping mentally with the problem it raises,” Karolina notes, “when the war in Ukraine stared I responded to almost every request: finding transportation, accommodations, hosting, or simply making sandwiches for people arriving at the train station in Warsaw. I was really terrified and exhausted as there was no end to the needs. Then we started making the newspaper, and although it felt less practical, I knew this tool and I knew it worked. Some people are simply far more effective when it comes to psychologically taking care of others.”

Maybe this is the big lesson from the APP newspapers: What matters is that they were made and brought out into the world. Whatever ripple effects might be produced is something difficult to predict — unless, as Karolina noted earlier, you adopt the tools and methodologies of activists.

But there is another aspect: locale. I had long been wondering why the idea of the free newspapers had not been adopted by people outside of Poland. After all, there are plenty of problems in many countries.

As it turns out, for a number of reasons, things might not be as simple as that. “My personal experience with the newspaper devoted to the humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border in Berlin was quite upsetting,” Karolina tells me, “I went to some protests because we had published that particular issue also in German. People didn’t want to take it from me. There was an argument around the paper. They didn’t want the waste. But I also felt that there was no trust in what it is: maybe a propaganda? I was trying to explain what the newspaper is about but a very few people actually took one from me.” As a consequence, she says, “it is maybe fair to notice that in Poland the newspapers are known, requested and used. But abroad they get more attention in the institutional context.”

This might also explain why we haven’t seen similar initiatives outside of Poland. The US protests against the abortion ban were much briefer, and there was no equivalent of the Strike newspapers.

I will admit that I had some naive hopes that APP and their newspapers would trigger similar initiatives elsewhere. But this does not appear to have happened, which might say more about different civic cultures and societal differences than about photoland itself. Given that the newspapers are now finding their ways to Western cultural institutions and festivals, there always is the chance that their spark might light a local fire after all.

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