Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 19 Oct 2020 17:13:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Hiroh Kikai 1945-2020 Mon, 19 Oct 2020 17:11:25 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiroh Kikai died on 19 October 2020 in Tokyo.

Heart of Darkness Mon, 12 Oct 2020 16:01:26 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

A Few Fragmented Thoughts on Michael Schmidt (In No Particular Order) Mon, 05 Oct 2020 16:26:10 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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


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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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Portraits and Dreams Mon, 28 Sep 2020 17:38:26 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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How to Add Words to Pictures Mon, 21 Sep 2020 16:06:47 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tree and Soil Mon, 14 Sep 2020 16:45:46 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photography in Racial Time Mon, 07 Sep 2020 16:43:11 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At the Foot of the Long Wall Mon, 31 Aug 2020 16:49:00 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam and Dyba Lach’s Look at Poland Mon, 24 Aug 2020 15:59:40 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Max Zerrahn’s Snake Legs Mon, 17 Aug 2020 20:51:37 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Living Mountain Mon, 10 Aug 2020 15:31:51 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

The Incredible World of Photography Mon, 03 Aug 2020 15:55:18 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Power, Consent, and Obligations in Photography Mon, 27 Jul 2020 16:40:13 +0000 Joerg Colberg

One of photography’s most important problems is the power imbalance between someone operating a camera and someone finding her or himself in front of it. Unless there is an actual collaboration going on, it is the photographer whose decisions result in what the subject looks like in the picture(s). I used “actual” in front of “collaboration” on purpose: unlike many other people, I do not think that having some chit chat with a subject makes for a collaboration. A collaboration would be a joint making of the picture, in which photographer and subject talk about how the subject wants to be portrayed, what the photographer sees in her or him, etc.

Obviously, you can take amazing photographs of someone without collaborating with your subject. But you will have to realize and fully own your own role in shaping such photographs. We often do not talk about this aspect of photography, instead focusing only on the (aesthetic) quality of the work in question. And why would we? Especially when we’re dealing with photography that aspires to be art, its maker and her or his vision is what we need to focus on.

And yet…

I often wish that we didn’t conflate someone’s depiction of another person with that other person. In particular, I often wish we would pause for a moment and imagine if we were content with being portrayed this way, were we to find ourselves in front of the camera in question.

In many cases, such discussions fall by the wayside because the photographer obtained consent to do her or his job: can I take a picture of you? Asking this question presents the intended subject with the option to agree or to say no.

Of late, self-awareness appears to have increased, and for sure there also are cultural/societal aspects that play into people’s willingness or unwillingness to be photographed. We are not only surrounded by a lot of photographs, which I can’t help but feel must increase our awareness of their power, we can also take the photographs of ourselves with our smartphones (let’s ignore the debate whether selfies and self portraits are the same thing or not — for me, they are).

In other words, we have a choice: we can have all the power over how we are portrayed, or we can give someone else that power if we are being asked.

Beyond the selfie, this choice sits at the center of many debates around photography, diversity, and representation today. Historically speaking, the white middle and upper classes in the West have always enjoyed the privilege of being able to mostly determine how they were portrayed, with straight white men getting granted most of the privileges. In contrast, poor or working-class white people haven’t been so lucky, and everybody else — people of colour — have mostly been at the receiving end of what a camera can do.

If everybody is given the same rights, this does not only entail erasing political and economical differences. It also means giving everybody the same power concerning the question how they are being portrayed and by whom. Representation matters.

The question of consent has become one of the aspects of photography that I feel we should be discussing: is it a photographer’s duty to obtain consent from their intended subject(s)? In light of what I wrote about street photography years ago, it might not surprise anyone to read that I think it is a photographer’s duty to obtain consent even if the law will provide cover when there’s a lack of consent. For me, an unwillingness to obtain consent is an abuse of the power dynamic that’s inherent in photography.

But it doesn’t necessarily end with consent.  That’s only part of the problem at hand. There’s a different way to approach the topic that is a bit less photography centric. Instead of focusing only on consent, we could ask the following two questions. Who is allowed to or should tell whose stories? What obligations come with telling someone else’s story?

I believe that anyone can tell any other person’s story. But I also believe that they can only do so if they are not only fully aware of their obligations but also take good care to avoid any of the many, many problems we know from the history of photography. This approach leaves a lot of leeway for the making of pictures. But those groups that traditionally enjoyed the most rights (straight white men) are now faced with the largest set of obligations.

As it turns out, this topic cuts across many areas of seemingly unrelated photography. In itself, photoland is highly fragmented, with many of the separate parts hardly speaking with each other (or even using the same language). The “fine art” area usually is the one where previously unrelated material might be discussed anew, as, for example, fashion photographers or photojournalists show their work not in print publications (online or off) that often reach very large numbers of people but on the walls of commercial galleries or museums.

This disconnect between different sections of photoland is unfortunate, since often, the same debates are being held in parallel (possibly using different terms), or the same problems, challenges, or crises arise.

Thinking about consent, there isn’t such a huge difference between, let’s say, the world of street photography and the world of news photography. Ethical and legal issues apply equally; the only difference are the possible consequences someone might be facing if a photograph was taken without their permission (check this out: “Five news outlets, including The Seattle Times, will have to comply with a subpoena and give the Seattle Police Department unpublished video and photos from a May 30 racial justice protest that turned violent, a judge ruled Thursday.”).

I’d even argue that the overall attitude of the photographers is very similar. Street photographers justify their not obtaining consent with the idea that they’re producing art, and news photographers very similarly argue that they’re providing the news which does not allow for any modification. Whatever the details of these two examples actually are, the overarching idea is the same: it is the photographer (and the organizations behind her or him) that decide over the taking and use of other people’s pictures.

It seems obvious that photography professionals do have a deeper understanding of how photographs operate and what they might mean. However, as far as I’m concerned this fact should not be used as a cover to dismiss the concerns by those who are being photographed.

One of the reasons why I re-focused things away from consent to explicitly asking about obligations is rooted in photography’s past. For example, Dorothea Lange got permission from Florence Owens Thompson to photograph her and her children. But Thompson, who was turned into the iconic “migrant mother” ended up being deeply resentful over how things unfolded: “I’m tired of symbolizing human poverty when my living conditions have improved.” You can find all the details in this article (from which the quote is taken).

In much the same fashion, the subjects of Walker Evans’ famed work in Alabama were not happy with how they had been treated photographically. Here’s Phil Burroughs, grandson of Floyd, describing how his father felt about things: Angry, “to be honest with you, I think he had a right to be. I honestly do. You were looking at people that were struggling to put food on the table, you know? It was a simple life. They didn’t have anything. Everybody wants something. That’s probably the American dream. Everybody wants something. So it kind of left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. Maybe that’s hard for a lot of people to understand, but it absolutely did. It made him upset, it really did. They were cast in a light that they couldn’t do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant. How would you feel if somebody cast your folks, your parents, or your grandparents in that light? Even though I know they were real poor, no doubt about that, but they weren’t ignorant, and they definitely weren’t lazy.” (source)

And let’s not even get started with colonial photography or its contemporary equivalent when Western photojournalists are dispatched to photograph “conflict” (or whatever else) in non-Western countries.

There are many more examples of photographers’ subjects becoming deeply resentful over how they were being portrayed. Your mileage might vary, but I firmly believe that it’s photographers’ responsibility to listen to what people have to say.

For example, when there was an outcry over Annie Leibovitz’s pictures of Simone Biles, you have to make an attempt to understand where that’s coming from and what that means (even if you’re not in the business of making such pictures for magazine covers). I immediately thought of Lorna Roth’s article Looking at Shirley, the Ultimate Norm: Colour Balance, Image Technologies, and Cognitive Equity: There is a part of the history of photography that literally encoded non-white skin looking terrible in photographs.

Coming back to the questions I posed — Who is allowed to or should tell whose stories? What obligations come with telling someone else’s story? — I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all solution, in particular concerning the first question. Circumstances will have to be considered carefully.

I actually think that the main focus should be on the second question: what are your obligations if you tell someone else’s story? These obligations include a variety of different aspects — obligations created by the field you operate in, obligations given your audience, but and especially also obligations towards those who are in your pictures. So far, I’m finding that this latter aspect is all-too-often sorely neglected.

As a photographer, you will have to look outside of your own photoland-bubble. It’s so convenient to convince yourself that what you’re doing is the right thing, given you’ve discussed this with all of those peers (who somehow all think alike and none of whom typically have a foot outside of the bubble). That’s the problem: the groupthink. Jay Rosen, journalism professor at NYU, relies on this term a lot when talking about problems in journalism.

Another term used by Rosen frequently is “the view from nowhere” — the idea that journalists somehow occupy a neutral position, and it’s their duty to report faithfully what’s being said, regardless of how insane one side might turn out to be (you can probably guess how that’s a problem in the Age of Trump).

Most photographers aren’t journalists, but I see variations of this idea applied a lot in photoland. There, it mostly comes down to photographers thinking of themselves as elevated, distinct observers who somehow can distill something about the world in ways that nobody else can. In some basic ways, this is true (it’s true for any profession — I couldn’t do what my dentist does). But the conversation can’t stop there.

In fact, that’s where it should begin: OK, given that this photographer has just made this observation about that person — what follows from that? What does that do? What does it lead to? What does it tell us about that person? And could we imagine that that person might agree or disagree with how s/he is being portrayed?

Consent is the necessary starting point. And then, we need to talk about not just the pictures, but all of their consequences — those inside of photoland and those outside.

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Patina in Photography Mon, 20 Jul 2020 17:35:08 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Last week, I had this idea that the world’s patina manifests itself differently in photographs, depending on where you go. I wasn’t going to write about it, initially thinking it would be too esoteric a topic. But the idea kept popping up in my head, and it had me wonder whether it was in fact correct, or what exactly this might mean.

I should say that I’m using my own pictures here because I’ve come to realize that my idea of patina and how it enters pictures was too simplistic. When I started looking at all these pictures from different locations, they were already more than one step removed from what I had encountered. What I mean by this will hopefully become clear in the following. When you look at them, look at them with the idea of patina in mind.

In a very general sense, (lens-based) photography captures light that is reflected off surfaces (exceptions being light coming from a source, whether it’s the sun, a lamp, or whatever else), so to talk about patina is to talk about photography. But I don’t mean the term in that general a sense.

Instead, I’m interested in how someone with a camera might decide to render the world’s patina. That person is going to make certain choices. It’s possible, for example, that s/he might focus her or his camera on those places where there’s a lot of patina to be had: think what often and usually with good reason is called ruin porn. It’s difficult to make a bad picture of a ruin, even though it’s infinitely harder to make a good picture of it.

In a sense, one could trace ruin porn all the way back to the likes of Eugène Atget or Walker Evans. It would be a straightforward exercise to draw a pretty straight line from their photographs of dilapidated buildings, often plastered over with posters, newspapers, or whatever else, to today’s ruin porn.

Even before these gentlemen, there were all those (wealthy Western) photographers who took their cameras to Egypt and other locations in the Middle East. In fact, early Western photographers trekked across the globe to photograph and present foreign places to their own home audiences, and they were drawn by both what interested them, based on where they were from, and what looked good in a picture.

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Berlin, Germany, 2017)

Obviously, it’s incredibly difficult to define what looks good in a picture. So I’m not going to do that. What I will do, is to claim that there are the things that easily look good in a picture, and there are all those other things that don’t, where, in other words, a photographer will have to do some work to make a good picture.

Again, what is a “good picture”? Staying at a purely photographic level, it’s enormously difficult to describe what it is. It’s usually straightforward to see. A good picture often is a picture that’s aesthetically pleasing. The term “aestetically pleasing” is not an objective criterion, though. There might be some objective criteria that can be defined empirically (rules of thirds), but all in all, it’s too loose to be useful (philosophers have written long texts about it…).

But a good picture often succeeds to show us something very forcefully and in a very visceral manner that we maybe would not have preferred to look at, or at the very least that we might not have noticed. That’s a different approach, one not based on the form (or structure) of the picture, but instead on the form and its content and on their subsequent effect on a viewer. I’m liking this route.

If I had to define a good picture, I wouldn’t define it based on what it might look like or how one might get it (that’s why all those manuals attempting to teach “good photography” ultimately are so bad). Instead, I would define a good picture as a picture that makes a viewer look more carefully, that makes a viewer think.

Please note that with this approach, pictures that confirm expectations or that show us the world we want to see it are not good pictures. For me, they’re agitprop. But still, your idea of a good picture could be very different than mine.

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Orvieto, Italy, 2018)

Over the past decade I was teaching photography, and I noticed something time and again, whether from seeing guest artists react to pictures or students making them: photographers are drawn to certain pictures simply because they’re easy to make (for them) and they are compelling in an obvious sense. In other words, when photographers make pictures, they often are driven by their impulses to create pictures that immediately conform to certain expectations (whether their audiences’ or their own — or both).

So the path from the world to what I defined as good pictures is iffy. In general, photographers do not leapfrog across that area where there are all those compelling pictures, to get to the pictures that challenge either themselves or their viewers (or both). It’s actually very, very difficult to do so. Here you are, having spent years on trying to figure out how to take good pictures, and now you shouldn’t take the ones that come easy?

If I hadn’t taken up photographing again roughly five years ago, I probably wouldn’t approach the topic this way. It’s one thing to see something in others. But it’s quite another to experience the lure of the easy picture oneself.

When I started photographing again, I realized that I couldn’t easily take a picture without thinking about what I were to write about it if it wasn’t my picture, but someone else’s. If that sounds tedious to you, I can tell you that, yes, at least initially it was. But I got over that problem, and now I actually enjoy interrogating myself.

Mostly I now ask myself whether a picture challenges me. Not surprisingly, most pictures don’t. I still take them. But when I do, I know that I’m going for something that (for me) is easy to photograph, something that I have a pretty good idea of what it might look like in a picture.

(By the way, I’ve never believed in that Winogrand phrase about photographing to see what something looks like in a picture. That sounds good, but it’s mostly baloney. Very few photographers I know actually do that. I bet if you pressed any photographer long enough they’d admit eventually that that’s not how it works for them. The one thing you could take away from that quote is the following: if you want to become a famous photographer, develop a spiel that you can put into one sentence. Then you’ve hit your jackpot. The spiel doesn’t have to be true, but as long as people believe it you’re good.)

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Northampton, USA, 2020)

I’m really not all that interested in photographs that I know how to make. It’s an unrealistic expectation to think that one can only take all the other pictures — it’s really hard. But for me, that’s the one thing that attracts me to photography. It is as if I could teach myself something about the world: I have to force myself to look a lot harder to see a picture that I would have missed otherwise. Most of the time, it never arrives.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I got fired up to photograph again when I visited Warsaw (Poland) for the first time in 2016. I somehow had expected something very different than what I encountered. I don’t remember what I expected to find and see, but the country’s patina wasn’t all that different than Germany’s — despite the fact that historically, there’s such a huge divide between those two countries.

Had I gone to Japan instead, I doubt I would have felt the urge to pick up the camera again. At least during my first trip to Tokyo in 2018, the city confounded me because it mostly refused to present me with the kind of patina that I was familiar with. I remember walking around Tokyo wondering how one could possibly take pictures there: there was nothing to photograph.

But that thinking was entirely on me — and not on the city. I was reacting to Tokyo with my Western eyes and expectations. I had done the same in Warsaw. But there, I mostly felt pangs of recognition. In Tokyo, I was unable to find pictures. There was a different visual sensibility on offer, and that sensibility made it hard for me, as someone from a completely different location, to relate.

So when I left Tokyo after my first visit, I was completely confused, to the point of being shaken up. I had brought my camera, but I had had no idea how to use it. It was only when I went again that things changed for me. By that time, I had spent more time looking into Japanese culture. I don’t want to claim that I had learned to see beneath the surface. However, at the very least I had realized that there were pictures to be made, and they would require a lot more work on my part: I needed to look at the city in a different manner.

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Tokyo, Japan, 2019)

The whole idea of patina is very different in Japan: what deserves to be preserved or rather: does something need to be preserved? Why would something need to be preserved when it could just be replaced with something newer? And who cares if one’s looking at “the original” (whatever that might actually be) or at a recent reconstruction? “Every 20 years, locals tear down the Ise Jingu grand shrine in Mie Prefecture, Japan, only to rebuild it anew.” (source)

I’ve been thinking about this aspect of photography a lot recently, especially given all the discussions about who should photograph someone or something. Historically, the vast majority of photographs were made by Western-centric male eyes. We have mostly seen the world through those eyes, and this means: we have seen the world not just with Western male eyes, but also with all the expectations, ideas, prejudices, etc. that guided those eyes.

This is not to necessarily say that all of those expectations, ideas, prejudices were bad. Many clearly were, and some were very, very bad. But even in the best cases, it’s a very limited and limiting way to look at the world.

Much like the male gaze has so far been the guiding principle of how we look at men and women (and everything else), the way Westerners look at the world has come to define the world.

As a Westerner, you can’t run away from that. You might have the most sincere intentions and ideas, the utmost integrity, and maybe you’ve donated a lot of money to just the right organizations, but you’re still looking at the world with these Western eyes. So when people point out that we need to see the world with different eyes, that doesn’t necessarily imply an attack on you as a Western photographer. It means that there are other ways to see the world that you simply couldn’t offer.

So to think of the idea of patina as something that is photographic, that exists in the world independently from ourselves — that doesn’t make sense to me any longer. There is a lot of patina in the world, and it can look different from location to location (or maybe two very different locations somehow have the same patina). It’s there because of people’s ideas and actions.

Crucially, a photographer is not some independent automaton who simply picks it up. S/he will pick it up either because it looks good in a picture or because of what s/he learned to see, given her or his background, culture, society…

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Warsaw, Poland, 2017)

In other words, if I point my camera at something that I feel has a lot of patina, then I’m making a choice that ultimately says more about myself than about the location that I’m photographing.

As viewers, we think we look at pictures as pictures. But more often than not we look at pictures with specific eyes, looking for recognitions: looking at all the things that look cool or exciting or fascinating or that tell us something we knew or believed in all along. So we might think we look at pictures to see the world. But in reality we often look at pictures to see aspects of ourselves in the world.

That approach is not necessarily wrong if — and only if — we manage to transcend just looking at ourselves. Much like a photographer has to force herself or himself to go beyond the easy pictures, as viewers, we have to force ourselves to go beyond the reads that come easy to us.

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China Dream Mon, 13 Jul 2020 15:49:08 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Teresa Eng was born in Canada to Southern Chinese parents who fled to Hong Kong as children. Once you know something, it’s impossible to un-know it, especially when engaging with pieces of art. So when I looked at China Dream, I knew that its photographs had been made not by some visitor, but by someone who for a variety of reasons has a complex relationship with the country.

Having heard many stories about the immigrant experience in the US (where I live) but also in Germany, I know that the experience of those who are first generation in a country has changed considerably over the past century. In my in-laws’ family, people couldn’t become American fast enough after their parents had arrived as immigrants in the early 20th Century. Some members of the later generations in the family now regret having lost the connection to the country their grandparents came from.

As far as I can tell, it’s quite common to run into someone in the US who will tell you that they’re, say, “Italian” or “German”. What they mean is that they’re “Italian-American” or “German-American”, which more often than not means that some distant relative came from there, while they don’t actually speak Italian or German, and usually, they’ve never visited, either.

For a while, this really confused me (Germans tend to operate in very literal ways because that’s how their country works). But I’ve come to realize that most people have a genuine interest in where their ancestors are from, even though they might not pursue it all that much (there is a reason why sites like are so popular). Eng decided to learn more.

My own experience is one of an expatriate, which is an entirely different matter. As far as I can tell, there are two types of expatriates. There are the ones who refuse to even remotely adapt to the place they live in — those will move back eventually. And then there are those who will adapt as best as they can. For them, the new country is one to be explored, and the home country becomes a country that more and more takes on a mystery as well. Eventually, some of these expatriates will lose their sense of home, to float through the world in an untethered fashion, which makes for a very disconcerting experience.

I’ve mostly written the above because I feel a sense of kinship with the artist. It’s obviously not an exact kinship, because our family histories and cultural backgrounds are so different. We clearly have different experiences. But I sense a longing, a searching, an uncertainty in the pictures in China Dream that I’m very familiar with from my own coming to terms with Germany and my being German.

Now, you might argue that these are very different things, and they are. The reality is that most people’s experiences are different. It is that difference, or rather our way of engaging with that difference that is now hotly contested in many parts of the world.

Whatever we might want to make of the differences that separate us, there also are those things that we share. It is those shared things that might enable us to connect with another person’s experiences even though we could never have them ourselves. If the world currently divides into two groups in many places, I’d define them as those who want to share experiences to understand more — and those who don’t want to share, to dogmatically live out their lives in a pretend-to-be-superior position.

It’s easy to forget this, but this very idea sits at the heart of what we think of as art: to connect with a total stranger and have a private shared experience that exists separately from the rest of the world. For me, this is why I love engaging with art, and this is also where I personally separate good art (which allows me to experience a connection) from bad art (which doesn’t).

Good art tells me something about another person and their experience as much as it tells me something about myself. Good art teaches me to see the world anew and to learn or realize something that I hadn’t been aware of. Good art is a challenge, first and foremost on a personal level. But in its cumulative effect it has the chance to bring about larger change.

I’ve been trying to figure out what it actually is in the photographs presented in China Dream that has me think about the photographer’s experiences. I think it’s the push and pull that is going on throughout the pictures. I’m sensing that Eng was very eager to find out more about what was in front of her camera’s lens. On the other hand, I feel that the photographer was afraid what she might find so often she pulled back.

Some of the pictures I’m not very surprised about. There are photographs of megacities, with their overwhelming structures, that I expect to see being made by someone visiting China. This is not to say that they’re bad pictures. Instead, they’re tempting, and they also speak of something we all know. Things get a lot more interesting in all those moments where the photographer started probing the textures of the surfaces of things presented to her.

After I went to Japan for the first time, I started thinking about how different countries have different textures on their surfaces. In many locations (especially ones with a very old culture that allowed for its old buildings to remain), that texture becomes mostly apparent as a form of patina. I could probably write a long essay about the world’s patina and how it manifests differently in photographs (but that might just be too esoteric a topic).

Focusing a camera on a country’s patina allows a photographer to communicate something about what it feels like to be there. And it is that aspect of the work that I’m most attracted to. I’m seeing a place being explored, with Eng getting closer and then pulling away again — the push and pull I spoke about earlier.

Now, if there hadn’t been anything at stake, there would not have been that push and pull. If you’re comfortable as a photographer, you tend not to probe. In that case, you have to force yourself to probe (and push yourself out of your comfort zone). If you’re not comfortable, your desire to find out more will guide your camera.

Some of the post-production is a bit on the heavy-handed side. This is too bad. I wish the artist had realized that such a device is actually not needed here. I also wish I’d have more pictures of people — I like some of the portraits quite a lot (obviously, I’ve said this about a lot of other books as well, so feel free to discount this comment).

Those concerns aside, after I’ve seen so many books about China made by complete strangers, I’m enjoying the presence of this book, an exploration of what it feels like to be in a place that clearly has a loaded meaning for Eng. In a sense, it’s not a book about China — it’s a book about the artist trying to find herself in it.

China Dream, photographs by Teresa Eng; essay by Vanessa Hua; 112 pages (plus 20 page booklet); Skinnerboox; 2019

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.3

Let’s Talk About King Leopold Mon, 06 Jul 2020 17:16:00 +0000 Joerg Colberg

When I grew up, West Germany’s foundational myth was still in place. It roughly went as follows: there had been terrible crimes committed before and during World War 2 by the Nazis. The responsible party for these crimes had been the SS. Nazi Germany’s army, the Wehrmacht, however, had fought honourably, and it had not had a part in any of these crimes. What is more, ordinary Germans simply had not known of the crimes committed in their names.

Even at the time, it was very obvious that this myth could not have been remotely representative of the actual situation in Nazi Germany. There simply was no way that the SS could somehow kill millions of Jewish people in areas occupied by the Wehrmacht, which not only had no part in this but also had no clue. What is more, pretty much every family had a member in the armed forces, and there’s no way families didn’t hear from their brothers, fathers, or son what they had witnessed.

Starting around the time I was a teenager, the foundational myth was firmly shattered by historians who proved that the Wehrmacht itself had not only supported the SS’s murderous quest, it had also actively participated in them, and a large number of Germans had known very well what was happening in concentration and extermination camps.

I see West Germany’s quest to believe in the presumably honourable Wehrmacht reflected in the defense of the many Confederate monuments in the American South. At the occasion of the so-called Wehrmachtsausstellung, a touring exhibition that presented documents and shocking photographs of Wehrmacht atrocities, there were demonstrations by conservatives and neo-Nazis against what they saw a besmirching of an honourable institution.

What’s crazy to me, though, is to see that as far as I can tell there aren’t any secrets any longer about what the Confederacy fought for (slavery). It’s all out in the open. But somehow, tearing down the statues, we are told not just by neo-Nazis but also by what accounts for respectable conservative voices (at least in the US), amounts to an assault on the South’s heritage and an attempt to somehow erase history (the latter bit isn’t clear to me, but I’ll be honest and say that I don’t feel the need to engage with bad-faith arguments). And one of the craziest bits is how many of these monuments exist. It’s not just one here or there.

Part of the reason why this is all so frustrating to observe is because the idea of American exceptionalism is so firmly entrenched in the country, all across its political spectrum. As a consequence, Americans can’t imagine that other people have already dealt with some of the issues they’re facing; and in any case, (for some completely irrational reason) it’s America that ought to be guiding the world — and not the other way around.

This is not to say that Germany has successfully dealt with all of its past — quite on the contrary. Germany’s colonial genocide in Africa has so far been almost completely ignored. Still, if Germany can learn from the US, why could this not happen the other way around? Here’s an interesting interview with Susan Neiman by Isaac Chotiner that deals with exactly how German history might help the US deal with its own racist past.

But the US’ refusal and/or inability to look beyond its own borders is mirrored in a lot of other countries (no exceptionalism there, either). For example, countries such as Britain or Belgium are each attempting to deal with their own racist monuments.

A new and fortuitously timely book by Oliver Leu entitled Leopold’s Legacy shines a light on Belgium’s on-going attempts to deal with its colonial past, in particular the Democratic Republic of Congo, short Congo (but not “the Congo” because the use of the article is part of the colonial past — compare this with Ukraine also not being referred to as “the Ukraine” any longer).

The book assembles a variety of visual materials in a number of sections that each focus on one aspect of visualizations of Congo and/or its still existing representation in Belgium. There are Google Street View scenes of streets named after colonial-era figures, reproductions of vintage postcards that showcase colonial achievements, photographs of the the Belgian equivalent of Confederate monuments, and more.

Crucially, the book contains a number of in-depth essays that each dive into aspects of what is on view, large parts of which I hadn’t heard of before. For example, in the introductory historical essay, Matthew G. Stanard, professor of history at Berry College in Georgia (US), writes about Leopold II: “If at the time of his death in 1909 he was infamous abroad and little loved at home, by the 1950s, Belgians hailed him as a prescient colonial genius who had acquired a massive, resource-rich African territory for his home country. […] While only one monument was erected in the king’s honor before 1908 […], more than a dozen were unveiled in the decades following his death” (p. 18). Compare this with Confederate statues having been erected decades after the Civil War.

Discussing Belgium’s engagement with its past, in particular the many atrocities in what was called the Congo Free State, Bambi Ceuppens, senior researcher/curator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, notes that “Belgian memories of such episodes have long been dominated by narrow, simplified, mythologised forms of cloistered memory” (p. 87). Again, one can’t help but think of how the Confederacy has become what many people in Southern states think of as their “heritage”.

In both cases, as time has past and actual witnesses have died, there has been “a shift from communicative to cultural memory — that is, from the interchange of direct (biographical) memory of the recent past between contemporaries, to recalled history” (Ceuppens, p. 89). How and why this has proven to be complex, Ceuppens explains in her essay.

The essay contains a very important discussion of possibly the worst colonial photographs, which have not been reproduced in the book, photographs of severed hands by British missionary Alice Seeley Harris. These photographs are problematic for a large variety of reasons as Ceuppens makes very clear.

I see a partial equivalent in the statue of Abraham Lincoln and an (anonymous) freed slave that the city of Boston just decided to remove: there clearly is a colonial mindset present in the very depiction. In the case of the Lincoln statue, the emancipated man is on his knees in front of the white man. “What I want to see before I die”, wrote Frederick Douglass about a copy of the statue in Washington, DC, “is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man.”

As Ceuppens points out, such imagery is designed to make its target audience (white Europeans) feel bad instead of inviting them to try to understand and share the pain of those at the receiving end of violence: “By contrast, artworks, diaries, drawings, mundane objects and photographs that speak about the everyday life of victims […] have the power to remind us of our common humanity.” (p. 93)

History is a complex entity, and it is constant need of being amended or re-written. There is no such thing as fixed history. In my own life time, I have witnessed and experienced very drastic changes, speaking just about the country I was born in.

However much those who defend racist Confederate monuments protest (this group sadly includes the present president of the United States and vast parts of his party), these monuments will have to come down. It’s just a question of time. Their presence is indefensible, and the defenses mounted often are little more than dog-whistle expressions of naked racism.

Of course, there is the argument that taking down a statue amounts to an erasing of history. If there were even a kernel of truth to the argument, Germans wouldn’t know about Nazi Germany: there are no monuments depicting Nazi leaders or Nazi generals. It really is only an argument made in bad faith.

Maybe seeing an outside view — the view of Belgium and its colonial past — will help some Americans to come to a better understanding of their own country, to realize that the presence of Confederate monuments and the idea that Black Lives Matter are mutually exclusive. The monuments are an implicit denial of the latter, and for that reason, they will have to come down: the sooner, the better.

Leopold’s Legacy; images by Oliver Leu; texts by Oliver Leu, Bambi Ceuppens, Matthew G. Stanard; 152 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2020

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A Life With Pictures: Yurie Nagashima’s Self-Portraits Mon, 29 Jun 2020 16:46:12 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Photography’s emancipatory power is understood best by those who use the medium to strive for a more just, equal society. There are two aspects to this power, which now have become firmly entwined. There is the power to be seen not as others see you, but rather as you see yourself. And there is the power to create the photographs yourself.

Very early in the history of photography, Frederick Douglass recognized and used the medium’s emancipatory power. He sat for over 100 photographic-portrait sessions at a time when the production of such pictures was a lot more of an endeavour than it is today. Douglass wanted a picture of his to look the way he saw himself. This was something only the camera could offer — engravers and painters inevitably distorted the way he looked: “Artists, like all other white persons, have adopted a theory respecting the distinctive features of Negro physiognomy.” (here quoted from Ernst van Alphen, Failed Images: Photography and Its Counter-Practices, Valiz, 2018, p. 70 — please refer to the book for details)

Van Alphen writes: “Douglass suggests that posing for a portrait performatively produces dignity. The image is not seen in terms of its likeness to the sitter, but as actively producing a truth about the sitter that results from his posing and other aesthetic elements of the image.” (ibid., p. 71; my emphasis) It is this very idea, the production of a truth about a sitter that is not dictated by anyone other than the sitter her or himself, that should be seen as the driving force behind self-portraiture.

It’s instructive to apply this idea to a number of well-known bodies of work that center on the idea of family (whether literally or somewhat metaphorically). Both LaToya Ruby Frazier and Nan Goldin included photographs of themselves in The Notion of Family and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, respectively. In both cases, these photographs heighten the work in incredible ways. In contrast, in Larry Sultan‘s Pictures From Home or Doug Dubois… all the days and nights, the photographers decided to remain behind their cameras: beyond dealing with basic family problems (that, let’s face it, we all have), neither Sultan nor Dubois had anything to battle with. For them, there was no need to employ photography’s emancipatory power.

The fact that the so-called selfie is so maligned in the work of photography stems not from what it actually is: a type of self-portrait. Instead, maligning the selfie ultimately is a power play by those engaged in it, especially when it’s done by someone who is a photographer: someone might have no problem with defining another person through a portrait they take of them, to express their own artistic sensibility. But when people photograph themselves, to share the picture, then that’s merely an expression of narcissism. How does this compute?

However much (actually little) I might have in common with so-called influencers who share selfies of themselves on social media, to deny that their endeavour is focused on asserting their power strikes me as possibly the worst possible approach.

I might have problems with the power in question, especially since it often ties in very deeply with consumerism. But the question should not be: why are these people so narcissistic? Instead, we should ask: why have we created a society where for many people an expression of power, an assertion of one’s self, is tied to consumerism? Have we, in other words, put too much emphasis on consumerism, while neglecting so many other aspects of what might constitute a meaningful life?

Asking this question leads us away from photography. But how good is talking about photography when all we do is to talk about the pictures and their makers as if all those connections to the world at large didn’t exist? Do we want photoland to be that solipsistic?

Yurie Nagashima — Rendez Vous (1994) from the series “Myself”

Another interesting comparison is provided by Masahisa Fukase‘s Kazoku [Family] and Yurie Nagashima‘s book of the same title (Korinsha Press, Kyoto, 1998; unfortunately, it is long out of print). In both cases, the artists appear alongside their families. But Fukase’s at times overly cynical photographic nihilism and his being a man in a very misogynistic society prevented him from understanding the emancipatory power of his medium: he had no need for it. The complete opposite is true for Nagashima. It is exactly the emancipatory power a camera can grant those who know how to use it that enabled her to powerfully talk about her own family dynamics.

Another absolutely thrilling example of how Nagashima uses the camera’s power is provided by Self-Portraits, a newly released collection of photographs. At the occasion of her retrospective at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum in 2017, the photographs were shown as a 30 minute slide show with more than 600 images, spanning 24 years (1992-2016). In the book, they are distilled down to a smaller number, presented chronologically.

The earliest photograph shows a young, serious looking backpacker, her face turned to the camera, while the rest of her body is ready to walk off onto some trip. The following photographs employ a variety of approaches to the picture making that continues throughout the book: pictures of reflections in mirrors, pictures of the artist’s shadow, pictures that either used a camera’s self timer or cable release.

There’s a break from black and white to colour, and immediately, the photographs become more deliberate — deliberate in the sense that the artist appears to have started focusing on her intent. A lot of the posing now adopts conventions (if that’s the word to use) that culturally have become established as the ways young women are supposed to be photographed: as sex objects, offering themselves up to male viewers.

The very obvious control that Nagashima exerts over the photographs manages to have the viewer not fall into the trap of seeing a sex object but, instead, to think of the fact that what is presented is a convention, a convention that reduces half of the population to photographic passivity, to define them through the eyes of the other half (the sexualized male gaze).

The variety of the photographs also helps to drive home the point that what the viewer is looking at is a young woman taking back control. It is as if she was taunting viewers — “Hey, isn’t this what you want me to look like?” — while at the same time offering her own counterpoints, such as when lying on the floor of her apartment while being on the phone (possibly with a friend, as the pictures makes the viewer think).

Yurie Nagashima — Self-portrait with R and my mom (2002)

And then there are the iconic photographs, which somehow don’t even stand out that much in the book (such as the tank-girl picture). It’s testament to the photographer’s vision that everything fits together so tightly, that everything speaks so strongly of that main concern: her confrontation of a sexist society, using sexist photographs of herself just as much as pictures we could call punk ones (a Riot grrrl approach in photographs).

At some stage, the punk photographs take over, to eventually fall away, too. This is another break. Now, the viewer gets to see the first larger series of photographs that aren’t relying on some convention, whether sexist or punk. Instead, we see a young woman looking to define herself on her own terms. This is not to imply that the punk approach wasn’t her own. But it’s one thing to define oneself through a subculture, and it’s quite another doing so on one’s own terms.

And then that all ends, because there is a baby. There’s the iconic “fuck you” photograph Nagashima took while being very pregnant. Right after, there’s the baby, at first lying at the artist’s feet and then in her arms. Everything changes so much when there’s a baby. I wouldn’t know because I never had one, but here I can see it, in these pictures. Every picture now has the young son it, and every picture is about that particular relationship.

We see the young boy grow slowly, and we see the photographer making work that is as much about herself as it is about this other human being that, we notice, is always there. Young children require so much time. But the boy keeps growing, and ultimately, at a certain age, he drops from the pictures, and the artist focuses on only herself again.

When I wrote earlier about photography’s emancipatory power, that idea becomes very clear and apparent from this book. It is important to realize how broad that power can actually be. Different phases in the life of Yurie Nagashima played out very differently in the photographs. For example, the early rebellion against a sexist society gave way to an attempt to understand the role of the mother.

If you’re a member of the Japanese society, there is much to rebel against (assuming you’re the rebellious type). But I think that what is on view here will easily resonate outside of Japan, because it’s not like many other societies have reached a stage of complete equality for all its members (I actually can’t think of too many).

Yurie Nagashima — Untitled (2013) From the series “Vous me maquillez”

Looking at these photographs as a man (who grew up in a different society), I still feel a sense of kinship with an artist who is rebelling against conventions and restrictions put onto her. At the same time, I realize that the conventions and restrictions I reject are different — much smaller — than the ones Yurie Nagashima had to battle. I believe this is where photography’s emancipatory power has much to offer even for those for whom the camera does not offer that option (in a Western context, this would be heterosexual white men).

After all, true emancipation doesn’t just mean that those confined to a lesser status finally are granted the same rights de facto. True emancipation also means that those who already enjoy those rights come to a deeper understanding what it’s like not to have these rights and to realize the sheer injustice of that. It’s not a zero-sum game.

In other words, while certain members of photoland simply don’t have access to the photography’s emancipatory power, they still can benefit from it if — and only if — they’re willing to have a hard look. You can learn a lot about yourself from seeing another person’s struggle if you realize that you don’t have to deal with that struggle: examine your privilege. Realize that there exists an opportunity for growth, for becoming a better person. Again, it’s not a zero-sum game.

At the same time, the fact that a camera has emancipatory power for some people points at the fact that operating a camera means exerting power, possibly exerting control over someone. We still have to engage with this fact much more critically and deeply in photoland.

In 1996, Japanese art critic Kotaro Iizawa published a book with photographs by Yurie Nagashima and a number of her peers that presented their work as nothing but the kind of shallow photographs girls make (compare this with the kinds of pronouncements you can find in photoland about photography on social media…). If you find yourself objecting to the word “girl”, that’s the critic’s word choice when he labeled the photographs as onnanoko shashin (onnanoko is Japanese for girl(s), shashin is photograph(s)). In light of the preceding it should be clear how insulting this must have been for Nagashima: photographs that were intended as a criticism of a sexist male-centric society were used by a male critic to make a sexist case.

It’s now up to us to do better and to see and appreciate all the power contained in these photographs.

Highly recommended.

Self-Portraits; photographs by Yurie Nagashima; text and conversation with Nagashima by Lesley A. Martin; 172 pages; Dashwood Books; 2020

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Amoral Pictures Mon, 22 Jun 2020 16:08:53 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I’ve given up on trying to understand the motivations of those German men who stormed across their country’s borders in the late 1930s and early 1940s, to invade Poland, Belgium, France, the Soviet Union, and many other countries. Given two of these men were my grandfathers, I tried for a long time. Why would they do such a thing? Why would they allow themselves to be small cogs in a machine designed for mass murder?

The search in my family’s history has not resulted in much, if any insight. The code of silence and denial was not to be broken. In all likelihood, these two men were ordinary men — much like the majority of the other soldiers (of course, I owe this term to Christopher Browning). They were following orders, and they might have told themselves that they were fighting for their country — but not for the Nazi leadership (which essentially was West Germany’s foundational lie).

It would be much more comforting to learn that all of these men were evil monsters (as some clearly were). Then, we could detest them, and we could try hard not to be like them. But if they were ordinary men that path is not available.

I’m an ordinary man — much like my grandfathers probably were. Our sharing the same trait only serves to open up an abyss between us that I have no hope of crossing in my life time.

So all I’m left with are the facts. The facts are: my maternal grandfather was shot to pieces the day his wife gave birth to their fourth child, somewhere near what is now St. Petersburg. My paternal grandfather survived the war physically but not mentally. Afflicted with what today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder he eventually ended up in a pauper’s grave, disowned by the very family he had abandoned earlier.

“So it goes.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Ordinary men (and women) will easily perform a lot of actions that are not ordinary at all, once they’re being put into a uniform, provided with a gun, and given a training that teaches them that their uniform and gun and the authorities behind them amount to a license to kill other people with impunity — especially if those other people happen to belong to a group of people who are openly or tacitly deemed inferior.

The casual brutality with which Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd neck, to slowly kill him while ignoring the defenseless man’s pleas –that’s so very much in line with the casual brutality that many of the ordinary men of my grandfathers’ generation meted out all over Europe, but especially in the eastern parts.

What has always disturbed me the most about this is the casualness more than the brutality. Like I said, I can understand brutality a lot better if it comes from psychopaths (to the extent that there is something to understand; and obviously, in no way do I condone brutality). But its application in a casual manner by people who should know better, by people whose upbringing and possibly religion should have taught them the value of compassion, of empathy, of the fact that “all [persons] are created equal” (allow me to substitute the word “men” from the declaration of independence with a word that is a lot more universal) — that leaves me speechless, facing the abyss I spoke of before.

Did my grandfathers know better? I don’t know. I almost wish they didn’t because at least then they’d be monsters who deserved their fate. This wouldn’t help much with the generational trauma they passed down. But at least it would make it easier not trying to understand them.

Occam’s Razor tells me that for any given problem the simplest explanation is the one to pick. So I would have to assume that what my grandfather took part in and witnessed is very much along the lines of what has just been published as Das Auge des Krieges [The Eye of War] by Buchkunst Berlin. The photographs in the book were taken by a certain Dieter Keller, a man from a privileged background who in some capacity spent the majority of his life in the world of art.

Keller’s photographic vision had been shaped by his friendships with many New Objectivity/Bauhaus artists, including most prominently Oskar Schlemmer (whose work was included in the Nazis’ Degenerate Art exhibition). This fact had me immediately wonder about Keller: so here he was, wearing the uniform of the regime that had suppressed and harassed his closest art friends… what did he think about that?

How can you fight for a regime that has done everything in its power to denigrate everything you believe in? (This is assuming that Keller believed in the value of the art made by his friends.)

The Wehrmacht employed its own propaganda/war photographers (remember, Das Boot tells the story of a German submarine through the eyes of one), but anyone else was not allowed to take photographs. My memory tells me that disallowing photography was not immediate, but for sure it was in place by the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union (unfortunately, I wasn’t able to locate the details). So Keller’s photography was a subversive act.

But are the pictures?

This is almost an impossible question to ask, let alone to answer, because what photograph could live up to that expectation? The only ones I can think of are the Auschwitz Sonderkommando photographs, whose existence themselves triggered enormous debate (see Susie Linfield‘s The Cruel Radiance, chapter 3).

Keller’s photographs don’t look like the Sonderkommando ones. Keller’s were taken with a perpetrator’s eyes, and they were taken with that New Objectivity background, which manages to aestheticize everything. They’re so casual, so detached — unlike the Sonderkommando’s view from inside the chambers.

It’s easy to be detached and casual when it’s you walking around with a gun, isn’t it? But is it easy to be detached and casual when you’re standing in front of someone’s home set on fire by the people around you?

If anyone might have an answer about being detached and casual while cruelly taking a life if would be Derek Chauvin.  I have an inkling what he might say. He was, I’m thinking he’d say, just following orders. That, after all, was also all those Nazi soldiers’ “excuse.”

Maybe I’m passing too much judgment onto Keller — much like I possibly did with my grandfathers. I have no way of knowing how he felt or what he thought. After all, under stress or duress, some people become very calm. Or maybe photographing the pictures the way he did came so easily to Keller than their outcome was almost automatic.

But everything becoming such a good picture — and by that I mean its composition and aesthetic, not its content — disturbs me. Is this what ordinary people can do? Or will do? When faced with the most horrendous of circumstances, will they simply switch into their “auto” mode and do what they know they can do?

I suppose it is. And, again, that terrifies me. The photographs in Das Auge des Krieges [The Eye of War] look like they were made to look like good pictures, regardless of what they showed, whether it’s a woman’s corpse, a young malnourished child, a horse, foot prints in the snow, a burning house, a burned foot that has become detached from the rest of the body. It’s just all very casual, very restrained.

There is a lesson here, and I don’t know what it is teaching me. I only know that now there are even more questions for me. I’m so glad my grandfathers didn’t have cameras, because I shudder to think they might have taken these kinds of pictures.

There’s no humanity in these pictures. They’re completely amoral. That’s why they deserve to be seen widely: even though they were taken by a man who died 35 years ago they teach us something about ourselves.

Recommended (with a very heavy heart).

Das Auge des Krieges [The Eye of War]; photographs by Dieter Keller; essays by Adam Broomberg and Xiaofu Wang, Dr. Norbert Moos; 118 pages; Buchkunst Berlin, 2020

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The Print, the book, the screen Mon, 15 Jun 2020 15:45:13 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Photographs are strange entities. Much like a chameleon can change the colour of its skin, based on their environment photographs can change some of their properties, while essentially still keeping their essence. Crucially, for the most part a photograph’s meaning derives from its use and context and from what a viewer might bring to it.

On their own, photographs have no meanings. Actually, even to talk about photographs “on their own” makes very little sense. We always see photographs in some context. We never see photographs outside of any context. One could argue that latent photographs exist “on their own”. But here, I don’t want to deal with the metaphysics of photography.

A different way of expressing the above would be to say that when we see photographs, we always see them tied to some carrier — however strongly or loosely — and surrounded by something. This is such an obvious statement that most photographers don’t think about it much. However, it deserves to not only be thought about, it actually needs to be understood.

The three carriers of a photograph are the photographic print, the book, and the screen. Approaching photographs this way simplifies things a little bit. But it’s straightforward to subsume another form that seemingly isn’t covered by these three modes into one of them (a picture in a newspaper would fall under “book” — after all, a newspaper is a form of book, a poster is a form of print, etc.).

Awoiska van der Molen — Fukushima, 2017; photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

If you think about it, the traditional photographic print is an anomaly. With inkjet printers being ubiquitous, the distinction between a photograph printed in a book or on some piece of paper with an inkjet printer isn’t that massive. But the history of the medium set up our thinking about photographs in ways that now often seem counterintuitive (and often pretty useless):  historically, there first were prints and then, decades later, there were way to mass produce photographs using ink. Actually, there first were objects that weren’t reproducible, then came prints.

So the history of photography isn’t necessarily the best guide for considerations of what form a picture might take, because it started out with extremely limited ways of producing photographs. This fact wouldn’t be so bad if something else hadn’t happened: over time people tried to make their thinking around new technologies conform to the limited earlier versions — instead of the other way around.

For example, once digital photography had become widely established, there were a lot of things you could do easily that in the analogue world were very difficult and that often carried negative connotations. A good approach would have been to simply accept the fact that digital photographs can be “manipulated” easily and in a large variety of ways — instead of sticking with photographic orthodoxy and worrying about the supposed ill effects of manipulation.

Awoiska van der Molen — Fukushima 2017; detail of the print’s surface; photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

In vast parts of photoland, the print is still being treated as this magical entity that for a lot of practitioners is the expression of what a photograph ought to look like. You can do that. But you’re also going to simply miss out on what photography’s other forms have to offer.

(Please note that in the following, I’ll be focusing on art photography. When you see the word “photography”, you will always want to add “art” in front of it.)

Obviously, it doesn’t help that the commercial world of photography — galleries and collectors — just love the idea of the unique object. If it’s not fully unique (most photographs simply aren’t — they can be made in any number), then they will have to be artificially limited: editions.

In the end, Gallerists don’t sell photographs, they sell an object that has an aura — to use Walter Benjamin’s term, and for most photographs (there are exceptions), the aura solely derives from the edition number. (Another way to describe what gallerists do would be to say they sell decorations that come with a form of prestige.)

The commerce-based world of photography exaggerates the aura even further by showing such photographs in often very expensive frames in very large spaces whose walls have been painted white. Galleries try very hard to look like museums (and not like the showrooms that actually are), because by construction (in our society) a museum comes with certain ideas attached: careful curation and a larger cultural prestige.

Obviously, both of these aspects are hugely problematic for a variety of reasons, but that’s a different discussion. (In reality, museums have now become just some other part of the world of art commerce).

But you might wonder why of all forms of the print, it’s the most elitist one — the framed print in a frame in a white cube — that is the go-to guide for most artists. Why can’t posters be made and sold cheaply? Why can’t such posters be shown in more democratic settings? There are a lot of options for prints that aren’t explored at all — which says a lot about the world of photography and its inherent elitism.

Partial installation view of two of Awoiska van der Molen’s photographs at Pier 24; photograph by Pier 24

The complete opposite mode is provided by the screen, wherever it might exist. Your screen doesn’t have much, if any prestige. For sure there’s no careful curation when you scroll through, let’s say, your Instagram feed. So a photograph on a screen has no aura. It shows up for some period of time, however long or usually short this might be, and then it disappears.

Given the preceding it’s hardly surprising that most artists don’t take the screen seriously. There still are plenty of practitioners who’ll proudly proclaim they’re not on Instagram simply because — and this part is implied but not said out loud — that’s for the hoi polloi.

The book lives somewhere in between these two. In some ways, it’s similar to the photographic print — it’s literally printed, so there is an object. In other ways, it’s a lot closer to the screen, especially given its potential to exist in very large numbers.

The funny thing about books is that they can have an aura, even though they’re mass produced. That aura is being generated by a variety of factors — including its owner’s actions or even just the fact that there is or was an owner (maybe you own a book that you inherited from a loved one: it’s the same book that a lot of other people own, but for you, it’s special).

To sum up where we are so far: Photographs have no meaning on their own. They take on some meaning through the way they are produced and used. They also take on a value or aura based on what carrier they appear on. That value can comprise a lot of factors. In the world of photography, the value is almost entirely based on commerce and on a generally unspoken and widely shared sense of elitism.

Whatever you make of the preceding, it seems clear that if you want to show your photographs to someone, you will have to think about how to do that. It’s tempting to think about this as merely a presentation problem. But the reality is a lot more complex.

Detail view of Awoiska van der Molen — Sequester (FW: Books, 2014); photograph by Michael Vahrenwald, taken from Colberg — Understanding Photobooks (Focal Press, 2016)

Realistically speaking, you will want to use all three forms. That way, you can make sure your work will be as widely seen as possible. Even if you don’t want to make a photobook, some magazine might ask you for pictures so they can write you up, and then you have to think about that. Or maybe you’re really a book person, but then some curator gets in touch and says something like “Hey, I really like this book you made, and I’d love to show your work in this festival I was asked to curate.” Or someone gets in touch and says they want to show your work on their widely read journal, which, however, only exists as a website (it’s 2020).

You can always say “no, thanks, I don’t want to show my work in any other form other than what I envisioned”. In that case, people will very quickly note that you’re difficult to work with, so they will stop asking. But most photographers will embrace the challenge and produce something that can work.

Ideally, though, this is something you think about while you’re making the work: What am I trying to communicate? In what form should this exist? What is the desired context that I am going to place this work in? How could this work function in a different context?

Based on my own observations, most artists spend a lot of time thinking about only one of the three photographic modes, while either ignoring the other two or treating them like unpleasant afterthoughts. I think that’s a big mistake.

Most artists will also only contemplate the “serious” photobook (ask people what they think about “zines” and watch their faces) and the white-cube gallery. I personally think that’s another big mistake — unless you’re happy of existing in very small stratified world, with a very small audience and very few people who spend money.

The key here is not to agree with me. If that’s your world, I think that’s great (for you). But at the very least you ought to ask yourself why you think your work should only exist there — and not in other contexts.

Surface detail of page in Awoiska van der Molen — The Living Mountain (FW: Books, 2020); photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

If you’re really into your darkroom prints, you still want to think about how your photographs could be presented in a book or on a screen. The reality is that the number of people who can afford your prints is very, very small — unlike, possibly, the number of people who enjoy looking at them.

If you’re really into photobooks, you still want to think about what a photographic print might look like, given that a festival or museum might want to show them.

Now, as a book maker, you could just tell them to show the book. In 999 cases out of 1,000, this would be the absolute worst idea I could think of . A book is not a gallery (or museum), and a gallery is not a book. And how would the screen even fit into this?

Peter PuklusHandbook to the Stars provides an example where showing books in a gallery space actually worked. But in this case, the books become sculptural. And you don’t look at them as books but rather as elements of an installation. So the experiences of looking at the book in your lap and of looking at the installation are not the same at all.

Installation view of Awoiska van der Molen’s photographs at MMK Frankfurt; photograph by Axel Schneider

The experience in a gallery will always be very different than the experience you’ll have with a book, and that in turn is very different than the experience you might have with any number of screens (a phone screen is very different than a desktop screen — size wise, but also in terms of how we physically engage with them).

A gallery provides a semi-public experience, whereas a book is completely private. Regardless of however many copies there are of the book, the one you’ll be holding in your lap (or looking at on your table) is your book. It might not have been made for you alone. But if it’s done well, it will make you think that. Why would you take this crucial aspect of the book away from the book?

A screen also is private, but it typically doesn’t feel as if if were made for you. In a year or two, you’ll be trading in the phone you’re holding anyway, so it’s unlikely you’ll be as attached to it as to a book.

Another way to approach the topic would be to ask: why would anyone go to a gallery to look at books (unless it’s a show about books, and that’s not what I’m talking about here.)? What’s the point of that?  It’s a complete confusion of experiences.

So you really want to think about what you put into these different entities — print, book, screen, and how you can do it well. “Well” here means: fully adapted to the medium at hand, making most of its inherent strengths — while taking good care of its weaknesses. And all of that will have to be in service of your work.

You can pick one of them as the desired way to show your photographs (it’s possible, sometimes even likely that the work will dictate its ideal way of presentation). But like I wrote above you really have to be able to cover the other two well.

Here’s the thing: everybody can relatively easily spot a shitty print or a badly made book or a lousy website. It’s like graphic design: even if you wouldn’t know how to do it well, you can see when it’s not done well.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a gallery with shitty prints and walked straight back out, how many times I’ve picked up a badly made book and put it straight back on the table, visited a badly made website and closed the browser tab right away. It’s not that I think that “life’s too short” (it is, but that’s not a good approach for criticism).

But why should I look at something that you didn’t put the care into that the work might have demanded, that the work might have required? If you don’t care about your pictures, why would you expect anyone else to?

Awoiska van der Molen — Sequester (FW: Books, 2014); photograph by Michael Vahrenwald, taken from Colberg — Understanding Photobooks (Focal Press, 2016)

I will remember the occasions when I walked into a gallery and was just floored by the beauty of what was on display — the photographs and the production. The same is true for books, and there are even some websites that are absolutely marvelous. As a critic that’s what I’m looking for: photography that has been provided with the care it required, given its intended context and desired meaning.

Intended context and desired meaning are absolutely crucial. Otherwise, you risk falling into the production-fetish trap, where the work becomes more about what a crafty darkroom printer you are or how many layers of ink your book printer used than the actual end result itself (screen presentation still changes much too rapidly to assign one such production fetish — there always is one, but the year after, there probably is another one).

Regardless of where you’ll be coming from, there will be two main challenges: first, how can you produce the main expression of your work well, whether it’s the photographic print, the book, or whatever else? And second, how can you translate that expression into the other two modes, knowing full well that a one-to-one translation almost always is impossible?

The third challenge might be: can you think of ways of showing your work outside of the photobook (sold at photobook fairs) or expensive prints (sold in white-cube galleries)? Based on my experience teaching for a decade, I don’t expect many artists to engage with that challenge.

If your work exists as silver-gelatin prints that you spend a lot of time on in your darkroom, the images will simply never look the same in a book. A book layers ink on paper. The surfaces will look very different, and the same picture simply will not look the same. The obvious question is: why would the two modes have to look exactly identical? That’s a dogmatic approach that too often poses an impossible problem to solve.

It might help to consider the case of literature: a book in its original language isn’t the same as a translated one. In fact, there are different schools of translation, and as far as I understand it, the jury is still out what exactly is meant by the term ” a good translation”. Is it a translation that stays as close as possible to the original, even if the two languages operate quite differently? Or is it a translation that stays close to the spirit of the book, while making good use of the language it’s translated into?

How do you translate what a silver-gelatin print looks like into something that exists in a book (ink on paper)? A exact one-to-one translation is impossible (unless you want to paste in prints into a book). So you will have to go for something that expresses the spirit of the work — and that realization will then not only help you make a good book, it will also inform you more deeply about the work itself.

Awoiska van der Molen — The Living Mountain (FW: Books, 2020); photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

Awoiska van der Molen very kindly provided pictures of the different modes of presentation she has been using for her work. The main focus of her work is centered on analogue prints, many of which are rather large. But she has also made books with Dutch publisher, designer, and production expert Hans Gremmen.

I don’t know to what extent the two would agree with my description of the prints and books. But I’d argue that they have completely broken the idea of the one-to-one correspondence, to instead have the books bring out the qualities of the photographs in their own unique ways. The end result are very different, but they’re very beautiful.

This collaboration between a photographer and publisher is a very good example of how as a photographer, you don’t have to solve all the problems on your own. Much like how many photographers employ other people to print work in their studio, you could work with a publisher who will help you with the translation of your photographs into the form of the book.

The key is that you know what the work should look like (and why). And then you have to be willing and able to accept that the form might stray far from the probably rather simplistic ideas you had yourself.

So you don’t have to come up with all the answers for the various problems presented to you. Consult with experts in those areas where you’re lost at sea. But for sure understand your own work — and allow it to live outside of your own personal comfort zone.

One final thought: I have the feeling that the screen has so far been underutilized. Sure, many artists have nice websites. But more often than not, they’re electronic lookbooks. As is demonstrated by the Imperial Courts site (billed as a “web documentary by [photographer] Dana Lixenberg and Eefje Blankevoort”), more definitely is possible.

I’m indebted to Awoiska van der Molen for allowing me to show her work as an example and for taking some of the photographs just for this occasion — thank you!

Also, I’ve set up a tip jar. If you’ve enjoyed this article (or site), feel free to leave a tip to support my work. Thank you!

Deveonte Joseph and the Class of 2020 Mon, 08 Jun 2020 17:07:32 +0000 Joerg Colberg

A lot has been said and written about the civil unrest that has gripped the United States at this particular moment in time, much of it smarter than anything I can hope to aspire to. But maybe I can contribute a little by giving my impressions concerning photography and its larger implications, singling out one particular photograph.

(To be honest, I don’t know if I have succeeded in expressing my thinking clearly with the following. Sometimes, what is so clear to me in my mind at the same time is very hard to be clearly put into words.)

The list of names of African-American citizens murdered in cold blood by those who drive around in cars that often spot the slogan “to protect and serve” is long. Its length is made a lot more worse by the fact that such murders usually end in an acquittal in court — assuming there even is a court case after police departments’ “internal investigations”.

It’s important to realize that for many of those on that list there isn’t just a name. There also is a video taken by someone who happened to be on the scene. We have been able to watch the murders of George Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castile, and many others with our own eyes. We’ve heard their voices as they were killed: “I can’t breathe!” We’ve heard how they pleaded for their lives, which were then callously taken away.

These videos — and associated still photographs — make the talking point that trust in images has been eroded by digital media look silly. We can see with our own eyes! And we take the veracity of these images over the press statements released by police departments — and mayors who, more often than not, side with the police, regardless of what political party they belong to (systemic police violence in the US has broad bipartisan support).

A brief aside: there is an article yet to be written about how the United States’ recent history has been understood and defined through relatively short film clips, clips that for better or worse have become integral parts of the public’s visual culture. The video showing the murder of George Floyd has now been added to this library (if we want to call it that), to exist alongside those of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moment Neil Armstrong descended from his capsule onto the moon, and others.

Once protesters flooded America’s streets to yet again demand change, to once again assert the fact that Black Lives Matter, hoping that this time there will in fact be a change, a large number of additional images arrived, videos and still photographs from the many demonstrations. I was going to write about those pictures, but John Edwin Mason just did so in a stellar article that for sure you’ll want to read (if you haven’t done so already).

In his article he covered the photograph of Deveonte Joseph, taken in Minneapolis by Nathan Aguirre. The photograph was also discussed by in a very good article by Connie Wang that includes a lot of details. Read it.

This particular photograph stopped me in my track when I came across it. I think it’s extraordinary, and I feel the need to tell you why.

In their articles, Mason and Wang discuss a number of photographs made by news photographers or photojournalists. In particular, Mason discusses how these pictures work and why some of them feel problematic, despite the fact that they are all very good pictures.

Photography made of protests have a long history, and so have the various categories they can be put into, the types of things or events they show, and how they do that. Often, it is simple to project readings onto such photographs that can run counter the ideas of the actual protests.

Typically, the most dramatic pictures, the ones showing the looting or some fire burning somewhere, are being picked by editors to accompany articles about protests. I’ll have to admit that I’m weary of protest photographs because of this dramatization. Aguirre’s photograph was so interesting and mesmerizing to me because not only is it such a perfect picture, it also completely stays away from any dramatization.

In fact, it manages to be two types of pictures at the same time. When I look at this photograph, I see two stories — that typically employ very different photographic approaches — come together as one. I see protest photography, and I see the type of portrait photography done at the occasion of graduation ceremonies.

This observation itself is very obvious: that’s what this looks like. But this is not something we see running through the history of protest photography. This is not your standard news/photojournalistic ware. It’s more than that. It is a photograph of an event as much as a photograph that speaks about the larger issue.

In my mind, there’s a duckrabbit effect going on. One moment, I see a photograph of a protester. The next moment I see a young man who like all of his peers was robbed of the graduation that I’m sure he had been looking forward to for a long time. These two aspects connect, in much the same way as there is civil unrest in the US while there also is a pandemic raging (the combination, one must fear, will lead to explosion of new Covid-19 cases).

Deveonte Joseph has been robbed twice. All of his white peers were robbed of their graduation ceremonies, of being in the same room together with proud family members, to receive their well earned diplomas. The same is true for all students who are people of colour (poc).

But much like his poc peers this young black man has already been robbed of enjoying the same rights, the same privileges that his white peers get to enjoy (often without even noticing). On paper, he has the same rights, but in actuality that’s not the case — if it were so there wouldn’t be huge protests. In this photograph, he stands in for all other people of colour in this country, whether they’re students or older.

Back in (then West) Germany I didn’t graduate from high school wearing cap and gown. I have to become accustomed to their role in the United States, a role that has very little to do with the associations I originally made based on German history (where such caps and gowns had been removed to break with traditions that had not served the country well).

I don’t know to what extent Americans would see it this way (I never asked), but I see this outfit as a promise to those wearing it: you not only succeeded with your studies, you also have all the opportunities that we as a society can offer you.

Seen that way, cap and gown here remind us of the fact that all students graduate with dreams of making a good life: of going to college, getting a good job, etc. Historically speaking, we know that the promise I spoke of is usually very hollow if you’re a person of colour. With the protest background in the picture, cap and gown here ask us to consider whether we want the promise to remain hollow.

So this is a picture or a particular moment in time, a young black man in an American city in the middle of a civil unrest. But it also is a picture about the fact that behind all the names in the news, the names of all those black men and women killed by the police, there were all those aspirations and dreams killed with them.

When I first saw this picture, I felt that by posing for this picture, Deveonte Joseph was imploring us to think of the dreams and aspirations every human being has, regardless of the colour of their skin. For me, his cap and gown are the equivalent of the “I am a Man” signs held by protesters in 1968. James Douglas, a sanitation worker, spelled it out: “we were going to demand to have the same dignity and the same courtesy any other citizen of Memphis has.”

The same dignity and the same courtesy, the same rights — the call for that is in this pictures itself, much like it is the protesters’ demand.

Nathan Aguirre’s photograph of Deveon Joseph is a call for a just society that finally fulfills the promises made to all of its members.

There is a GoFundMe fundraiser for Deveonte Joseph, intended to help this young man with his next steps. I hope you’ll consider chipping in.

Oliver Chanarin’s Male Gaze Mon, 01 Jun 2020 15:07:47 +0000 Joerg Colberg

It’s always a sorry sight when a well known artist jumps the shark (to borrow that expression from popular culture). It’s particularly disheartening to see someone do it who based on her or his earlier work you would have thought should know a lot better. Yet here we are, being presented with Oliver Chanarin’s photographs of his partner, Fiona Jane Burgess, the mother of their two children (various of the pictures can also be found on Instagram).

(If you want to see the photographs in question, please view them using the links provided above. My not showing them here will become clear in light of the following.)

I have long been an admirer of most of the work Chanarin has produced with his artistic partner Adam Broomberg (see their joint site here). A lot of their work is very political and informed by deep convictions. For example, regardless of the criticism leveled at The Day That Nobody Died, the piece is a searing indictment of the UK’s government and its muzzling of the press during the war in Afghanistan. It is offensive, and through it being offensive, it asks of the viewers to consider why they’re not considering the much larger offense, the one committed by the government.  Holy Bible also is pretty spectacular.

Consequently, I approached Chanarin’s new work with some expectations. The pictures can be described in a basic, straightforward manner: they show a young woman’s body being inspected, being scrutinized photographically from a large variety of angles. The end goal, we are told, consists of 640 such pictures (I’m not making this up), the reason being that famed German photographer August Sander (one of whose photographs served as inspiration for the endeavour) took that many pictures for his portrait of the German people between 1920 and 1930. This then is supposed to be “an “extended portrait”, “a daily and obsessive interrogation of the self” (quoted from the piece).

I’ll have to admit that one of the two major problems I have is the amount of verbiage that Chanarin is pouring onto the pictures. That verbiage isn’t entirely out of character for this particular artist, but here it does absolutely nothing to shed any further light on the pictures in question.

If we take the verbiage at face value (and why wouldn’t we, at least initially), we run into the problem that to connect Sander’s ambitions and Chanarin’s results in a colossal mismatch. Sander did take the one picture that is being used as inspiration, a portrait of Helene Abelen, whose actual title, however, is Painter’s Wife.

The title identifies Abelen not as the person she was but rather as the appendage of the man she was married to, painter (and architect) Peter Abelen (eight years younger than the photographer, he was also photographed by Sander). Given the time the picture was made and given Sander’s idea — Abelen is made to stand in for a specific human archetype, this can be understood. But in light of the achievements of feminism in the latter half of the 20th Century, identifying a woman through her husband is rather problematic.

And the reality is that you can admire Sander’s incredible skill at producing great portraits while still rejecting various parts of their premise. There is no need to have only one of the other.

Originally, Chanarin had been wanting to do a “photographic survey of Britain,” but the pandemic got in the way. Now how or why replicating Sander’s idea, which relies on categorizing people in ways that have more than just a little bit in common with what the Nazis would later employ, is a good idea today is not that clear to me. It’s well known that Sander was not a Nazi. Still, the idea of categorizing people into types or groups or classes is something we might want to stay away from today — unless you’re a sociologist or anthropologist, in which case there exists a large set of criteria for how this can be done, given the problems created by doing so uncritically in the past.

But there wasn’t going to be such a portrait of Britain by Chanarin, given the lock down; and we might as well not talk about pictures that (maybe thankfully) don’t exist. Instead, we have the ones that do, the ones in question here. If what are being told is true (we have no reason to doubt it), the couple decided that Burgess would serve as the model for Chanarin in those moments of the day when their two sons were asleep.

I find that idea very endearing. To me it speaks of the love and respect for each other between the partners. I’m talking about the idea, though, not the pictures. Even if there are love and respect between the two, this is not coming through in the photographs. They look mostly made, set up in a studio-like setting, with the camera — and by extension we viewers — ogling the young woman’s body that more often than not is engaged in all kinds of contortions.

I suppose one could say that there is a sense of a survey going on. But where Sander sampled various members of the archetypes he had identified, to have them stand for all the other ones not photographed, Chanarin’s lens surveys the surface of Burgess’ body, which cannot stand in for anything other than itself. In essence, Sander’s approach is anthropological or maybe sociological (scientifically speaking in a very loose sense), whereas Chanarin’s is… well, what?

The only comparisons I have been able to come up with where a single woman’s body is this mercilessly exposed are either the medical field or pornography. This is not to say that these photographs are pornographic. They are not. However, they are relentless in their exposure of a woman’s body.

It is this very relentlessness — it’s almost a scanning of Burgess’ body — that I find extremely problematic (to imagine that there would be 640 such pictures…). Her body is being ogled at by the high-tech camera employed, which unforgivingly presents each and every aspect, every pore, ever dimple, every hair, everything. This very descriptiveness makes the project very male, very macho. I just cannot imagine someone other than a heterosexual male taking these photographs. By definition this is the male gaze: all viewers are made to look at this woman’s body through the eyes of a relentless male.

The following might not matter. But I will have to add that I am certain that I personally would not be able to do this. I could not use my camera to scan another person’s body, to expose them this mercilessly to the world. And for sure I couldn’t use my camera to do it to a woman’s body, knowing full well about the terrible baggage that doing so would carry from the rather shameful history of photography.

This is what has me aghast: for someone seemingly as aware of the politics of photography, I just don’t understand how this very aspect of the pictures appears to have escaped Chanarin. It’s one thing for a married couple to make pictures together in lock down while their kids are asleep. That’s for them to navigate. That’s their private pleasure. But once the pictures are being made public, are supposed to be shown at one of the most respected museums in the US (SFMOMA), they cannot but be seen against the problematic history of the male gaze, which here appears to have gone haywire.

Some of the photographs are good, even very good as individual pictures. But given they’re being brought together, they speak of something very different than the love and respect that exist between photographer and wife. They speak of the power the man with the camera has, a power the model appears to be willing to submit to. The submitting to it isn’t the problem (that’s not for me to judge anyway). The problem is the reinforcing of the idea that the female body is little more than a photographic playground for photographers who operate in the tradition of the male heterosexual gaze.

Apparently, there is some fancy display technique planned (for the exhibition at SFMOMA), which somehow is modeled on Amazon distribution centers or whatever. If I sound flippant about that aspect of the work it’s because that’s what I am. I mean, if you wanted to find out which pictures people spent most time with, just put them all up on Instagram, and count the likes! Or if you’re worried IG’s censorship will ruin your project, have someone program a dedicated website for the project.

The idea of somehow finding out which of the picture viewers will spent most time with only serves to reinforce the already massive problems of the work discussed above. After all, what exactly are we to learn from all of this? What are we to learn from knowing that, let’s say, picture number 327 is the one that ends up being looked at the most?

Somehow viewers finding their favourite (as in: most ogled at) picture of all of these photographs of a very attractive mostly naked young woman in a set of 640 photographs is going to give us some  insight into “surveillance capitalism”? Give me a break!

With the above, I don’t mean to say that certain pictures are out of bounds. To decree as much would be an attempt at censorship. That can’t be the idea. Every artist has the right to take whatever pictures they want. But before any such pictures are being made public, I very strongly believe that it’s a photographer’s responsibility to check them against what already exists in the history of photography.

For some types of photography, you’re not going to find any problems. But there are many types of photography where you have to navigate possible problems. Photojournalists and news photographers (plus their editors) are increasingly being taken to task of their portrayal of, say, Africa. In much the same fashion, a male photographer photographing a woman will have to navigate the huge problems created by the male gaze.

Chanarin’s failure to do so in his new work is most disappointing.

4100 Duisburg Mon, 25 May 2020 16:33:23 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Roughly halfway through Laurenz Berges4100 Duisburg (available via this site), there’s a photograph of a man sitting at a table in a somewhat overgrown and disheveled looking backyard. Everything in sight is covered with layers of patina: the walls, the table, the chairs — the kind of generic white plastic chairs that are ubiquitous all over the world, even the plants, and the man himself. To say that he looks weary would be an understatement. He looks lost. If he has seen better days, then those are now relics of a very distant past.

Ordinarily, such a photograph would be a real bummer in most books. But here, it actually provides a sense of respite, given a relentless onslaught of images depicting an utterly brutal environment. None of the pictures actually show architectural Brutalism — named after the gratuitous use of raw concrete. But the houses on display were all built with such blatant disregard for human life that it’s very tempting to think of another form of brutalism: the erection of houses or buildings that are little more than containers for human beings — architecture itself giving physical form to an unforgiving, inhumane ideology.

The one thing actual Brutalism and this one have in common is that their surfaces don’t age well. I’m personally not a big fan of raw concrete — it’s a disgusting eyesore as far as I’m concerned. But concrete might be the one building material whose patina makes it look even shittier with time. The same is true for the buildings shown in Berges’ photographs: they all have seen better days, even though that term is relative, of course.

The building shown on page 137 (near the end of the book) might be a good example. Its squat shape makes it look as if it wanted to recede back into the ground. It could have more windows — there’s ample space, but it doesn’t. You just know that its basement — where tenants might store potatoes for use in winter — is perpetually chilly and damp. There’s the obligatory hedge running by and the equally obligatory tree out in front. There must be a list of chores in the main entrance where tenants are told when it is their term to sweep the stairs.

You don’t look forward to coming home to any of the locations shown in the book because of anything other than the fact that home is where your dwelling is. That was the main idea by the city planners who built such places: people were seen as more or less expendable entities, whose utility was exhausted by whatever their jobs might be. Outside of their jobs, they were of no interest to anyone — which, of course, often resulted in very strong communal activities related to the local football (US lingo: soccer) club and to going to the pub.

There was an instant pang of recognition when I saw the book’s title. The number refers to the old West-German zip code (which after reunification was replaced by a five-digit version). Duisburg itself, the city, I have never visited. But I remember hearing of the football team.

Football was — and still is — a big deal in Germany. I was never a fan (in general, I tend to stay away from anything that’s tribal), but it was impossible not to hear a thing here or there. With any of the clubs from the area — in principle it’s one quite large city that happens to be divided into many smaller ones, there would always be talk of the connection to the working class and to the various industries there.

I’m sure Duisburg has its attractions (even though I wouldn’t know what they actually are), but it’s not a location that features very high on the list of touristic targets in Germany. In effect, it could stand in for any of such locations that can be found in many countries in Europe and with some modifications beyond.

If Duisburg has its attractions, for sure Berges didn’t seek them out. Instead, he took his camera to these neglected working-class areas where every building looks like every other building, with the only difference provided by when they were built. He then trained the camera on the patina, the detritus, and unfortunately only very occasionally on people. In these areas, the difference between patina and detritus is often not that clear (art lingo — ugh: liminality), and that makes for good pictures.

That said, there is only so much that can be expressed with a picture of, say, a set of broken buttons that ring people’s doorbells. Unfortunately, in the edit, there are a bit too many of these — I feel as if the book would have been a little stronger with a stricter edit.

This misgiving aside, 4100 Duisburg speaks of how little human beings actually matter to those who have either the means or the power to build such environments. They might be a century removed from the completely unsanitary tenements that workers had to dwell in before. But they’re also a century or two removed from the environments that, one can hope, will provide truly meaningful accommodations for vast parts of society in the future (assuming global warming hasn’t made life on Earth more or less impossible).

I don’t know whether anyone not born into the West Germany that’s depicted in the book will get the same immediate reaction from the book. But I think once a viewer casts aside the impulse to attribute to what’s on view to Berges’ training at the Düsseldorf Academy, the universality of what these pictures talk about will become apparent. Capitalism is cruel, even when it is tempered by the German social-democratic model (which since reunification has been massively eroded).

That’s all right there in these pictures, in every grimy surface, in every bit of shitty patina layered on top of decaying building material. In principle, human beings have all the rights in the world to live a more meaningful and beautiful life, but they’re not getting it — and it really doesn’t matter whether it’s an Alfried Krupp or a Jeff Bezos accumulating the wealth instead.

4100 Duisburg, photographs by Laurenz Berges; essays by Heinz Liesbrock, Thomas Weski; 160 pages; Koenig Books; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 2.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 3.7

Colby Hutson’s Compassion Mon, 18 May 2020 14:41:45 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I first came across this photograph in a cropped version. The interface on my smartphone Twitter app merely showed the bottom, the message that someone with hands in gloves was holding. There’s this idea that there are too many photographs online, and they’re all scrolling by — I have never subscribed to it. If the idea were true, I would have just scrolled by, but I didn’t. I read the text, and I then clicked to see the full tweet.

The full tweet showed the photograph in its original version. There was no information about its source or about who was being depicted. Clearly, what I was looking at was some anonymous nurse holding up a sign to communicate with his peers (I thought I could tell it was a male nurse). A quick Google Image search led me to nothing. A day later, I learned of the details of the picture through social media (Twitter and Instagram): the nurse’s name is Colby Hutson, and he is working at Ascension Seton Hays hospital in Central Texas. Here’s a short local-news piece about the picture, and you can hear him speak about his motivation in this piece.

In the world of photography, especially in its news/journalistic corners, there exists the idea that any event ought to have its iconic photograph, the one picture that somehow tells the whole story or that signifies the essence of whatever the story might be. It’s a bit of a naive idea that treats images more like ritualistic entities that have magical powers than the depictions of an aspect of the world that they really are. But it does work for some photographs.

If anything, I thought after looking at this photograph for quite some time (with tears in my eyes), that this ought to be the iconic photograph around the Covid 19 crisis in the United States, a crisis whose magnitude has been greatly acerbated by the federal government’s ineptitude and sheer unwillingness to deal with it properly (there exist ample data already how swift government action in a variety of countries helped contain the pandemic, whether in South Korea, New Zealand, Germany, or elsewhere).

This picture isn’t really the greatest picture in the usual sense of photoland. Any professional photographer with some fancy and very expensive digital camera would have taken a picture that would have photographically dazzled the audience more. But to look at the photograph this way is absolutely the wrong approach. The picture is the greatest picture simply as is.

Its power lies in it being so utilitarian. It shows what it shows: the message (very prominently), the message’s maker (a little less so), and the context it was taken in (undefined, yet clear anyway).

In photoland, news images are so often treated as entities that somehow can’t just tell a message. Instead, they need to be embellished, they need to show their makers’ professional brilliance. I don’t think that’s a very good approach for news photographs, because all too often, the photographs become more about their makers and their intended target audiences than about what they actually pretend to depict.

I stopped writing about the yearly World Press Photo (WPP) winners because there’s only so much joy to be had from being a Don Quixote figure in photoland. But this doesn’t mean that I have changed my mind — actually quite on the contrary. What I’ve noticed is that more and more, WPP winners look like staged-narrative photography — even though that’s absolutely not what they are.

For example, this year’s winning photo (yet again a journalist photographing in Africa in what we could think of as the classical Western tradition) could have been taken out of a project by, say, Stan Douglas. Photographically speaking, it’s a good picture. But as a news photograph, as a photograph attempting to speak of the reality of life in Africa (assuming one can even make such a sweepingly generalizing statement about a whole continent), it’s deeply flawed. In fact, the picture would be problematic in any context, because it cannot be untethered from the long and rather shameful history of how Africa has been depicted.

Of late, WPP have really shaped an expectation of photographic excellence (the craft of it all) — coupled with an approach that while pretending to be dealing with the world mostly looks at it from a very Western-centric angle. Most of the WPP fare has me think that these photographers take pictures with their audience (and possibly careers) in mind first, while the event itself is secondary at best.

All of that is absent from this picture of Colby Hutson. This is “just” a utilitarian picture of a nurse holding a sign. The sign has a simple message: “Just going to hold his hand for a bit, I dont [sic!] think he has long”. That’s it. That’s devastating. It’s even more devastating to see that the message was written on a form designed for patients that can go home. This patient isn’t going to go home.

Roland Barthes spoke of the connection between photography and death. Here, that connection comes with a twist. It’s a photograph of a death foretold.

Photographs can only show surfaces. But while this photograph only does that, it really is a photograph about Hutson’s compassion and empathy. We don’t know anything about the circumstances. But we infer from his written words that there’s a man dying from Covid 19, and in his last moments, he doesn’t have to be alone. He doesn’t have to be alone because Hutson won’t have it. He will be there for this man — who in all likelihood is a stranger.

Given Hutson is wearing full protective gear (PPE), we only know of what kind of person he is through his writing, through his gesture. As a figure in the photograph, he has become anonymous. We cannot see most of his face. We all know that he is not the only nurse working at this time. So the PPE serves to make him a stand in for all nurses (and doctors) who at the risk of their own health take care of some of the sickest people there are right now. The patient is anonymous, too, a “he” — a man whose name we aren’t told.

With that in mind, this photograph isn’t “just” a photograph about the particular situation. Instead, it is a photograph about the situation that is playing out all over the country (and world), where nurses and doctors take care of their patients. That is why this picture for me is the picture around the crisis. Ostensibly showing the reality in a particular hospital, it actually speaks of the humanity that is operating the chronically underfunded health-care system that is attempting to save so many desperately ill patients.

Of late, I have come across the idea that maybe the lack of depiction of the actual reality inside hospitals is to blame for so many people (especially on the right and far right) not taking the pandemic seriously. If only we had the pictures! But we have the pictures, and here is one of the most powerful ones!

What would we gain from seeing pictures of dying patients or the staged-narrative looking WPP fare? Don’t we know from a long history of war (“conflict”) photography that the depiction of the most gruesome circumstances does not necessarily result in the kind of change we want?

I don’t think having more or other pictures would sway those who want to play down the pandemic. If anything, it’s not a lack of information that has them act the way they do. It’s a lack of compassion.

So here is a picture about compassion. This is a picture about what it means to be a human being. And we know it is because the picture’s subject, the nurse, has been given a voice: he wrote those words.

We don’t get to see what he will have done after showing the sign. We might be able to imagine. The actual news-worthy act — a nurse holding a dying patient’s hands in his last moments — is not being depicted. And I don’t think I would need to see of the nurse holding the patient’s hand.

Sometimes, not having a picture is a lot better than having one. I don’t know where the idea came from that we need to see everything. We don’t — even in a news context. I also don’t know where the idea is coming from that it’s the news’ job to explain everything, possible using listicles. Often, it’s enough for us to imagine.

There are some things we need to see, and there are other things that we don’t need to see. Not seeing them doesn’t make them disappear. Instead, our imagination will allow us to deal with them.

And let’s be honest, seeing pictures of dying patients will not convince those who still don’t want to believe the tragedy of the pandemic. Pictures or explanations aren’t a cure for a lack of compassion, for egotism, or for a drive to power that puts power above all else.

As truly humbling as it is to watch the sheer bravery of health-care workers, it’s not the bravery that I most admire. It’s what drives that bravery: a deep sense of empathy and compassion. I don’t know if I could have such bravery (it’s a moot idea to think about anyway, given that I clearly won’t be allowed to work in a hospital, given my absence of any medical training). But I would like to think that I have a good idea of what empathy and compassion mean.

This is the final aspect of the photograph: while only depicting the facts in a most utilitarian way it asks for a reckoning of those whose task it was to help us all deal with this pandemic. In other words, the photograph informs us, but it also asks something from us.

I’m hoping that once this is over, there will be not just some parade for health-care workers. I’m hoping they will get paid and appreciated a lot better. They shouldn’t have to beg for PPE when running towards gravely ill people.

There also will have to be a reckoning for all those who put these health-care workers into the situation they find themselves in. You know who they are: those in power.

The photograph asks us to think about the following: the people in power — did they display a sense of empathy and compassion? Did they seem to care about their duty — in words and deeds?

This photograph is a reminder that we can use their sense of empathy and compassion — or the lack thereof — as a pointer for how to judge them, to be able to make a decision whether or not to vote for them.

Event Horizon Mon, 11 May 2020 22:19:38 +0000 Joerg Colberg

We prefer to think of childhood as a time of wonder. But we tend to forget that it also is a time of considerable terror, a terror that parents do their best to mitigate. Everything is new, and it’s not clear whether what is new is a source of enjoyment or something to stay away from. You grow teeth, which causes considerable pain, and then they fall out, only to be replaced by new ones. You get sick all the time. Occasionally, you get an illness that you get just once in your lifetime, but that doesn’t make it any better.

I remember when I was five years old, I broke my arm. Even as an adult, having to deal with a broken bone is enormously painful. But that’s nothing compared with the sheer terror of going to the hospital as a kid, being unable to move your left arm because of the terrible pain. Even at that age you can already tell that while all the adults tell you it’s going to be alright, this is not like a little cut. Those X-ray machines looked like gigantic contraptions, and it certainly didn’t help that when they took the “picture”, they all left the room (if this is nothing to worry about why are they all leaving?).

In some ways, we all share that experience now, with the pandemic causing such a major disruption to our lives: there’s no cure (yet) for this invisible threat. We don’t know how to avoid it, even though we have some ideas that seem to work for most people. In a sense, we’re being reduced to what we all were able to forget: this is what it feels like to be a child and to face something we cannot understand (it doesn’t help that there aren’t any adults who can help us through this).

This is not to say that childhood isn’t also a great time. But to forget all the unpleasant aspects sanitizes a large part of the human experience, and that ultimately only serves to infantilize us as adults. Life can be rough, and often it is. Being able to deal with anything that is or feels threatening is an important aspect of life, and it’s a folly to just brush that aside with Hallmark-card-style cheap sentiments.

With Event Horizon, Stéphanie Roland dives into the world of childhood, to show it to us not as a candy-coloured fantasy but rather as a vaguely threatening world of strangeness. To a large extent, this is achieved by how the artist treats her photographs. They’re all blue and desaturated — a look that is similar to visual effects used in contemporary cinema. The subject matter is mostly mundane, but through the photographic treatment, what is depicted acquires a sense of heightened importance.

For example, there is a photograph of a horse that seen against an otherwise undefined background stands out in a way that has the viewer look at it as if it were something s/he had never seen before. In much the same fashion, most of the other photographs employ what we could think of as a Brechtian Verfremdungseffect (alienation effect). The exceptions are provided by the portraits of young children who despite the colour treatment communicate as portraits — and not as pictures of subjects to viewed anew.

As is the case with other books produced by the publisher, The Eriskay Connection, the design and production play a major role to convey the message. Every image is presented full bleed, a choice that serves to reinforce the viewer’s immersion in the world presented. The book’s edges are coloured black, which along with the cover-design choice serves to transform the book into a somewhat unsettling monolith.

Inside the book, there also are added sections of blue paper that only feature numbers. The first, 2019, coincides with the book’s publication year, and there is a line towards another number on the same page, 2099. Subsequent pages see incremental increases of the numbers used, hinting at the idea of the future and of time passing. The breaks provided by the monochromatic pages help maintaining the overall intensity of the material at hand.

Event Horizon demonstrates how with relatively few very simple means it is possible to construct a book that makes for a very specific and unique experience. This is what I personally expect to see in a photoboook: the confluence of all aspects — pictures, edit, sequence, layout/design, production — that results in the creation of something that simply wouldn’t hold up if just one element were missing.

Event Horizon, photographs by Stéphanie Roland; 96 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2019

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

A Seventh Man Mon, 04 May 2020 20:01:28 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“The book consists of images and words”, writes John Berger in A Note to the Reader at the very beginning of A Seventh Man. “Both should be read in their own terms. Only occasionally is an image used to illustrate the text. The photographs, taken over a period of years by Jean Mohr, say things which are beyond the reach of words. The pictures in sequence make a statement: a statement which is equal and comparable to, but different from, that of text.” (my emphasis)

These few sentences succinctly summarize how this photo-text book works, how it is to be approached. They apply equally to many other instances where text is used in photobooks. If you were to make such a book — or maybe collaborate with someone, printing these sentences and hanging them in a prominent spot would do you no harm: these are the pictures, this is the text, this is what they do on their own, and here is how they’re made to dance together.

When we lost John Berger, we lost a man who was able to express complicated things in a simple, concise manner. We also lost a man who was not hiding his convictions. In the Preface of the 2010 reissue of the book, he talks of the “global economic order, known as neoliberalism”, and he clarifies: “or, more accurately, economic fascism.” After all, Berger was a Marxist. If you want to learn more about the man, read Joshua Sperling‘s marvelous A Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger.

Right before the Preface, there is a page with a little bit of text. It says: “This book was made by: Sven Blomberg, painter; Richard Hollis, designer; Jean Mohr, photographer; John Berger, writer” (I condensed the text into a single line). Mohr was the main photographer, but Blomberg also contributed photographs and, with Richard Hollis, helped build the book’s visual structure.

Hollis, of course, famously designed Ways of Seeing, but he also wrote a lot about design. If you’re interested, you can’t go wrong with About Graphic Design. Not that this fact should really matter but A Seventh Man was created by a few giants in their respective fields.

When I called the book photo-text above, I maybe should have been clearer. In all likelihood, someone opening it will approach it as a text-photo book. You could merely look at the pictures, and that would give you some idea of what’s going on. But it really is the text that carries the book, despite Berger’s initial implied insistence that text and pictures are equal. Or maybe it’s not implied at all, and I’m reading this into his words.

In his 2010 Preface, Berger points out that many elements of the world as we see it now are absent from the book. It is true, economic migration now looks a lot different than it did in the late 1960s or early 1970s when various Western European countries (including my native West Germany) invited “guest workers” to temporarily migrate north and to work in factories.

Nowadays, economic migration is mostly unwelcome — in Europe as much as in many other parts of the world. What is more, many of those who migrated to Germany (to take this case) stayed there, having children, and forming a community that is still struggling to be fully accepted as being an equal part of contemporary Germany.

The fact that these details have changed shouldn’t get in the way of the overall focus of the book. We could easily surmise that a migrant’s overall motivations and background now are very similar to those a migrant might have experienced almost 50 years ago. Also, as the title page informs us, A Seventh Man is “a book […] about the experiences” of migrant workers. It is, in other words, a form of humanistic Marxism.

Such an approach promises much. It invites the reader/viewer to participate in these experiences, to the extent that that is actually possible. Such a participation could possibly bridge the gap that exists between readers/viewers faced with purely documentary work, where more often than not someone else ends up as a scientific specimen than a fully formed human being on their own (obviously, there is the big possible problem of othering).

However, it’s not entirely clear to me to what extent Berger and Mohr actually succeeded in arriving at their goal. Actually, the onus here is on Berger, because by construction, the photographer cannot depict his subjects’ mental state. The writer, however, attempts to do so, writing about the migrant in an omniscient fashion. There’s the “he”, the archetypical migrant whose motivations are laid out as if the writer had had full access to them.

(Berger acknowledges the omission of the experiences of women in A Note to the Reader: “Among the migrant workers in Europe there are probably two million women. […] To write of their experience adequately would require a book in itself. We hope this will be done. Ours is limited to the experience of the male migrant worker.”)

As much as I appreciate the book, it is these “he” passages that to me feel a tad too paternalistic, however well Berger actually meant. Even if every word in these “he” passages was created from something a migrant might actually have said to Berger (or Mohr), I find the conversion into an omniscient narrator’s description of another person’s motivations troublesome. In the end, while these millions of migrants might share very similar experiences, taking away their individuality and turning them into a generic “he” ultimately serves a purpose that could easily be compared with, let’s say, the way they’re inspected by doctors at the beginning of the book.

Sentences such as “He is not aware of his historical antecedents.” (p. 115) rub me the wrong way. I find myself surprised that someone as astute and political a writer as Berger would not pick up on what he was doing with his words. Even if the migrants had no idea of “historical antecedents” (and, let’s face it, Berger’s Marxist thinking), to phrase it this way only reinforces their overall standing. Other examples are more benign, yet often hardly more endearing.

So A Seventh Man is not without its problems. Still, it’s a book that deserves to be read and viewed and studied by all those who want to use the combination of text and pictures. It’s a book that is overtly political when so many text-photo books now shy away from that.

What is more, migration, whether economic or any other, still is a very big topic, albeit one with a variety of changed circumstances. The book’s basic premise concerns us as much now as it did back when it was published.

A Seventh Man; text by John Berger; photographs by Jean Mohr (and Sven Blomberg); 248 pages; Verso; 2010 (reissue)