Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 07 Jun 2021 15:08:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Photography and State Violence Mon, 07 Jun 2021 15:08:09 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Over the course of its history, photography has been serving oppressors and liberators equally. The machine doesn’t care what it is being used for. Seen that way, it finds its place in the history of what think of as progress: that long march towards a future governed by technology, technocrats, and scientific advancements.

All over the world, we can see photographs being made and used in the context of struggles. In the US, bystanders film a group of cops as they murder an unarmed Black man while the cops’ own “body cameras” record the very same act — as do various surveillance cameras in the neighbourhood. Very similar scenes play out in Belarus, as protestors voice their disapproval of its country’s dictator having stolen the last election. They record while they’re being recorded. Anywhere you move on the globe you now encounter the very same setup.

Time and again, we witness how the presence or absence of photographs is not the deciding factor that determines the outcome of a struggle. Derek Chauvin was sentenced for the murder of George Floyd, but the list of police officers who got away with similar killings is too long to list here. What we’re talking about here thus must not be centred on photography: it must be centred on everything that comes before — the larger environment pictures are being produced in — and on everything that comes after — the environment in which the fight over what constitutes truth plays out.

Consequently, it is naive to expect of photographs to change the world, actually to change anything for that matter. The presence of a picture cannot compared to the presence of, let’s say, a vaccine against Covid that will protect you from getting very ill. Vaccines produce antibodies. Photographs produce nothing.

Still, photographs are very important in the process of a struggle. They strongly express the conditions in which the struggle plays out, and they shine a light (albeit a weak one) on the conversations that are being had around the struggle. This might not seem like much. But I would argue that because of this, photography actually has a lot more power than we think it has — it’s just not the power to change the world (that’s up to us).

I want to use a recent publication of photographs taken from the archives of the Communist regime in Poland, now housed in the Institute of National Remembrance, as an example. The publication is called How to Look Natural in Photos, and it was edited by Beata Bartecka and Łukasz Rusznica.

It’s a book that comes with the temptation to treat it as if it were about the past, in this case the totalitarian regime in Poland. It is possible to look at the book and shake one’s head about the evils of Communist Poland’s secret service. But it also is a book about the present, especially in light of the country’s far-right government’s various mechanisms to politicise memory to create a very specific idea of what Poland was and is (and, crucially, is not). The archive, in other words, is not entirely innocent, given the government is working very hard on reframing the country’s history.

But I’d go even further and claim that the book is not just about Poland at all. What is depicted might have happened in Poland, but it speaks of the uses and abuses of photography by those in power in general: this is a book about the violence committed by and with photography, a violence that the medium derives from the violence of those in whose employ it is.

Photography’s violence is always inherited or transferred: the violence is never one of the medium per se, it’s the violence of its use. A camera, after all, is merely a tool that can be used in a variety of ways — whether to contribute to an exercise of violence or to fight against such violence (please note that with “violence” I mean both physical and structural violence).

As one might expect from a secret-service archive, the photographs in How to Look Natural in Photos are functional and evidentiary. They were not made to be anything else. Consequently, where there is beauty in them, that beauty is accidental. Where they strike the viewer as funny, that is accidental. Where they are grim, that is accidental, too.

I would argue that the key to working with such state archives is to find a way to reveal the (structural) state violence that expresses itself in the pictures. After all, focusing only on the beautiful or funny or grim already deflects from the complexity of the violence that produced the pictures. But such an approach also shields existing state structures from being indirectly exposed. There could always be the deflection: “sure, but these pictures are from Poland, so what does this have to do with us?”

I suspect that deflection might always be invoked. But anyone interested in looking at how photography can reflect state power will find rich fodder in the book. Given there is no text next to the pictures, they operate in much the same fashion as in the now classical model established by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel. Anyone interested in learning more about the pictures will find the index useful. Furthermore, there is a detailed essay by Tomasz Stempowski about the photography in its own context.

Anyone looking through the book might want to ask themselves what contemporary equivalents are being made right now, wherever they might live, how, in other words, their own state exercises its power.

It’s much too simplistic to insist on differences between democracies and dictatorships, when underneath the hood, state apparatuses have a lot more in common than we would like to think. If a citizen gets killed by the police without subsequent accountability, it doesn’t matter much whether we’re dealing with a democracy or a dictatorship. This is not to fully equate democracies with dictatorships; the difference is that in a democracy, its citizens can demand accountability.

So for those living in a democracy and wishing to maintain it, there’s work to do. It’s a lot of work, and it requires a lot of time. Democracies need to be maintained by its citizens.

Maintaining a democracy entails looking at how power is exercised by those who were either elected or who got a job that comes with power: how are they using photography? What does their use of photography and their way of dealing with photographs express about how they view their own power? This can easily get one into uncomfortable territory.

But democracy cannot be defended from the comfort of one’s own (privileged) position. It must be defended actively, and that defence includes making pictures as much as looking at pictures made by the powerful. This is why and how photography matters.


How to Look Natural in Photos; photographs from the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, edited by Beata Bartecka and Łukasz Rusznica; 304 pages; Palm* Studios & Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych; 2021

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Deutschland Deutschland Mon, 31 May 2021 14:48:48 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Every country’s past is contested to some extent. But there might be no country as extreme as Germany. To begin with, there is history that is largely uncontestable: World War 2 and especially the Holocaust. I added “largely” in that sentence because the contesting does happen, albeit at a different level (for example, members of the neo-fascist AfD party have been talking it down, claiming it doesn’t matter as much in the context of German history as a whole). But the basic facts stand, and denial of the Holocaust is a criminal offense.

This uncontestable history is embedded in a large set of highly contestable circumstances that, again, I don’t think you can find so easily anywhere else. After all, today’s Germany was formed recently through the admission of East Germany into the West German political system, a process described as re-unification.

There were some discussions about whether the government of the newly formed country should simply remain in Bonn (where I lived at the time). The options basically were to either keep everything as is and show very openly what German reunification was all about (West Germans taking over the East), or to move things to Berlin, the seat of a number of previous governments, and create a seat if government there. By a narrower margin than you might imagine the latter option was picked.

There were some smart decisions made. The Reichstag was to be the seat of the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament (it’s the lower chamber, but unlike in the now dysfunctional US system, Germany’s upper chamber plays almost no role). It had been before, but its history had been complex.

Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude were granted permission to wrap it first, which created a spectacular display (this fact might say something about the fluidity of the situation at the time more than about German officials caring too much for the arts). Architect Norman Foster was tasked with producing a contemporary update to the Reichstag building, which he did (I think it has aged well so far). Graffiti left over by victorious Soviet soldiers was preserved.

Even as at the time of this writing, the far-right AfD constitutes the largest opposition party, sitting under Foster’s luminous structure while spouting racist and neo-fascist nonsense that evokes a very different time, the Bundestag and Germany’s democratic structure as a whole have so far held up OK under the pressure of populism and the re-emergence of nasty nationalism.

Not all that far from the Reichstag, there had been another parliamentary building, the seat of East Germany’s parliament, the Volkskammer. The Palace of the Republic had been built in the early 1970s at the exact site where the Prussian king’s castle had stood. Given it had suffered extensive damage during the second World War, the castle had been dynamited by the East German (communist) government.

Due to contamination with asbestos, one of the final acts of the Volkskammer had been to close the building. It was completely stripped, and in 2003, the Bundestag decided to have it torn down — against the objections of the majority of East Germans. In its place, it was decided, the castle would be re-constructed. There would be some modifications, and it would also get a palatable name, Humboldt-Forum.

Obviously, slapping the name of two widely admired German polymaths on a structure that’s a reconstruction of a castle that had been used by the Prussian kings doesn’t solve the actual problem. It also doesn’t help the cause when the Ethnological Museum is housed in the new building — a gigantic collection of looted artefacts from the country’s colonial past. The discussions over the Benin Bronzes are just the beginning of what inevitably will be a long-lasting mess.

Consequently, in Berlin — as in many other places in the world — the battle over memory is a battle over stones. Eiko Grimberg‘s Rückschaufehler (Kodoji Press) depicts those stones and the way they were and are used to express state ideology.

The word Rückschaufehler is one of those compound words the German language allows to be constructed so easily. German relies heavily on nouns (hence the compound words), where English focuses so much more on verbs (so everything can be turned into a verb easily). With that in mind I’d translate Rückschaufehler as “looking back in error”.

The book is filled with a large number of marvellous photographs, many of which I wish I had taken for my own Vaterland — even as Grimberg is after something different than I was.

There’s a telling fragment in a photograph that comes very late in the book and that reveals the flawed ideology behind what Berlin has been made to look like. On page 109, a photograph shows what looks like a printed tarp over metal fencing. It’s an advertisement, showcasing some neoliberal architecture — sandstone coloured angular buildings for people who spend the majority of their time on improving their productivity, plus a young very German looking couple from the back.

This is, of course, the new Germany: it’s all sleek and clean, and people value their careers (even as earlier welfare reforms have impoverished larger numbers of people and — what do you know, karma is a bitch after all — all but destroyed the country’s previously proud social-democratic party responsible for them, reducing it to little more than a bunch of snivelling bureaucrats who cater to the urban well off). But the makers of that advert felt compelled to add these words: Von Preußen nach Europa, and right underneath in English the translation from Prussia to Europe.

I think they honestly believed that was a good slogan, not realizing its revelatory power: there’s no way you can reconcile an imperial past with a technocratic, somewhat democratic superstructure. For sure you can’t leapfrog your way over the fascist episode that resulted in the deaths of millions and the most infamous genocide the world has seen, the Holocaust.

How or why this doesn’t work is demonstrated by Grimberg visually, using photographs of facades and stones and surfaces and statues and animals. The animals at the zoo are perhaps the most surprising element in the book. But they each are mirrored by their own representation in the service of state ideology.

One of my favourite pictures comes right on page 1: it’s an oversized bronze eagle with extensive damage to its body, sitting in some storage facility. Not quite two dozen pages later, there’s an actual eagle in the zoo. Much like the US and various other countries, Germany employs a type of eagle as a symbol for its power.

Without symbolism, architecture would be unable to express ideologies. Grimberg zeroes in on the symbolism, to get at the underlying connections and their connective tissues. It’s simple to go to Berlin and to be in awe of what’s on display. It’s a different awe than the one you’d feel in Paris, say. Grimberg invites us to replace that awe with whatever we might be feeling once we pay closer attention to the surfaces and their symbols: what ideology is being expressed here?

You want to look at this because wherever you are in Berlin, a few kilometers away there is an actual fight over ideology happening in the Bundestag, with what had been stashed away by German conservatives for decades now having erupted back into the open: ugly, racist nationalism, combined with antisemitism spread through codes (the codes are universal — you can see them in the US, too).

As is always the case in history, it’s bodies that bear the brunt of the fight — Germans that don’t look German enough (whatever that might even mean) being subject to racist attacks, asylum seekers seeing their homes torched, Germans of Jewish faith subjected to increasing numbers of attacks. These attacks have become so common that they rarely make it beyond local news.

It’s buildings that speak of past fights and ideologies — and of present ones. Even if when you come to Berlin you might not witness an actual physical or verbal attack, the stones are right there for you to see.

Isn’t it interesting that photography can be at its most political when it pretends to focus on mute stones and animals?

Highly recommended.

Rückschaufehler; photographs by Eiko Grimberg; short texts by a number of authors; 116 pages; Kodoji Press; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 5.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.6

The Shabbiness of Beauty Mon, 24 May 2021 14:15:58 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Peter Hujar is one of the most underappreciated American photographers of the late 20th Century — certainly when compared with those pushed by MoMA’s John Szarkowski, whose by now often stale wares are still being frequently exhibited. Hujar’s world isn’t governed by tiresome machismo. Instead, it’s infused with tremendous sensitivity to who or whatever might have been in front of his camera’s lens.

If someone asked me about an artist who is or was good at photographing animals, my immediate first choice would be Hujar. Photographing animals is a little bit like making a collage: it’s very easy to do it in an OK fashion, but it’s very hard to do it very poorly or, and this is what I’m interested in, very, very well.

I don’t think you can photograph an animal if you’re not very much aware of the presence of another living being in front of you, a living being that deserves to be treated with dignity and respect — and with love. But this is just the first step. You’ll also have to approach your subject with the recognition of its own uniqueness — a form of compassion if you will.

As a brief aside, this is why I will neither look at nor review photographs or photobooks that showcase cruelty against animals, such as, for example, bodies of work that deal with hunting: the lack of compassion is an abyss I’d rather not look into (I think as a photographer, you’re deceiving yourself when you think that photographing hunters with their trophies is entirely disconnected from their activities).

My outline of photographing animals contains the same aspects as when dealing with portraits of people (something Hujar also excelled in). But here things are being complicated by the presence of reciprocity: why should someone like Donald Trump be treated with dignity and respect, given he has never shown any in his dealings with other people?

Peter Hujar might have had an answer to this question. Given he is not with us any longer, we will never know what he would have said.

The Shabbiness of Beauty places Hujar’s pictures next to Moyra Davey‘s. It was Davey who made the selections and who developed the sequence of the book. In other words, here we have a collaboration of sorts between two unique artists, one living, one dead.

Before talking more about the photographs, I feel that Eileen Myles needs to be acknowledged as the other major contributor. Right at the beginning of the book, there is an extended meditation about the photographs that the poet wrote while engaging with them. You can read the full piece here. It’s a marvellous piece of writing that I’ve had to read several times to be able to fully grasp all of its nuances. The book’s title is taken from it.

After the essay, there are the photographs. At first sight it’s not clear which ones are Hujar’s and which ones are Davey’s: there are no captions. There’s are two lists at the end of the book that provide the information. This solution was the right thing to do: captions or a reveal in situ would have destroyed parts of the dialogue.

Having looked at them many times now, I think I can tell the difference. But it’s possible that I’m deceiving myself here and there. Davey is able to approach the world with a sensitivity that is in tune with Hujar’s, even where pictures were made to correspond with his.

There are slight differences, and for the most part I couldn’t know what they are (Davey’s animal photographs aren’t as felt as Hujar’s). These differences don’t take away from the book. Instead, they serve to remind the viewer that this is a conversation. I’m interested in these differences, because they hint at the richness of photography that exists in the worlds of these two artists.

I’d love to see more of these kinds of projects, where a fellow artist dives into an archive — instead of curators or people intending to tell a story we already know. This is not to say that curators are unable to connect with an artist’s sensibility (many of them are); but they lack access to the anxiety and occasional terrors that come with the process of creation.

Moyra Davey brings what feels like endless generosity to the endeavour of putting together her pictures alongside Hujar’s. That’s not a given, either. All-too-often, encounters between artists end up being driven less by openness toward the partner and more by a sense of competition, of unvoiced rivalry.

I suppose it’s a little bit easier to approach someone’s work if they’re dead and are thus unable to push against ideas. But I don’t think that’s the case here. That’s not why this is working so well.

To some extent, my looking at the photographs is informed by the fact that I have read Davey’s Index Cards, a collection of the artist’s most recent writing. While I found the collection to be a bit uneven, its best pieces betray an artist whose looking at the world always comes with ample looking at herself (it is this aspect that’s almost entirely absent from Szarkowski’s photo-macho crowd).

Maybe this is what makes a great artist: someone who knows that looking at the world always also entails looking at herself, that taking a picture from the world means including an aspect of herself, that making a picture without a large amount of generosity can lead to good, but rarely to great results.

Highly recommended.

The Shabbiness of Beauty; photographs by Peter Hujar and Moyra Davey, edited by Moyra Davey; essays by Eileen Miles and Moyra Davey; 128 pages; MACK; 2021

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Kosuke Okahara’s Dreams Mon, 17 May 2021 14:58:48 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Photographs are taken from this world by machines that are operated by the people we call photographers. Despite the fact that there exists considerable artifice in a photograph, causing a rift between what it shows (and how it does that) and the world itself, as viewers we instinctively jump from the picture to the world, coming to conclusions that often (if this were a different essay I’d use “usually”) have nothing to do with the world and everything with us.

By “us” I mean both photographers and viewers. The second major simplification that is commonly made is that somehow, photographers and their viewers are members of distinct, non-overlapping communities. It is true, many photographers, whether they’re photojournalists or the people who call themselves artists, cherish that idea. But the reality is that while photographers take the pictures, their mental (political, societal, …) processing is done by a larger community that they cannot untether themselves from, their frequent noises notwithstanding.

Photographs, in other words, are opinions that might have occasional truth value. For sure, they often don’t reflect our lives reality any more faithfully than the spoken word. We have agreed to suspend this basic fact under certain circumstances. For example, there is an agreement that the photographs used in ID cards are accurate depictions, and people usually don’t argue with the doctors over whether or not a leg is broken when an Xray image shows as much. But look at the worlds of photojournalism and documentary photography to see areas where this suspension is heavily contested.

Things have now obviously got a lot worse as the far right in Western (and other societies) has begun to undermine the idea of truth, to replace it with belief: something is not true because it’s true (meaning: there exists evidence for it), it’s true because dogma (or some leader) decrees it to be true (even if there is ample evidence to the contrary). Thus, global warming isn’t real (it very much is), the US presidential election was stolen (it absolutely wasn’t), COVID is a myth (it very much isn’t), etc.

Kosuke Okahara is a Japanese photographer who originates from the very traditional model of documentary photography, with his work covering larger social issues. Much like many of his peers, his work has taken him to Okinawa, which is Japan’s Hawaii of sorts (for more details, see my review of the Mao Ishikawa catalog).

I suppose when you go to Okinawa as a photographer from mainland Japan, the first question might be: what exactly can you say or do that hasn’t been done many times before? What else is there left to say about the place if you’re an outsider and if you’re possibly wondering about the possibilities and limitations of documentary photography?

In Japan, the idea that ours is just one world, with another one (or maybe more) existing in parallel is never far away. For example, one of the country’s most important holidays centres on the Obon Festival, when families gather and the spirits of their ancestors return briefly on that occasion. I can’t think of a Western equivalent, given that spirits (or maybe ghosts) are not part of our regular culture and now mostly exist as characters in horror movies. The festival is Buddhist. Shinto features a variety of similar ideas, with other types of spirits inhabiting objects.

Whatever you want to make of this, regardless of whether you believe in a world existing in parallel to our own, at their very core such beliefs address the questions of what is real, what is the truth, what can we know? As a documentary photographer, you can’t really ask yourself this question easily because how can you even document something if you can’t be sure that you can arrive at a truth?

Blue Affair, which exists as a video piece and a photobook, could have easily become your run-of-the-mill documentary-photography project. Instead, Okahara presents the photographs in a very different fashion. The structure of the video and the book is very similar. Given the differences in the media, they play out slightly differently. Still, they’re similar enough for me to describe them in the same way in the following.

To begin with, there are various encounters with people in Koza, the town in Okinawa Okahara took pictures in. It’s not clear what the connections between the photographer and the people in front of his camera are. For example, there is a couple who, we are told, asks him to come over. When he does, he finds them in the middle of having sex. Why or how this happens we are not told — are they strangers (what kind of strangers call up a photographer to be depicted in the act?), are they friends (same question basically)? We don’t know.

In another brief episode, Okahara meets up with a woman in a dingy hotel room. There, she proceeds to tell him some stories about her life that aren’t revealed. She’s married, she has children. Why or how she would meet the photographer and what else might have happened we are not told.

Other episodes are found, such as when there are a number of people sleeping in the streets, possibly because they’re too drunk to go home (an occurrence so common in Japan that I got used to seeing it during my two trips there). There’s a cock fight somewhere, a woman walks into the ocean, a heavily tattooed woman on psychiatric medication talks about her life…

Each and every of these episodes is introduced in the same fashion, with the photographer saying (in the book, it’s written) “I have the same dream”. Given everything appears to be happening at night, it’s a succession of dreamlike episodes that are clear enough for them to make(at least some) sense. But there are no details, no names, no explanations who people are and/or why the photographer might be dealing with them in the first place. It’s very intriguing.

Kosuke Okahara set out to move beyond the restrictions of documentary photography, and he ended up far away. Both in book and video form, Blue Affair demonstrates how the limitations of photography become a lot more interesting not when you try to fix them (something documentary photographers have to do) but when you embrace them.

Looking at the video and at the book, I feel the heat of the place depicted: it’s hot and humid, and it makes people do things they might regret the day after.

Blue Affair; photographs and text by Kosuke Okahara; text by Tatsuya Ishikawa; 192 pages; self-published; 2020

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: in-depth essays about and videos of books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

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Encampment, Wyoming Mon, 10 May 2021 13:05:40 +0000 Joerg Colberg

In 1899, on her sixteenth birthday, Lora Webb Nichols received her first camera from a man who was courting her. Two years later, they got married and had two children. Unlike her love of photography, the marriage didn’t last and neither did the local economy. She remarried, had four more children, and opened the Rocky Mountain Studio to make some money for the family. In 1935, after her mother had died, Webb Nichols moved out to California, only to return to Encampment, the small Wyoming town she grew up in, twenty years later.

We know all of this because Lora Webb Nichols kept a diary. The diary and 24,000 of her images survived the passage of time and made it into the archive named after the photographer. Interestingly, Webb Nichols included other people’s photographs in her collection as well: clients, family members, employees. A selection from the archive has now been compiled by Nicole Jean Hill and published as Encampment, Wyoming by FW:Books (yet another incredibly handsome production by this publisher).

These days, it is almost inevitable that in any book that contains portraits, there is talk of German photographer August Sander. I find this unfortunate. To begin with, in nine out of ten cases, the similarity between Sander and the other photographer literally is just the fact that both took portraits. Beyond that aspect, though, it’s really not that clear what is actually being gained from using Sander as the yard stick for portrait photography. Thus, let’s forget about Sander here. The pictures in this book for sure do not have much, if anything, to do with his work.

If we wanted to compare these pictures with anything, I’d suggest the photographs coming out of the Latvian studio in the small town of Strenči that were published as a very similar collection, Glass Strenči (which was sold out when I reviewed it, but there now is a second print run). In their own ways and despite their vast differences, Strenči and Encampment were border towns that were inhabited by a large variety of colourful characters and that happened to have very talented photographers in their midst.

For me, this is the real appeal of these books: to accept the fact that they were border towns means to implicitly reject the idea that whatever imagery might arise from them would have to follow the conventions of major industrial cities. Many of the pictures in Encampment, Wyoming are playful and endearing in a way that August Sander was never able to get at, to a large extent because he was after something completely different.

I can’t help but come back to Sander because the frequency with which he is being referenced hints at the hierarchy that very unfortunately has been established in photography. Photographers, photo curators, and writers desperately wanted their beloved medium to be accepted as an art form. The price they were willing to pay to achieve that goal was for photography becoming established in a very truncated fashion. There now are the serious photographers (many of them white, male, privileged) who serve as the goal posts, and there is the sorry rest of the world of photography who will have to conform to those ideas.

This is a very reductive approach to photography. It will prevent people from understanding the beauty and merit of the photographs made by Lora Webb Nichols (and the other photographers in her archive). That beauty and merit arises from the pictures themselves. As viewers, we will have to engage with them on their terms only.

Most of the photographs in the book are portraits, and they’re simply incredible. In part, they derive their charm from what you encounter in almost any old photograph that you can buy on eBay: you see that someone tried to make a meaningful, deeply felt picture of another person, without being too concerned with learned conventions. It would be too simplistic to call this approach naive, even though in many ways it is. But the naiveté immediately removes the layer of artifice that especially in that era would have been created in a city studio.

Unlike most of the pictures you can buy on eBay, the vast majority of these pictures is a notch better. They’re more considered, because here you had someone with a good eye and deep immersion in the medium taking pictures. I wish there were a good term for this type of photography that has a foot in the vernacular and one foot in the arts.

In many ways, the pictures in Encampment, Wyoming are very American, especially in the sense that would appeal to all of those who now yearn back to “the good old days”, with their rugged frontier spirit — and the exclusion of anything and anyone that isn’t white. I don’t think there is a way where a read of this book could exclude this aspect.

After all, regardless of when the pictures were made, they are now being viewed under very specific circumstances. Wyoming has two senators and one representative in the House (the latter of which currently is in the news). Washington, DC, which has a larger population, has no senators (this fact has also been in the news).

It seem clear that these two things exist in parallel: an accurate photographic depiction of a place and its (settler-colonial) people in the past and a nativist fever dream of the country’s far right — one of its two main parties — in the present.

Even if photographs take a place and people from its time and preserve them, they can and often will have very strong repercussions for another (or here: the same larger) place and people today. This is why photography, unlike painting, can have such potent, urgent power.

I’m hoping that at some stage, there will be a smart exhibition (or book) that brings together photographs made in Encampment, Wyoming with those made in Strenči and in all those other places where such images were created. Ideally, this exhibition would not be one of those “outsider artist” ones, which use the artificial standards that are so commonly used to treat photography in museum contexts.

Instead, Lora Webb Nichols’ pictures speak of a very different sensibility as far as photography is concerned. It’s photography that’s closer to its subjects, a closeness that throws the sociopolitical circumstances in which is was made into sharp relief. I’m hoping that there will be such an exhibition because this would force us as viewers to engage more deeply with what is on view and with how what we’re looking at reflects our own times.

It’s fine to admire the high arts; but it’s also too easy to walk away from it (through the exit in the gift shop). Lora Webb Nichols’ photographs don’t allow us to walk away so easily.

Highly recommended.

Encampment, Wyoming; photographs by Lora Webb Nichols (and others); edited by Nicole Jean Hill; texts by Nancy F. Anderson, Nicole Jean Hill; 208 pages; FW:Books; 2020

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: longer, in-depth essays about books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

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Dawoud Bey’s Street Portraits Mon, 03 May 2021 14:46:12 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I’m looking at the picture of a young boy. He is sitting on what might be the front step of a house: to his left, there’s a screen door that he’s holding open with his knee. The young boy’s arms are crossed, resting on his knees. Maybe it’s the pressure from the screen door that has him slightly tense, maybe it’s the fact that there’s a stranger with a camera in front of him, to take his picture. There’s defiance in his look, the kind of defiance that boys his age often share: they’ve discovered the fact that they’re their own people in this world, a world that they need to push against. Eventually, they will be men, and as a young boy you become very conscious of the role of men and the way they appear to have to act.

I’m looking at the picture of a young women. I am slightly undecided whether I should call her a girl or a young woman because I can’t tell her age. But there’s enough for me in the picture to decide that “girl” is the wrong word. Much like the boy, she is physically constrained by her environment. At first, I thought it was another door. But now I see that she is leaning against the frame of a shop window (given what I can see, it looks like a deli to me). Much like the boy, she meets my gaze (or rather the camera’s, but of course I’m bypassing that detail) while holding her right arm in front of her, pressing it against the shop window’s timber frame. I can’t help but see a slight hesitancy in the way she looks at the camera: she knows something that I will never know.

As I’m making my way through Dawoud Bey‘s Street Portraits, I’m looking at a lot of boys and girls, young women and men, older women and men. Almost all of them look back at me, which has me curious about them and their life experiences. Some smile, many more are serious. A lot of them must have thought about how they wanted to present themselves to the photographer’s camera, while others look like they were just happy to be in the picture. Where all-too-often, art photography falls on the serious side — people tend not to smile, here the pictures are not that. They’re serious, but I’m sensing that the photographer was more interested in his subjects being themselves than in shaping them for his pictures.

I couldn’t take these pictures. To begin with, I’m usually too timid to ask strangers whether I might photograph them. But I’m also someone different in more ways than one. All the portraits in Street Portraits show African American people, and I’m a white German guy. There’s more than one world between the people in the pictures and me. There’s the world that’s between me and any person who was born and grew up in this country (I’m an immigrant; legal lingo: resident alien). And there’s everything that over the course of the past few years has been brought to the forefront by writers such as Ibram X. Kendi or Ta-Nehisi Coates. I am, to use Michael Rothberg‘s term, an implicated subject — like many people in more ways than just one.

The camera is a terrifying tool. Simply by pressing its shutter button when taking a picture of another person, a photographer will place her or his subject somewhere on the spectrum that has the Other at one extreme end and whatever the complete opposite of the Other is at the other. It’s tempting to think that this is a big problem only for photographers. But as Maggie Nelson makes clear in The Art of Cruelty, it’s too easy for an audience to place the onus only on the maker. “As Susan Sontag has justly observed […],” she writes, “focusing on the question of whether or not an image retains the capacity to produce a strong emotion sidesteps the problem that having a strong emotion is not the same as taking an action.”

Over the past few years especially, as I’ve seen a great many discussions about photographs play out on social media (obviously not the greatest environment for such discourse: you can and usually will have strong emotions, but what or where are the actions?), I’ve ventured more and more into the territory explored by Nelson when approaching photography in general (not just when dealing with what I perceive as cruelty). Photography is a great tool to work with if you want to engage with the world as an implicated subject: its visual immediacy can force you to strongly challenge your beliefs (even if occasionally you end up confirming them later). If the act of photographing can make a person vulnerable (because they’re in front of a camera), the same is true for the act of looking at photographs (albeit in different ways).

It is the sheer humanity on display in Bey’s Street Portraits that has had a profound effect on me. I remember feeling the same way when, for example, first encountering Ernest Withers’ photographs from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike that would later be echoed by some of the imagery coming out of the Black Lives Matter movement. Even without a person holding a sign that says “I am a man” (as in the 1968 strike) or “I am a woman”, “I am a human being”, photography can remind us of the fact that by depicting a person’s face and body in a picture we, as viewers, are facing another human being whom we might be indebted to in however indirect a fashion.

After all these years of looking at pictures, of making them, of teaching others to look at them or make them, I still couldn’t say with certainty why people fall where they fall on that spectrum that I spoke of earlier. I have a good idea what you have to do to other people. But how to avoid that, or rather what to do to avoid it — it’s not clear cut. Good intentions, for example, help, but they don’t guarantee anything.

Maybe, and this is the possibly most useless explanation I could offer, it’s the feeling of a shared humanity beyond the very broad one that we all have in common. There will have to be something that has the photographer connect very deeply with the people s/he is photographing. The quote by Maggie Nelson continues as follows: “‘You do not necessarily feel [compassion],’ Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa once warned a student who was worrying about how to act compassionately without feeling it first. ‘You are it.'” I’m not a Buddhist, but this makes perfect sense to me.

This is the essence of what I see in Dawoud Bey’s photographs, and it is what the photographer shares with all of us. We ought to be very grateful for that.


Street Portraits; photographs by Dawoud Bey; essay by Greg Tate; 120 pages; MACK; 2021

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A World That May Not Have Anything to Offer Mon, 26 Apr 2021 13:15:43 +0000 Joerg Colberg

In Hiroko Oyamada‘s The Hole, the main character, a young woman named Asa, quits her job as her husband gets transferred to the countryside. They end up living right next to his parents, with Asa having nothing other to do than being at home, tending to the household. Slowly and steadily, the world collapses around her. Ultimately, she discovers she’s falling into mysterious holes.

In contrast, Keiko, the main character in Sayaka Murata‘s Convenience Store Woman, has decided to eschew what she perceives as the trappings of married life, to remain happily dedicated to working in one of the many, many konbini stores in Tokyo, mingling with a small number of social outcasts and young students on their way up the employment ladder. Her family and friends can’t understand what they see as Keiko’s lack of ambition combined with an unwillingness to be a good Japanese citizen.

Natsu, whose life Mieoko Kawakami describes in Breasts and Eggs, is Asa’s and Keiko’s kindred spirit. Initially an inspiring writer and later a published one who is slowly working on her second novel, she observes her sister and niece attempting to deal with what it means to be a woman in Japan. In the end, Natsu decides that she wants some of what also is expected (a baby), but she wants it on her own terms (so she finds a sperm donor).

Sarah Chihaya probably describes the conundrum faced by all of these characters best in her review of Breasts and Eggs: as a woman in Japan (and beyond), how do you live your life when you “may not want anything from a world that may not have anything to offer”? As neoliberal capitalism crushes our societies, more and more people are finding themselves in this position. But women have always been there (as have other groups).

In the latest Global Gender Gap Report, Japan occupies rank 121, making it slightly more equal than Kuwait and slightly less equal than the United Arab Emirates (the United States occupies rank 53, Germany barely made it into the top ten at rank 10).

When, for example, Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister, as head of the Tokyo Olympics said that it was annoying that women talked too much in meetings (sadly I’m not making this up, but at least it ended up costing him his job), that was just one of the many, many occasions where Japanese women had and still have to deal with the fact that they’re essentially second-class citizens in their own country.

For her book Good Wife, Wise Mother, Anne-Stine Johnsbråten travelled to Japan to photograph a large number of women and to record their voices (you can find the background of the book’s title here). The book mixes a variety of approaches, which makes for an engaging experience for the viewer (and reader). There are many scenes from daily life, photographed in such an immersive way: as a viewer, you’re right there. The street (or public) scenes are maybe a little bit less surprising than the photographs taken in people’s homes. The intimacy on display there is very touching.

There are many full-length portraits of a large number of women whom the photographer encountered in the streets. For each of them, their name, age, family status, education level, and profession are given. These photographs often feel and look like they arose from brief encounters. But it is exactly this aspect that makes for a genuine experience.

In addition, there are quotes by some of the women who were portrayed. For example, Terumi Someya who works at a grocery store is quoted as saying “I think I have a certain level of freedom. At my workplace, our labor union in quite influential and that enables us to have good welfare plans such as maternity leave. However, I’m not happy about our promotion system after taking a maternity leave.”

For a small number of women, more detailed descriptions of their life situations are provided that at are being re-visited. In 2012, Manami Sawa had big plans for her future. Four years later, the plans are still big. Yet she divorced her husband because she wanted children (her husband presumably did not), and now considers moving to London along with her British boyfriend. Kanako Satozaki was on maternity leave in 2012. In 2016, she’s back at work at a translation agency she co-founded. But there is the issue of taking care of the children. “My husband works a lot,” she is quoted as saying, ” and hasn’t been very involved in the upbringing of the children, nor the housework.”

Part of Good Wife, Wise Mother reminded me of Eva Kroth’s Ansichten von Frauen, first published in 1977 (in Frankfurt/Main, then West Germany). In that book (now out of print, but relatively easily available to buy online), portraits of a large variety of women were paired with their names (first name only, last name abbreviated), ages, professions, and a (very) short quote. This is a very effective device.

For sure there is quite a bit of crosstalk between the 1977 West German women and their sisters in contemporary Japan. There’s much to be said for hearing what people have to say for themselves, and what they express in which manner — whether it’s in the form of direct quotes or in the larger form of the novel.

Even though it uses a very different photographic approach and format — an art book as opposed to a documentary one, Roxana Savin‘s I’ll be late tonight dives into the lives of a group of women to reveal another world that may not have anything to offer: a gated expatriate community in Russia (photographed over the course of eight years).

If as a viewer you didn’t know anything about this background, I suspect a first, sound assumption might be that what is on view is a cult. All the women are photographed in gray, barren locations — as if ornamentations of any sort were to be rejected, for whatever reason. Even where there is a Valentine’s Card on display, whatever pre-manufactured (and possibly strained) sentiment it is designed to deliver is being snuffed out by its environment.

The women don’t even look unhappy. They’re one step further: they look resigned to the situation they found themselves in, their only role being to maintaintidy and completely lifeless surroundings: doing laundry, cleaning up, taking care of the children and of the provider (what an ugly word) who, inevitably, is always absent. There are short phrases here and there, whose sheer utility only amplifies the complete lack of an even minute feeling of ambition. Whatever world there might be outside, it’s an uninviting, literally cold place: there’s snow everywhere.

Ordinarily, the fact that the portraits look a little posed actually works towards the general theme of the book. It is as if the photographic artifice was made to contribute to the overall feeling of control: take your place, and don’t be anything other than who (or maybe what) you’re told to be. What a sad way of having to live life!

As I think should be clear by now, these two seemingly so different contemporary photobooks center on the same thing: on the lives of women who despite this being 2021 are far from achieving the equality that they have been promised for so long.

In a way, there’s a lesson here in terms of how we approach photography itself: many of those distinctions that we make — what some work is or where or how it can or should be seen — are ultimately not very productive.

I could even include the three novels I mentioned at the very beginning. While the characters they present are fictitious, their world is our world. Or rather, their world is the world that women have to live in every day (I’m obviously writing this as a man whose access to that world is in part provided by reading and/or looking at these books).

I can’t help but feel that with our insistence on maintaining differences between documentary photography and art photography, or between non-fiction and fiction, we produce distinctions that are useful in some ways and harmful in others. After all, in how many more ways do we have to be told that gender inequality — and that means everything from worse pay for the same job to a lack of professional opportunities to a lack of basic respect etc. etc. etc. — is real, and it won’t go away by us (and yes, I’m mostly looking at my fellow men here) paying mere lip service to the ideals we’re violating every day?

Good Wife, Wise Mother; photographs by Anne-Stine Johnsbråten; texts by numerous authors; essay by Masako Ishii-Kuntz, 132 pages; Journal Photobooks; 2020

I’ll be late tonight; photographs and text by Roxana Savin; essay by Clare Bottomley; self-published, 2021

If you’ve enjoyed this article about photobooks, you might enjoy my Patreon: longer, in-depth essays about books that cover my own personal response as much as the books’ individual aspects.

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Alles nur künftige Ruinen Mon, 19 Apr 2021 14:37:01 +0000 Joerg Colberg

There are two distinct eras in the long career trajectory of Einstürzende Neubauten, a German band whose name and demeanor almost comically reflects stereotypes about the country. There’s the early work, an accumulation of industrial anarcho punk (if you’re curious, this is what this looked and sounded like). And then there’s the later work, which stripped away the punk furor to replace it with surprising tenderness (that at times borders on sullen melancholy) on top of rough layers of banging on buckets or metal.

Even though the band has now caught a case of aging-rock-star syndrome (which has turned them into their own caricature), I’m a big fan of the later period. That later period showcases the experiences of a group of people who tried to bring it all down with their fury, only to realize that nothing is going to be brought down. Instead of capitulating, though, and of possibly switching to the other side, they still maintain their fury, being fully aware of its political impotence.

When I first look at Brad Feuerhelm’s Mondo Decay, I first thought of a song by Einstürzende Neubauten entitled Die Befindlichkeit des Landes. In some ways, this isn’t fair, given that the book comes with its own music in the form of a cassette tape (!). But I’m a visual person: when a book arrives in the mail I’ll look at the book, even if it arrives with a tape. I’ll get to the tape later.

There are a couple of lines in that song that I’ve had in my head ever since I first heard it: “Alles nur künftige Ruinen / Material für die nächste Schicht” (“Everything is but a future ruin / To be recycled for the next layer” — my translation). There also is this line: “und in den Gräbern wird leise rotiert” (“and in their graves they’re turning quietly”). It’s a song that originated during Berlin’s construction boom in the early 2000’s (while it featured on their album Silence is Sexy — one of their very best, I first came across it on the soundtrack for the documentary Berlin Babylon, which of course is not to be confused with the recent and very different Babylon Berlin).

Mondo Decay is a book featuring all those ruins that at some stage were future ones. Not all of the photographs show actual ruins. Yet where a building is still in use, it’s covered by scaffolding or a tarp, or it looks run down and poorly maintained. Here and there, there are signs of the new, but the new is already semi-broken or malfunctioning.

This is, in other words, a book about our times and our world, a world ruled by aggressive neoliberal capitalism that only manages to sustain itself through an endless cycle of consumption, which literally is destroying the planet in more ways than just one. Even when there’s a pandemic, it’s the economy that sits at the center of people’s concerns: money is only pumped into the system to sustain consumption (instead of, say, lifting everybody’s living standards, especially if they’re essential workers).

I already mentioned that the book comes with a cassette tape featuring the eponymous album by a band named Nun Gun (the photographer plays drums on four of the tracks). I’m no music writer, so my description of the sounds as “electro sludge” might not mean anything. But it still might be better than the impossibly wide array of tags on the Bandcamp site. To call the music sludge (btw, I don’t mean this as negative criticism) doesn’t do justice to the faster tracks. But I’m not interested in those. It’s the slower tracks that carry the album, and these make for a good soundtrack for what is on view in the book.

When I first popped the tape into one of my old walkmen, I couldn’t tell whether it was working. There was music, but it sounded like the little machine itself was on its way out (those who are old enough to remember the sounds of a malfunctioning walkman will know what I’m talking about). When I tried another walkman, though, it was even worse (I ended up throwing out two of the three I had accumulated, because they definitely were broken beyond repair). Turns out The Spectre, the first song, does indeed incorporate the sound of broken tape-based machinery. I enjoyed this aspect quite a bit (and it’s a great song).

Brad Feuerhelm, involved as photographer and drummer in this project, is a well-known figure in photoland. His writing regularly appears on American Suburb X and there’s the Nearest Truth photography podcast that’s not that old but already has 170+ episodes. This isn’t Brad’s first photobook, and I suspect it won’t be his last. With my reaction to the book/tape I’m obviously biased because I also do more than merely writing about photography.

But much like Brad (and a number of other of our colleagues), I don’t subscribe to the old-fashioned idea that you can only be — or should only do — one thing. Obviously, in the past, doing one thing (let’s say being a writer) was a lot easier, given you would have found good employment or a steady trickle of well-paid work. Those days are gone, though. So why limit what you do to one thing when you can do a number of them?

At the end of the day, all that matters is that whatever you do, you do it with integrity in mind, aiming for an outcome of the highest possible quality, thus hopefully enriching the conversations in the world of photography. And you do it with a sense of generosity, knowing that nothing arises out of nothing. Brad for sure does that as well, and now you can see and hear his artistic side with Mondo Decay.

Mondo Decay; book: photographs by Brad Feuerhelm; text by Michael Salu; 144 pages; Witty Kiwi; 2021

Mondo Decay; music by Nun Gun; cassette tape; Witty Kiwi; 2021 (also available in digital form on Bandcamp)

I Don’t Recognize Me in the Shadows Mon, 12 Apr 2021 14:06:16 +0000 Joerg Colberg

One of the defining properties of our current era is the fact that the most pressing problems we’re facing are either being ignored by our elected leaders, or they’re merely used as political pawns in their electoral schemes: climate change, the pandemic, the vast inequalities that exist both within our societies and between them, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have become migrants (or refugees) looking for a modicum of safety and comfort elsewhere.

Matters are being made worse by the fact that these crises are not independent from each other. In a nutshell,  migration is caused as a direct or indirect consequence of the actions of those countries that now are their target, whether it’s people escaping from war (initiated or supported, however indirectly, by target countries) or the consequences of global warming (ditto), or whether people simply want a better life than the one available back home.

A number of photographers have picked up the larger topic of migration to make work around it. All of the examples I can think of right now are photographers from any one of the target countries. In principle, there isn’t anything wrong with this approach. These photographers typically have the resources to do the work, but they also have the necessary access to disseminate it. It’s an entirely different matter for those stuck in refugee camps, let alone on their treks across borders, to also document their plight. One example I can think of is provided by the Now You See Me Moria Instagram feed.

Thana Faroq was born and raised in Yemen, a country that has been engulfed in a civil war since 2014 (at some stage Saudi Arabia became involved, largely propped up by US support, which the Biden administration finally withdrew). As a consequence of the war, Faroq was forced into exile in the Netherlands: an incredibly gifted photographic storyteller became part of a larger story. With I Don’t Recognize Me in The Shadows, the photographer now tells that story. There’s a book that you can order here.

One of the reasons why I like photobooks so much is because of all visual media they come closest to being in the presence of another person telling a story. I will watch the occasional documentary film, and there are many good ones. However, they almost inevitably make me feel manipulated: I have no control over how things unfold (it feels weird to pause and rewind), and more often than not the music used is too blatantly emotionally manipulative.

A photobook removes those two aspects. Instead of being a passive recipient, I have to do work: I have to turn pages, I have to decide where to look and whether or not I will read whatever is being made available. And it’s quiet when I look. If I don’t want the quiet, I can pick the sounds that go along the book. In other words, it’s a contemplative experience, in which the thinking about what one is looking at comes along with the looking — instead of only afterwards.

Looking through Shadows, I thought it was one of the books that stressed the points I just made incredibly well. With all of its photographs presented full bleed, it immediately is completely immersive. Events are made to unfold in a number of very smart ways. For example, there are different sections that are visually separate in a simple manner. Both the types of images and whether they’re colour or black and white change.

At some stage, the photographer’s own voice enters directly through the reproduction of handwritten texts on small pieces of paper: journal entries. In these texts, Faroq reflects on a number of things, some mundane, others carrying immense weight. As you go through the book as a viewer/reader, there is a build up of intensity, which finally culminates in portraits of other migrants who were photographed through a glass screen that has water drops on them. Next to these portraits, there also are pieces of paper with handwritten texts. Unlike in the case of the journal entries, these pieces of paper were physically tipped in. Underneath, the name of the person is given.

As in the journal entries, the messages can be mundane or profound — or both. “I am a human being,” one of them says (see picture just below; my own translation from the Dutch original — there is Arab text above that I am unable to read). In many ways, this is the core message of the book, a message that all-too-often is forgotten or ignored when dealing with migrants (just look at the conditions in the Moria camp): we’re dealing with human beings, human beings that have the same hopes, dreams, ideas, aspirations that we all do.

One of the most incredible pieces of writing in the book is presented at the end of the book. Entitled Two Years Later, it’s a reflection by Faroq of what happened, of being stuck in the system in place that “processes” (terrible word, I know) people who are coming from other countries looking for a safe new home.

Produced in the Netherlands, I Don’t Recognize Me in The Shadows uses all the many devices available to good photobook making without going overboard. It’s elegant and engaging but not overdesigned, and it doesn’t scream “I’m an art book”. It’s just perfect.

Very highly recommended — a real landmark publication.

I Don’t Recognize Me in the Shadows; photographs and texts by Thana Faroq; short texts by a number of migrants; 168 pages; Lecturis; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.7

Bad Ass and Beauty Mon, 05 Apr 2021 15:44:44 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Okinawa and Hawaii have a lot in common. They’re both mostly known as sunny vacation spots with gorgeous beaches, and they each played a pivotal role during World War 2. But they’re also both latecomers to the countries they now are part of: previously independent kingdoms with their own rich culture, both archipelagos were annexed in the late 19th Century. Their original culture and language were originally largely dismissed (where not outright banned), and they were forced to adapt to being a very small part of a larger culture they originally didn’t have all that much in common with.

Okinawa has been suffering from occupation ever since the late 19th Century. After Japan lost World War 2, vast military bases were constructed by the United States’ military. It is from these bases that bombing runs were conducted during the Vietnam War, and it is these bases that have been responsible for a very large number of sexual-assault cases (there’s a book about the larger topic).

Many Okinawans have long wanted an end to these bases. There have been demonstrations against them for decades. In fact, a large number of (mainland) Japanese photographers have been flocking to Okinawa to make work around this very topic, famously Shōmei Tōmatsu (at this stage, Chewing Gum and Chocolate is the only book still easily available), but also many others. Especially early on, the vast majority of these photographers were male.

Mao Ishikawa is an Okinawan photographer who is known the aficionados of Japanese photography through Red Flower, the Women of Okinawa. It’s visually compelling work that now has taken on some patina, given the time it was photographed. For the work, Ishikawa became a part of the very scene she photographed: bars frequented by US soldiers.

The reality is that there is a lot more to this series of photographs — and, by extension, to the rest of Ishikawa’s work — than you might imagine if you just were to look at the photographs (in particular if you are a Westerner who is not familiar with the larger back story). A newly published exhibition catalogue entitled Bad Ass and Beauty – One Love (T&M Projects) makes this very clear (it was produced at the occasion of a career retrospective at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Art Museum and has English translations for all Japanese texts).

The catalogue starts out with the photographer’s words. Ishikawa was interviewed by curators Fumiaki Kamegai, Sun Hye Cho, and Fumiko Nakamura. Her answers were then transcribed into a long-form text whose sections address biographical details, general events, and details of the various bodies of work.

Of late, there have been discussions in photoland about who should tell whose story. While there is much to be said for an outsider telling someone else’s story, there is just as much — maybe even more — to be said for a member of a community telling the community’s story. The catalogue provides a very compelling example of why that is the case.

As someone from the Okinawan community (speaking the language, which is distinct from Okinawan Japanese), Ishikawa grew up in the shadows of the US military bases. There were frequent interactions with US soldiers: “When I was in the fourth or fifth grade, my aunt got engaged to an Italian American guy.” (p.13) A little later, she says: “When I was living with a Black GI, we watched a popular TV drama series called ‘Roots’ […] The drama showed the history of the United States’ mistreatment of Black people […] I was appalled but felt that there was some similarity between Okinawan history and that of Black Americans, comparing the dehumanization of Okinawans by the mainlanders to that of Black people by white Americans.” (p.15)

By chance, the photographer was taken to a bar for Black GIs when she wanted to take photos of US soldiers. Ishikawa connected immediately. “I enjoyed myself a hell of a lot,” she says, “which is why I ended up getting great photos. It’s my life. What’s wrong with the storyteller becoming part of the story?” She would use this approach for many of her series, whether when she visited the family of a man she knew from Okinawa in Philadelphia or photographed the families of former dancers in the Philippines.

There obviously is nothing wrong with the storyteller becoming part of the story — if, as in Ishikawa’s case, it’s done from a position of equals and without the power (or privilege) differential that is present in so many other cases we know from the history of photography. In fact, it is this very idea — a storyteller from a community not only has unique insight but there is actually something at stake for her — that is the driving factor behind the discussions I mentioned earlier.

The fact that Akabanaa (Red Flower) occupies only 15 pages out of a total of almost 400 says a lot about how little this photographer and her work are known in the West (and, possibly, in Japan as well, even though I can’t speak to that). A large variety of material emerges, covering traditional Okinawan theater, a portrait of Okinawan fisherman, the aforementioned Life in Philly and Philippine Dancers, a portrait of survivors of the battle over Okinawa (which includes photographs of former so-called comfort women, for which Ishikawa traveled to South Korea), Okinawa and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, and a lot more.

As should be clear by now, Ishikawa’s fearless gutsiness extends beyond her photography: time and again, she tackled difficult topics that for sure must have made her enemies in mainland Japan. I don’t know how Here’s What the Japanese Flag Means to Me was received in mainland Japan. I’m pretty certain that were an American artist to do something similar, conservatives and far-right proponents would be apoplectic over the imagery — imagine Piss Christ on steroids, albeit with a clear political stance.

The Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll might be the highlight of the catalogue (Okinawa is located on the Ryukyu islands). In it, Ishikawa re-narrates the history of her homeland, with regular people acting out a large number of historical events. Each photograph comes with its own extended caption (the English translations at times are a bit wonky, which, however, only adds to the sheer playfulness of it all). There’s so much material that there are three photographs per page. I wish these pictures were larger, even though this would have vastly inflated the book (which already has 408 pages). The image on the cover — a portrait of a family right after the mother gave birth — is just incredible.

As far as I am concerned, Bad Ass and Beauty – One Love is an absolute must-read for anyone seriously interested in contemporary photography. It expands the canon of photographers from Japan with a voice from its Okinawa prefecture, and it shows an artist boldly tackling a large number of important topics in a playful, yet completely serious manner.

“I really don’t care if photography is considered a fine art or not.” Mao Ishikawa says, “For me, photography is just photography.” (p.20) I feel that that’s an approach that we can learn something from: photography not as a craft, but simply as a tool to get at larger messages — without worrying too much about what the collectors or curators might think.

Very highly recommended.

Bad Ass and Beauty – One Love; photographs and texts by Mao Ishikawa; essays by Fumiaki Kamegai, Fumiko Nakamura, SunHye Cho, Isao Nakazato, Greg Dvorak; 408 pages; T&M Projects; 2021

Home Fires Mon, 29 Mar 2021 15:32:02 +0000 Joerg Colberg

If someone like Laurenz Berges, who is less well known than some of his Düsseldorf Art Academy peers, came to the US and decided to photograph the San Joaquin Valley, I’m imagining that the resulting photographs would be similar in spirit to those in Bruce Haley‘s newly released Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past).

Unfortunately, analysis of what’s usually referred to as the Düsseldorf School of photography has mostly remained at the level of commenting on its preference of oversized prints, its often auction prizes, and the influence of its seminal photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher. None of this gets at the essence of these artists, which in fact is more pronounced in those who aren’t as famous as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, or Thomas Struth, artists such as Berges.

The term “deadpan” has often been used to describe the work. While I see the attractiveness of such description, there’s a major flaw, namely the assumption that those who make deadpan work are too cooly detached to have any emotional investment in their work. I think this is a terribly simplistic way of the relating an artist’s photographic language with both her or his emotional life and moral beliefs, and with what is in front of her or his camera.

Sadly, this idea is widely spread: drama, whether internal or external, has to result in dramatic pictures — lest the viewer is unable to come to any conclusions that are appropriate, given the scale of the drama. For example, you can find it behind many of the discussions around photography during the pandemic. I don’t know where this idea is coming from. Having lived in the US for almost two decades, I suspect larger parts of it are driven by the sheer ubiquity of the country’s entertainment industry that has conditioned people into expecting neatly packaged and sufficiently dramatic morsels when dealing with anything that is out of the ordinary.

Maybe a much better way to describe many deadpan pictures would be to say that they’re analytically photographed: A scene isn’t merely seen (which when it’s done well already separates out an artist’s eye), it’s also carefully and analytically described. Such description pierces the heart in very different ways than when there’s visual drama. As a viewer, you don’t realise what’s going on until it’s too late (assuming you’re going to bring along the patience required to look, given your aforementioned conditioning).

Despite the book’s title, there are no fires in Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past). Whether in Australia or in the Western parts of the US, large, barely controllable wildfires have become a regular part of the news. But global warming is hitting us with a combination of effects, some of which make for visual drama while many others do not.

When Haley photographed the San Joaquin Valley, it was in the middle of a severe drought that lasted from 2011 until 2017. The less severe version is ongoing and accelerating. In combination with increasing temperatures, it’s going to be lethal for a region that has been — but in the long run is unlikely to continue to be — a rich agricultural region.

It’s not just the photographer’s approach that evoked Düsseldorf artists, it’s also the choice of season: Haley photographed in winter, when the Valley’s skies were grey or barely blue, resulting in the kinds of pictures that often would not feel out of place had they come from, say, Northern Germany’s flat plains. The winter light made for a great tool, resulting in muted, greyish tones that blend into each other and leave an overall feeling of dread, of something being desperately amiss. The photographs are in colour, but more often than not, they look or feel monochromatic.

Haley presents us with the view of a completely ravished land, a land that resembles the post-Soviet ruinscapes he portrayed before (however different his earlier approach towards those lands might have been). Even when they are not actual ruins, structures look as if they were. From the pictures, you wouldn’t know that there still is considerable life in this part of the world, however much it is now at threat (a threat that is likely to only get worse as all efforts to combat climate change have been rejected by roughly half of the country).

Seen that way, the pictures in the book are a description of what it already is for some of the time and a prediction of what the land will permanently become: an environment hostile to the creatures — we humans — who are responsible for the very hostility. In his introduction, Haley speaks of his family arriving in the area just before the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. A desperate wish to find more fertile grounds drove many people further West — ultimately resulting in the destruction of those grounds.

In all kinds of ways, Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past) makes for uncomfortable viewing. Like I said before, that analytical description of the land pierces your heart before you even know what happened to you. There’s no obvious visual drama; through the accumulation of a lot of photographs there is the built-up drama of something being very terribly wrong. Unfortunately, the Düsseldorfy approach will have some people hesitant to spend time with the book, but that’s their loss.

Climate change is hitting us on a daily basis. We’re just not capable of seeing or feeling it: everything changes so slowly. We can only see the most dramatic outcomes, which make for dramatic TV (or photographs): tornadoes, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, snow and cold in unlikely places… At the same time, these outcomes are impossibly difficult to connect with our own lived reality: what do wildfires have to do with driving cars that run on burning fossil fuels?

In the ravaged land depicted by Bruce Haley, there are hints of connections, such as when oil drilling stations are visible, or when there are artificial canals diverting the water towards a destination other than its natural one. But at the end of the day, it’s upon us to make the connections (and vote out the bums who still refuse to properly deal with the disaster that is going to hit the next generations much harder than us).

Photography can only so much. If either the dramatic pictures coming from the now ubiquitous natural disasters don’t change your thinking nor the accumulation of quietly desperate photographs in  Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past) then, I’m afraid, you can’t be helped.

It’s just a crying shame that future generations will have to suffer the consequences of our collective can’t-be-helped comfort.

Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past); photographs by Bruce Haley; texts by Kirsten Rian and Bruce Haley; 144 pages; Daylight Books; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.8

The Photograph Isn’t the Landscape Mon, 22 Mar 2021 13:55:20 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The artist, we are told, “photographs landscapes with a medium-format analog camera […] From this archived material she then constructs new landscapes”. If you’ve kept an eye on recent photobook releases, you would imagine that these words describe the work of Dafna Talmor. For sure they do. But I actually sourced the quote from Beate Gütschow‘s website, from the page that showcases her landscape photographs.

Had I shown you the photographs produced by these two artists side by side, you probably would have reacted to them very differently. Visually, their images have very little in common. Gütschow’s pictures very clearly depict landscapes, with various visual references to the tradition of landscape painting. If you have a keen eye, you can probably see that the images were produced with the help of a computer.

Talmor’s, in contrast, only very remotely look like images of landscapes. They’re fractured and disjointed, betraying the way they have been montaged: they were physically constructed. Your keen eye here will tell you that they were printed from montaged negatives (as opposed to Gütschow’s that were montaged in the computer using scans).

Despite their very different way of working, which results in very different looking pictures, these two artists have a lot in common. They both look at the idea of “the landscape” as it is — or maybe I should say: can be — expressed with photographs. After all, photography is one of those media where before the construction of an image comes the capture of the raw material it is produced from.

There’s nothing new to the idea of constructing a landscape from constituent parts. In the 1800s, artists such as Gustave Le Gray produced photographs from more than one negative. Given photographic materials were unable to render the sky and land (or sea) at the same time, he would make two exposures — one for the sky and another one for the land (sea) below — and combine them in the darkroom.

We have, after all, certain expectations when we encounter a photograph of a landscape, which is not the same as the landscape itself. To use Alfred Korzybski’s wording, neither a map nor a photograph are the territory. But there are other aspects. Landscapes come with a large number of ideas and feelings, many of which we arrive at through socialisation and cultural background.

For example, there is nothing particularly distinct about German forests other than that they’re in Germany. But culturally, they are thus loaded with all kinds of ideas and notions (not all of them entirely wholesome) that give most Germans the feeling to have entered a special place once they’re surrounded by all the trees. Thus, there’s forest and there’s “forest” (or rather, in German, Wald and “Wald”). As someone not from Germany, you simply won’t ever be able to access the latter.

Landscapes in general operate the same way, and it is exactly this idea that is picked up on by Gütschow and Talmor. Talmor expresses this in the interview that is included in Constructed Landscapes, the survey of her work, now out with FW:Books. Speaking about her various travels and her photographing, she says “I didn’t know why I was doing it; I just felt a compulsion to take pictures. When I came back to the studio, and looked at the contact sheets, I was always disappointed with the images — they weren’t really doing anything very interesting in themselves.” (p. 175; my emphasis) The photograph isn’t the landscape.

Unlike the source photographs, Talmor’s landscape images are interesting. They operate in this strange (art lingo: liminal) place where they clearly reveal the process of montage while at the same time presenting a landscape as well. Often, the constituent parts don’t fit perfectly — to the point of larger chunks of an image being a blank space (a visual terra incognita of sorts).

I usually find photography that centres on its own process tedious and boring. But Talmor’s is one of the few cases where process and idea actually overlap, so I’m always made to look beyond process. In other words, the work does not limit itself to “look what I can do” — that sad end point of so much very process-based photography.

Constructed Landscapes presents the images first, at times employing gatefolds to great effect. Afterwards, a surprisingly large number of other materials are presented, including variants of the same picture obtained through different work in the darkroom (or different papers to print on), individual (positive) source images, negatives, and images of montaged negatives.

In a nutshell, the book doubles as a studio visit — a refreshing approach to photobook making where the overall process mostly remains invisible. The sheer number of variants feels a little overwhelming; I’m not sure I needed to see all of it. And I found myself wondering why some images were chosen over others to constitute the end result. But these are merely minor aspects of the book.

I’m a little bit worried that a reader might arrive at the impression that somehow there is a deal of sorts between Hans Gremmen, the mastermind behind FW:Books, and me. There is not. It’s just that Gremmen very consistently produces the perfect book for a given body of work. In light of the following, though, I thought I needed to point this out.

The form of Constructed Landscapes incorporates the idea of constructedness: it’s basically a text block without a hard or softcover wrapped around it, exposing the rough glue-string construction of the industrial Smyth-sewn binding. Different stock is used for the different parts of the book (plates, essays, index). As always the design is elegant while avoiding the ostentatiousness that at times creeps into Dutch photobook design.

In a nutshell, you could take the book and present it as a study case of excellent contemporary photobook design and production. This elevates and serves the work — the pictures in question — without attracting too much attention to itself. Perfect.

Constructed Landscapes; photographs by Dafna Talmor; texts by Cherry Smyth, Olga Smith, Shoair Mavlian, Gemma Padley and Dafna Talmor; 210 pages (10 gatefolds); FW:Books; 2020

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The Twenty Years War Mon, 15 Mar 2021 14:05:17 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“At least 800,000 people have died due to direct war violence, including armed forces on all sides of the conflicts, contractors, civilians, journalists, and humanitarian workers. […] The cost of the Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria wars totals about $6.4 trillion.” writes the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University in the summary of its Costs of War Project. “This does not include future interest costs on borrowing for the wars, which will add an estimated $8 trillion in the next 40 years.”

There is no end in sight. This year, the United States will have been in a constant state of war for 20 years, with very little to show for it. But war for sure is a mighty drug. President Biden wasted little time after he sworn in, ordering his first air strike on 26 February, 2021. Meanwhile, a large number of those displaced by the wars have created the European migrant crisis.

I remember that at some stage I tried to understand the Thirty Years War. It was a real struggle, and to some extent, it still is. How could a war last 30 years and in many areas of the affected countries result in population losses of over 60%? Now, these numbers don’t seem so abstract any longer. After all, the United States has been at war for almost as long as I have lived here. In tandem, the militarization of its society has been ever increasing.

For a while, especially at the very beginning, things were pretty scary. I remember that when an acquaintance moved to California, he decided to drive cross country. For his trip, he got his car decked out in those yellow-ribbon “Support the troops” magnets, knowing he wouldn’t easily make it through the so-called heartland without those. Now, things feel a little different. But it’s not clear to me whether it’s because things have moved back a little bit or whether we’ve just got used to the jingoism.

Peter van Agtmael has been documenting the Twenty Year War since its very beginning. I first spoke with him in 2007 and then again ten years later. He has published a number of books, all of them essential records of a country too embroiled in its own senseless militarism to recognise the folly of it all. There’s Disco Night Sept. 11, there is Buzzing at the Sill, and now there is Sorry for the War.

Rooted in traditional photojournalism, each of these books took the genre’s main conventions and tweaked them towards something that is a little bit less of the moment and more for that point in time where sudden enlightenment — to borrow a term from Zen Buddhism — might happen: what the fuck have we done?

Of course, we’re still waiting for our collective sudden enlightenment. Just look at this graph — that mountain range after the year 2000, that’s the Twenty Years War.

As its title indicates, Sorry for the War isn’t a book that sees sudden enlightenment happening any time soon. Instead, it observes how one insanity morphs into the next, as more and more lives are funnelled through the meat grinder that has been laying waste to larger parts of the Middle East and that has been mentally devastating those who volunteered or were forced to partake in it.

So the meat is ground and ground and ground, and Van Agtmael has the pictures that show some causes and effects and consequences. Just like in the Thirty Years War, it’s hard to keep up with what is cause and effect, and it’s hard to keep up with who is involved.

Slowly, yet steadily, the ripple effects of the war have been reaching further and further out, with, let’s say, Islamic terrorists spawned by a number of disastrous choices in Iraq killing Parisians, and the photographer happens to be right there, too (it was Paris Photo time).

At this stage, it would be tempting to write that the war essentially sustains itself. But such a statement would absolve those who have it in their power to stop it. There is a very telling photograph that shows mostly blue carpet and some wood-panelled long desk, with heavy leather chairs behind it — the US Senate, with its Armed Services Committee (support for the Twenty Years War might be the only bipartisan issue left).

Another photograph shows neo-fascist television personality Sean Hannity in what looks like a somewhat gaudily decorated Greek restaurant. There’s a man behind him, seemingly attempting to hold Hannity back by grabbing his right arm. But Hannity is having none of it. There is, after all, further meat to be ground, and it’s not the one in the restaurant’s kitchen.

Sorry for the War uses a number of video stills to point at the crucial role played by propaganda. These images include still from speeches by US presidents as much as from an ISIS video, Hollywood movies, anti-terrorism commercials, a Toby Keith video, or America’s Got Talent.

And there is one of Van Agtmael’s older pictures in a picture: a spread from a copy of Penthouse in 2009. The photographer is aware of his own role. He is not an outside observer (there are no outside observers: my own tax dollars fund the meat grinder, too).

The war might go on for another ten (or twenty) years — who knows? Looking at the book I came away with the feeling that the photographer knows that having chronicled things for so long now means that there will have to be something else — lest he becomes swallowed up by the meat grinder as well.

As photographers or writers we should all be so lucky: to have devoted so much time and energy on such an important topic, to have produced three incredible books that say so much, in such poignant fashions — as our country’s war rages on and on and on. Of course, it’s not luck that has been driving Peter van Agtmael. Instead, it’s his dogged devotion to the idea that the truth will win out in the end.

Highly recommended.

Sorry for the War; photographs and text by Peter van Agtmael; 200 pages; Mass Books; 2021

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 4.0

Still, Life Mon, 08 Mar 2021 15:17:14 +0000 Joerg Colberg

It’s now about a year into living with the pandemic in my neck of the woods. Roughly the same time span applies in many other parts of the world, excluding China, which experienced its outbreak a lot earlier. If you would have told me before that we would collectively experience a major event, my prediction would have been that we’d see the emergence of a large sense of solidarity. I am not sure to what extent this actually played out.

Right away, it seemed clear to everybody in photoland that the pandemic would become a major topic for pictures. At some stage, there would appear the first bodies of work. Initial efforts had me a little disheartened: there are only so many pictures of deserted streets or people standing behind windows with hand-drawn signs I can look at.

Meanwhile, in the larger world of news photography there have been the (almost inevitable) complaints that somehow, there have not been any iconic photographs. Frankly, I don’t know where such complaints would be coming from, given a number of truly heartbreaking pictures have been made. Go Nakamura’s photograph of a doctor hugging an elderly patient in a Covid ICU expresses the most one can hope for, right at the edge where both photography and words can only fail.

Now the first publications with images from the pandemic are trickling in. One example is provided by Stil Leven/Still Life. In March 2020, the Dutch Droom en Daad Foundation commissioned six photographers from Rotterdam to the pandemic in their hometown. The project was overseen by Hanneke Mantel, and the contributing photographers are Loes van Duijvendijk, Marwan Magroun, Geisje van der Linden, Naomi Modde, Willem de Kam, and Khalid Amakran. What did they come up with?

Van Duijvendijk turned her lens on a locked down city, with only two living creatures in sight. One is a cat, and the other one is a vendor in a little outdoor stand that’s shaped like an orange. Without any customers present and placed seemingly lost in otherwise grey neoliberal architecture, the kitschy cuteness of the stand serves to re-enforce to what extent we rely on such devices to distract us from our otherwise drab existences.

Magroun documented essential workers some of whom at least initially received daily support in the form of public clapping. Remember those days? I suppose improved work situations and better pay would have been even nicer. But now we’re at the stage where neo-Nazis march against restrictions, and a bunch of people are publicly burning masks in Idaho. In light of all of this I’ve been trying to imagine how I felt if I were an essential worker. One can only hope pictures like Magroun’s will remind people of the fact that many others literally risked their lives to keep things running.

Van der Linden’s photographs centre around a single person, a human-rights activist from Yemen who got separated from his wife and young son (they’re both still in Yemen). The pandemic has been especially hard for the most vulnerable people. This group not only includes essential workers or poor people, it also encompasses people who had to or have to flee poverty and/or persecution: migrants. These pictures here show how much we all have in common. One can hope that they allow us to realise how much good might arise out of more solidarity.

Modde portrayed a number of families with young children in their homes all over Rotterdam. The pandemic has been very difficult for children and parents, and Modde deserves credit for picking up on this so early. There are only so many things photographs can convey. But the overall sense of being lost in one’s own home, having to deal with computers as interfaces to the outside world, comes across strongly.

De Kam produced maybe the most poignant photograph in the book (which is on its cover). It shows a hand that places a glass of orange juice and a slice of cake on a plate on the floor, reaching in through a door that’s barely open. Before the pandemic, we might not have easily come to the conclusion that we arrive at now: there is only one reason why one would not interact with a person in the same household. The text indeed informs the viewer that the photographer’s partner was infected with the virus, and they were unable to be in the same room. It shudders one to imagine this same drama playing out in countless households.

Lastly, Amakran made portraits of a number of Rotterdammers and asked them to write some texts for him. These are reproduced as handwritten notes next to the photographs (an English-language translation is shown right next to them). The notes are mostly banal, but that’s what makes them so poignant: even without a sick partner in the house, for many of us life has become a silent drama, in which worries about one’s health and livelihood (job) aren’t exactly helped by the aforementioned anti-mask protesters (not even to mention neoliberal politicians who’d rather save their precious economy than actual people).

I don’t know whether we still want to look at pictures from the pandemic when this is over. I’m sure I personally don’t want to be reminded of the virus. However, as I mentioned above, there are various things the pandemic has reminded us of, namely how living under neoliberal capitalism has eroded our sense of solidarity, our sense of being able to see other people for who they are (instead of seeing them as means to an end).

Thus, we should be looking at photographs made during the pandemic. As a broad collection of topics, made by and covering a diverse group of people living in the Netherlands, I think that Stil Leven/Still Life will be placed in the company of older books that documented a large-scale disaster (Mantel mentions the 1953 De Ramp photobook, which showed that year’s disastrous flood).

Stil Leven/Still Life; photographs by Loes van Duijvendijk, Marwan Magroun, Geisje van der Linden, Naomi Modde, Willem de Kam, Khalid Amakran; texts by Hanneke Mantel, Wilfried de Jong; 116 pages; Hannibal Books; 2021

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Tomorrow’s Snow Mon, 01 Mar 2021 16:03:29 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Whatever you want to say about Instagram “Stories”, one account that does them really well is called Behind the Scars, a project by Sophie Mayanne. I think right now, they’re taken over twice a week, with a different person (often, but not always, a young woman) talking about some scars on their body and the underlying medical and/or mental reason(s).

As a man, I never had to worry about scars at all: if you had one, that usually was and still is seen as a reflection of some form of manliness (this never made any sense to me). Over the years, I’ve come to learn that for women (let alone someone not identifying within this set of binary choices), the situation is very different: there is the double whammy of scars being seen as a sign of weakness and of societal beauty standards that dictate how one is to present oneself.

As far as mental health is concerned, the “rules” change a little. Given mental scars are invisible — as is mental suffering — contemporary society still stigmatizes people dealing with mental-health issues to a considerable degree.

As someone who has been suffering from depression for decades, I know the kinds of blank stares one gets when talking about it: you can almost see the other person’s mental wheels going, to prevent them from saying something really inappropriate (btw, if in such a situation you start a sentence with “can’t you just…” to offer advice, that’s already not helpful — regardless of how well meaning your intentions might be).

In the Behind the Scars Stories, the connection between physical and mental health usually becomes very clear: physical trauma often triggers mental trauma, and having to conform to societal expectations only serves to compound the problem(s).

The same mechanism plays out in Sonja Trabandt‘s Übermorgen Schnee (Tomorrow’s Snow) [nb: the German translation of übermorgen is “day after tomorrow”; I’m sticking with the publisher’s English language title here). When her best friend, a young woman whose name is only given as “A.”, was diagnosed with cancer, Trabandt helped her deal with her experiences. At some point in time, when it felt appropriate to Trabandt to take pictures, this became a part of the process of dealing with what A. was going through.

I find the initial hesitation to bring in photography good for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it speaks of the deep care the photographer felt for her friend. Life and friendship are more important than making pictures.

In the book, I don’t think as a viewer I would have picked up on anything missing from the pictures. That said, the turning of A. into someone who is completely anonymous — there are no direct portraits — removes me a few steps too far from that care and empathy.

It’s obviously easy for me to write this since I’m not talking about my own privacy. At the same time, I have been watching the Behind the Scars Stories, which dive deeply into personal matters without ever feeling intrusive: here, though, it is the persons themselves who decide what and/or how much to reveal.

At the end of Übermorgen Schnee, there is a longer text in which A. talks about some of the things that were most important for her. I found the text very deeply touching, in particular also because it talks about the severe depression the young woman plunged in after she was healed from cancer.

For the most part, text and images remain separate (there’s an index with thumbnails in the back). Text and images each have their separate ways of describing the world. In the photographs, a combination of still lifes, landscapes, and staged/arranged images, the main topic — cancer and all of its consequences — is very clearly communicated.

While A.’s scars are all internal, there was one other bodily factor which not surprisingly took on supreme importance: the loss of hair caused by the chemicals flushing through the body. I was aware of this aspect of cancer treatment, yet the way the book makes it a focal point (which is later reflected in A.’s writing) is very effective and — despite the often a little bit too formal and staged nature of some of the photographs — very touching.

A photograph that shows A. lying on a bed in a fetal position while cradling her own bald head is deeply affecting. Roughly thirty pages later, there is another picture from what looks like a similar point in time that shows one side of the bald head, a hand near the ear and one eye almost peeking into the frame. The deep sense of vulnerability and hurt couldn’t have been communicated more effectively.

Near the end of the book, there are ample photographs from a later joint trip by A. and Trabandt (the text makes this clear). I can’t help but feel that the photographs don’t convey the importance that the trip might have had for the two of them. But the addition of images full of sunshine and joy provide a good ending for the book — after a long period of physical and mental suffering, all is well.

This might sound like such a trivial conclusion in written form, but it must have been so deeply felt by the two people involved in the book, the photographer and her close friend, A.: all is well again.

The book’s penultimate picture shows A. lying on a bed, and the viewer can almost make out her full features. Apart from the two other photographs I wrote about earlier, this is the picture I respond most strongly to. Like I wrote, I understand the reasons for the anonymity. But the photographic anonymity comes at a price, with some of the artifice removing the viewer a step or two from the urgency of what’s on view.

Dealing with photography always involves some form of trade off: you can have some things at the expense of others — both photographically and in a larger sense. You’ll have to make decisions, especially if you’re trying to tell someone else’s story. Up until now, these decisions have been mostly driven by photographers, resulting in the consequences that have now become increasingly contested.

A recalibration of photographic approaches thus has been long overdue. In the end, we all can only gain from photography not always being done at the expense of those who find themselves in front of the camera. As viewers, this will inevitably force us to deal with our own expectations and preferences — it’s about time we realize that as viewers we are part of the very context photography operates in.

Übermorgen Schnee [Tomorrow’s Snow]; photographs by Sonja Trabandt; texts by Sonja Trabandt and A.; 136 pages; Hartmann Books; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 3.6

Photobook Reviews (W8/2021) Mon, 22 Feb 2021 21:22:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg

In 1999, Gerry Johansson spent four weeks in Japan’s Ehime prefecture, which covers the western part of the Shikoku Island and lies directly to the south of Hiroshima. His trip had been financed by a grant that would bring European photographers to Japan, to make work there. The resulting photographs have now been published as Ehime by T&M Projects.

Johansson is mostly known for his work with the square format (over the years, I have reviewed a number of books containing such pictures — you can find them through my index of photobook reviews). But there also was an earlier book with pictures made in Japan, specifically in Tokyo. Using an 8×10 camera, he had scoured the Japanese capital’s cityscape, focusing mostly on the many brand new buildings there (as a city, Tokyo is constantly in flux as older buildings get torn down, to be replaced by newer ones).

I remember that the Tokyo pictures had left me cold. They were very good pictures, but the surfaces and shapes of the buildings had reduced them to be more or less exercises in form. This is good, if that’s your thing (I personally find it mostly tedious). But focusing on just form eliminated the bulk of what makes Johansson such an interesting photographer when working with the square: the visual wit.

When I first went to Tokyo, I noticed how off putting I ended up finding many of those shiny new areas: they’re not only not very good in front of one’s camera, they simply lack all soul. But it’s a problem even outside of Tokyo. Japan has invested an enormous amount of money into its infrastructure, which has resulted in a lot of areas being covered with all kinds of concrete structures to hold them into place. There are these structures that just beg for formal treatment everywhere.

As a body of work, Ehime is another animal that sits somewhere in between Tokyo and most of the square work. By its very nature, an 8×10 camera has a very strong pull towards formal considerations. It’s such a hassle to set up and you can spend so much time studying a picture on the ground glass that all humanity might simply evaporate. While this happens occasionally in the new book, for the most part Johansson was able to evade the problem.

There are many pictures of neatly organised built structures and neatly pruned trees of bushes. But there are also many pictures of locations that at least at the time had not been reached by concrete mixers and construction crews, yet.

In a sense, the Japan that is described in these pictures is one that resist easy categorisation or description. It is that aspect that I appreciate the most. In some ways, anything you might expect is there; but it’s there in a way that doesn’t merely confirm, while presenting itself in a visually engaging and pleasing manner. And all of this comes in a very elegant and nicely produced book.


Ehime; photographs by Gerry Johansson; 184 pages; T&M Projects; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 3.9

One of the defining feature of much of contemporary photography is that it holds its viewers at arm’s length. This works really well for a lot of work. But with it being so widely used, the accumulation of all of these arm’s lengths also has created an overall atmosphere that is a bit too detached. Over the years, I have become increasingly sensitive to this issue. This is not to say that I now prefer work that is in my face (which only creates a different form of tedium). Instead, I tend to look for modulation, for a push and pull. I couldn’t say how this push and pull might work; in fact there might be no universal “recipe” for it.

I had think about all of this again when looking at Daniel Reuter‘s Providencia. According to the publisher’s website, the book was edited and sequenced by Milo Montelli. Thus, there is another pair of eyes and hands at play here. In addition, the book employs a few production tricks, such as, most prominently, the use of vellum paper upon which photographs are printed. These pages allow for the images on the neighbouring pages to shine through.

Photographed in Chile (in one image, the word “Chile” can be clearly read on the license plate of a car), these pictures could have been taken anywhere where the promises of late capitalism have just reached their tipping point: the beauty of the eventual outcome has just been revealed as hollow, the rising tide is not at all lifting all boats, and the next essentially man-made and entirely prevantable disaster is just one freak meteorological event away.

There are many surfaces in the book, too many actually: rocks and the sides of buildings and semi-translucent windows and gaudy plastic coverings. There are landscapes, too, some arid, some lush yet equally uninviting. And there are a few pictures of people, none of whom look at the camera, all trapped in their own thoughts.

I don’t know what’s missing. But I feel as if something were missing: a counterpoint of sorts, that rare opening where as a viewer you can move closer in, however briefly. Ultimately, the book makes it clear that there is a promise that is being betrayed. But its own shrinking away from giving a glimpse of what that might mean has been leaving me in a position where I’d like to care a little bit more about this place. And yet I don’t.

Maybe that’s the idea. If it is, then it’s done successfully. If it is, though, then for me, that’s not quite enough (as usual, your mileage might vary). If it is not, if the book wants me to care about the lives of all those people living in a place (why else would I look at it?), then I think I need to be offered very slightly more: an opening, a crack (metaphorically, I’m not speaking of the many literal cracks displayed in the pictures), a glimpse not of the promise but instead of what that promise has done with people, done for people.

People want to believe. In a photobook, I’d like to believe with them, even if it’s just for a moment. But maybe that’s something that contemporary photography operating at arm’s length simply cannot offer. Or maybe this is just me getting old. If it is that, though, me getting old, then I actually quite like that it does this to me: pulling me away from pure judgment, from cynicism, and wanting me to go to the inside of those arms.

Providencia; photographs by Daniel Reuter; essay by Alejandro Zambra; 112 pages; Skinnerboox; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 3.8

I have the theory that basically every city is good only for certain people, and I know that Los Angeles is not for me. To begin with, I find riding in or driving a car awful. So a city organised (if that’s even the right word for it) around having to drive everywhere is farthest from the kind of place I tend to enjoy.

Obviously, you don’t actually have to drive in Los Angeles, you could just walk. Fair enough. But then walking in a place that is organised around driving also is not very enjoyable. Still, some people do it, such as, for example, Nigel Raab who walked 72.5 miles across the city in four days. Raab then approached Mark Ruwedel and asked whether he would be interested in making pictures along the route. Ruwedel was (he used a car), which eventually resulted in Seventy Two And One Half Miles Across Los Angeles.

In the world of astronomy, one would describe the outcome of the exercise as a pencil-beam survey: a narrow, yet deep look at a small, selected part of the Universe that despite its restrictions still offers possibly a lot of interesting results. Raab’s route across Los Angeles follows a similar idea, as becomes clear from Ruwedel’s photographs. As much as there is ample repetition — the same types of houses, the sheer endless expanses covered with roads — there is a progression that, I suspect, someone familiar with the place would be able to pick up on even more easily than an outsider like me.

In some ways, the book itself reminded me of especially technical books from before I was born. I don’t know enough about typefaces to know better — or maybe the connection was made on purpose. But I appreciate this aspect of the book. This also includes the placement of the photographs on the pages, with those of their edges closest to the fore-edge always touching it: the design invokes the idea of something continuing, even though unlike in some contemporary Dutch design parts of the same picture are not printed on the obverse and reverse of a page.

What I’m going to take away from the book other than confirmation that this place indeed is not for me I don’t know. But I appreciate that challenge in a book: it makes me look again and again, to see whether I’m not in fact missing something. After all, I might. There also is that connection with the tradition of art/photography made in Los Angeles (hard not to think of echoes of Ed Ruscha), a connection that reminds me of how there’s an underexplored spot in my own way of looking at photography made in the US.

Seventy Two And One Half Miles Across Los Angeles; photographs by Mark Ruwedel; texts by Nigel Raab and Mark Ruwedel; 160 pages; Mack; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 3.7

Woman Go No’Gree Mon, 15 Feb 2021 18:01:07 +0000 Joerg Colberg

When speaking with Japanese friends, I noticed that cross-cultural misunderstandings are always just one statement by me away, my own good intentions notwithstanding. Given my origin and age, I have been trained to follow what we could loosely call the Western tradition of enlightenment (which for the longest time, has not really been all that enlightened after all, and it’s not even that clear to what extent it is now).

We people volunteer out thinking, because that’s the tradition. Japanese people, in contrast, operate very differently even when a large part of their education is based on the same or similar principles. In Japanese society, the role of the individual is very different, and people are extremely mindful of social differences. Almost inevitably, this will make you, as someone not familiar with how things are expressed, stumble into what is perceived as rudeness.

Beyond linguistic nuances — for example you want to avoid addressing people directly, there are societal and cultural ones. It’s easy to assume that larger abstract ideas that are based in political activism — such as, for example, feminism — translate the same way in both contexts. But as I found out they don’t necessarily do that.

It would be tempting to think that such issues arise only when one is faced with someone from another culture. But even within our own society, we run into similar problems, such as when well-off people wonder or complain about what poor people might spend their money on. If you’re well off, you might want to think twice before you dive into this topic, because what you might think of as benevolence might actually reveal something a lot less wholesome underneath.

Obviously, the ultimate goal of dealing with cross-cultural (or cross-class) misunderstandings must be to arrive at a deeper recognition of what’s going on. This goal stands in contrast to the supposed end result of moral relativism that typically is evoked by conservatives: namely that the end result of this all is “anything goes” (this conclusion reveals a lot about an authoritarian mindset in the background).

Gloria Oyarzabal‘s Woman Go No’Gree provides a prime example of a recent photobook that directly addresses the above. In a nutshell, the work resulted from the artist realising that the application of Western feminist thinking to the situation of women in Africa was running into a series of problems.

Obviously, Africa is a huge and diverse continent. Specifically, Ovarzabal talks about the Yoruba society. The Yoruba are an West African ethnic group that mainly live in Nigeria and Benin, with a population of roughly 44 million (the fact that they live across a number of countries might serve as a reminder of the arbitrariness of borders arbitrarily imposed by colonial rulers).

Through a combination of text and images, the book dives into the complexities of the topic at hand. There is text that serves as an introduction to chapters, and there is a longer appendix that casts a wide net over various aspects that are important here: imperialism, the role of women in traditional and contemporary thinking, post-colonialism, and more.

Given the various images from the book re-appear in the appendix as thumbnails and are cross-referenced in the text, it could easily serve as study material for a teaching context. With its many quotations and references it is this text that I’ve found myself coming back to time and again. I suspect, though, that the more populist minded parts of photoland might decry it as being “too academic” (which I don’t think it is, but your mileage might vary).

In terms of its pictures, the book contains a wide variety of material and approaches, including colonial-era archival photographs, straight photographs, and staged photographs, with additional post-production in the computer in some cases. This mix and the very smart edit and sequence help convey the overall idea that the text itself talks about. The viewer is made to look at women living in Africa in a variety of ways, and the overall feeling is one of self-determination: these women neither need colonial administrators to tell them what to do nor contemporary men from their own or any other culture.

In an obvious sense, photographs can only do so much — compared with the text, they cannot convey all of the details. At the same time, because of their purely visual nature, the photographs are able to arrive at a felt immediacy that the text cannot deliver. It is this back and forth between text and images that works incredibly well in this book.

As it is becoming more and more clear that large parts of photography have to face their own ugly past, a book like Woman Go No’Gree is able to provide one model for how this can be done. For sure there is the need for voices other than those from the previous colonial powers to be heard. At the same time, Westerners need to deal with the heritage of photography’s past abuses to deal with their own medium’s legacy.

With  Woman Go No’Gree Gloria Ovarzabal has provided a model for what the confrontation with photography’s past might look like. As is demonstrated in the book, this confrontation must involve a reckoning with the Western mindset, a mindset that too often takes itself as the yardstick for how to understand the world.

Highly recommended.

(not rated)

Woman Go No’Gree; photographs and text by Gloria Ovarzabal; 176 pages; RM; 2020

The Green Helicopter Mon, 08 Feb 2021 00:19:16 +0000 Joerg Colberg

A little while ago, John Edwin Mason sent me a Twitter thread, in which Chris Wade had compiled what he considered photography highlights from the Trump years. I had seen most of the pictures, but I still ended up being amazed by them.

In fact, I had expressed my surprise about the Trump team being so inept at visuals many times on Twitter. Having thought about this for a few days, though, I now think I had had it all wrong. Or rather, what I had commented on was not an ineptitude to produce visuals per se. It was the ineptitude (or unwillingness) to produce the kinds of pictures we expected to see.

The difference between what was presented and what we might have expected is crucial. It doesn’t say all that much about the Trump regime, while it says a lot about the visual ecosystem surrounding politics that we take for granted.

This ecosystem cannot be separated from the underlying economy of it all: the corporations that own and run photography agencies, newspapers and news sites, etc. Given I am not an industry insider, I will ignore this aspect in the following. I don’t have solutions for the industry’s basic business problems (if I did, I obviously wouldn’t be writing articles about photography for free).

Our political visual ecosystem is fuelled by photography’s immediacy. A relatively large number of photographers, most of them very gifted individuals, follow political proceedings wherever and whenever they happen. You mostly don’t see them, but you always hear them: a political event would be incomplete without the soundtrack provided by single-lens-reflex cameras’ mirrors rattling against their cages.

Photography’s immediacy is maybe its biggest curse (please note that in the following, I’m using the term “photography” to stand for photography in the news context). We now have access to pictures of events as they happen, whether it’s a mob storming the US Capitol or, two weeks later, a new president being sworn in. This immediacy has spawned its own visual culture — just think of how the picture of Bernie Sanders sitting somewhat grumpily on a chair turned into a widely created and shared meme instantly.

In other words, photography is able to achieve something that Francis Bacon said he hoped his paintings would do: coming from his own nervous system, they would bypass a viewer’s critical facilities and directly address their nervous system. It’s debatable to what extent painting can do this. Photography, however, is able to achieve this effect simply by being a part of our widely networked information system.

Photography’s immediacy inherently stands in the way of producing understanding. It’s not that clear what kind of understanding a photograph can produce anyway — what exactly do we learn from a picture of a president signing a document? Whatever that understanding might be, it would arise out of thinking things over and discussing them in more detail. In out political visual ecosystem, there is no time for that.

It seems obvious to me that all participants in this ecosystem are aware of the problem, and they all attempt to make the best of it. For those in front of the camera, this means that they have to be aware of what an event looks like in a picture, given the system’s requirements and traditions (it is this aspect that the Trump regime so blatantly violated where it wasn’t simply abysmally bad at it). I grew up in the German political visual ecosystem, so I’m still amazed by everything that is different in the US. I suspect that someone who grew up here simply won’t notice — they will only notice when something is different.

For those behind the cameras, the goal is to get the pictures that essentially conform to implicitly agreed upon conventions. For example, when a president leaves office, the expectation is to see him get into that green helicopter, and there will have to be some picture made around that. How do you get anything out of a scene that has already been photographed hundreds of times? That’s the challenge. (Alternative answer: you don’t get anything out of it because you can’t.)

Thus, the transfer of power in the US would be incomplete without the helicopter taking off. It would also be incomplete without the new president arriving at the White House in some enormous motorcade. At some stage, the new president will get out of his enormous car and walk (so far, US presidents have all been men; I’m looking forward to the hopefully not-so-distant day when my choice of pronoun will be able to reflect a reality that many other countries already arrived at decades ago).

If you didn’t know anything about the country’s political visual ecosystem, you would have imagined Joe Biden could have made it to the White House in ten minutes, to get to work immediately. But no, just like in every inauguration year, the whole production was staged — even though this year, there were no spectators other than mostly security personnel. He got out of his car, and he waved to people who weren’t there (there were a few people — reporters and security personnel, but you know what I mean). If memory serves me right, it was called it a “virtual inauguration”. Jean Baudrillard might have called it a “simulation”. I prefer the term “theatre” — in the sense of the highly stylised and very strictly scripted form present in classical Japanese culture (Noh or Kabuki).

There would have to be a picture of a certain kind, namely the president walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the Biden team did very well. They made sure the whole family, in particular the very lively grandchildren, were always present. In a very obvious sense, this was a form of propaganda. But it’s a form of propaganda that is inherent in the US’ political visual ecosystem. Everybody knows their role — performers, recorders, viewers. Everybody plays along.

Something is thought to happen in the small moments where there possibly is a crack appearing. Just think about how the media became obsessed with the relationship between Donald Trump and his wife Melania: would they hold hands? Or would they not? I think the reason why there was so much focus on something that is this irrelevant for anyone other than the parties involved is not that the US inherently is a shallow country (trust me, if you look at German tabloids, you’re facing an abyss of shallowness and pettiness). The main reason for the media focus on whether the Trumps would be able to behave like a happily married couple simply was that everybody had agreed on the idea that political pictures have to conform to agreed upon conventions (“happy couple”).

There are a lot more conventions. Think about US politicians campaigning with their shirt sleeves rolled up. Think about how politicians show remorse in public: the biting of the lip, the looking down. It’s all completely fake. But the fakeness is besides the point, much like it’s besides the point that in Noh theatre, emotions are expressed with a set of very simple masks, or that in any Hollywood movie a few very well known actors appear in very different roles. It’s all fake in a very obvious sense. But we know that the actual message appears beyond the artifice (for a different in-depth exploration of this idea in a different context, have a look at my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism).

As a consequence, possible meaning tends to be inferred from someone breaking the visual conventions, whether it’s the Trumps not holding hands, Bernie Sanders showing up to the inauguration as if he were at a Vermont farmers market, or whatever else there might be. I probably don’t have to explain how problematic such an approach is: as a US politician, you can get away with a lot of stuff — as long as you are able to let photographers produce the right pictures.

But there is another major problem here that I haven’t addressed, yet. Not surprisingly, most discussions around political imagery happen along parameters set not by those looking at the pictures but by the larger ecosystem itself. For example, nobody has questioned why we would need to see the green-helicopter picture. Instead, people have been trying to slice and dice which helicopter picture expresses best the idea of the Trump presidency ending.

My main concern is that the whole political visual ecosystem violates the rule “show, don’t tell.” Most events are essentially pre-visualized. Thus, the story is being told in the head of every participant before the pictures arrive. To make this very clear, this is not a problem of the photographers — it’s our collective problem, whether we’re politicians, photographers, editors, publishers, viewers. We know the story before we see it.

Unlike in theatre, where we tend to know the story very well before we see (experience) it, to be then taken by the larger ideas expressed (whether it’s love or loss or human folly or whatever else), in contemporary politics, there are no larger ideas any longer. Politicians have essentially become technocrats, offering solutions for problems, most of which are entirely artificial. When an actual problem — or crisis — comes along, underlying assumptions aren’t challenged. Instead, technocratic solutions (that adhere to party dogma) are applied.

As a consequence, in our political visual ecosystem, most of the time when there is a derivation from conventions, the discussion does not revolve around what the derivation tells us about these conventions (which could provide insight), but around what the derivation tells us about the person depicted that way.

In the absence of discussions around fundamental, systemic problems (for example neoliberal capitalism), instead the system deflects everything onto a single person and turns what could be a deeper discussion into something that’s just only one step away from mere entertainment (if even that: Bernie Sanders’ mittens). As a result, almost inevitably the possibility of gaining no deeper insight does not present itself, and neither does the possibility of deeper, meaningful change. Instead, at best we’ll get giddy excitement about the Trumps’ marriage or Bernie memes (Memefy your dissent!). That’s it.

In Sanders’ case, the ecosystem has adapted to him in such a way that there is an expectation that he would do what he did. Just imagine if he had showed up in a finely tailored suit to the inauguration. In that case, collectively we would have turned against one of the most vocal critics of neoliberal capitalism, and we would be talking about hypocrisy (his — not ours obviously).

It’s not clear to me how the immediate visual journalism that forms news photography would be able to provide insight into what it depicts. On its own, it simply can’t. Pictures can only show so much as can captions added maybe an hour later. In principle, we are in desperate need of another, very distinct component, a component that would entail deeper reflection and a look beyond the conventions, beyond what we all expect to see.

Whatever you want to say about the picture magazine that has now disappeared, this was one of its strengths: diving into stories more deeply. This is not to say that those were the golden days of visual journalism. There obviously were many problems. But the form itself, the longer-form connection of a number of photographs, combined with quite a bit of text to establish context — that form had more promise than anything we have seen ever since.

In a nutshell, the United States just faced one of its most desperate political crises in its existence, where a corrupt authoritarian president almost managed to destroy the country’s democracy. Do we have a visual record of that? No, we don’t. All we’re left with are the weird pictures in that Twitter thread I mentioned in the beginning, almost none of which come even close to hinting at what happened.

That’s pretty scary. After all, next time when there’s such an attempt to overturn the democratic will of the people, the country might not be so lucky.

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A Conversation with Karolina Gembara (cont’ed) Sun, 31 Jan 2021 22:59:15 +0000 Joerg Colberg

In the first part of my conversation with Karolina Gembara, we spoke about the massive protests in Poland that erupted when a constitutional tribunal outlawed all forms of abortion and about her part in a photographer-led collective that documents these protests. In the following, other aspects of her work are going to be talked about, including (but not limited to) the agency of photographs and migration in photography.

Jörg Colberg: You mentioned your research already. You talked about the agency of images. What have you learned by observing and being part of these protests? What have you leaned from seeing the images being distributed?

Karolina Gembara: I recently wrote a short text, where I’m trying to approach a question that I’ve been asked a lot: “do images, do pictures change the world?” I must say it’s an annoying question that requires deconstruction. When we approach this question in a very narrow sense — when we understand “photography” as a singular image, as just a picture in a newspaper or on the internet or as an object, if “the world” means literally global politics, if “change” means only improvement (because that’s how we tend to think about these things) — then it’s easy to doubt any agency.

The question should be: what is the character of agency? If you apply different culture turns like performative, pictorial, objects, or ethical turn… If you build this broad, methodological perspective, then you can really see things and especially art objects having impact or asking you to do something. It could be as nuanced as getting upset or angry, sharing, looking closer, or maybe even holding it. All of these events are agency.

When speaking about its character I mean to say that there’s a huge spectrum between oppression and emancipation. For example, oppression is when the police are taking pictures of us at a protest. They’re using the exact same tools that we do and they do it for a particular reason – to interrogate us. But when as part of the Archive of Public Protest (APP) we make a newspaper, we want people to feel equipped with the images and slogans and take to the streets and shout. We want to emancipate them. There’s so much happening in between these two positions.

For example, when the little boy Alan Kurdi died in 2015 and they found his body on the shore in Turkey a picture of him went viral. It was on every cover. The Independent said that if this image is not going to change the way we think about the refugee crisis, then nothing will. There was a lot of research about what this image has done. It has done a lot.

But in the context of the question “how does the image change the world?” it would be easiest to say it did not save the refugees. Thirteen and a half thousand people died since 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea. We didn’t stop the so-called refugee crisis. People are drowning. But there are several things that did happen.

Back then, David Cameron said in response to the event that they should take in more people. Of course, you can ask why not more than he proposed. But for some people, the world has changed because they entered the UK. Scandinavian NGOs that work with refugees got massive donations back then that also probably changed the situation for many people.

On the other hand, like I said not much has changed for the refugees who are still traveling across the Mediterranean Sea. There was another image a few years later, that was very, very similar, a picture of a Rohingya refugee. It was another three or four year old boy in a very similar situation. It did not end up on newspaper covers. Last year, in September, there was an image taken by somebody in Tunisia, exactly the same situation.

So you could say that the strong images are strong because they bring something that we are not very familiar with. Somehow, they shock us. But after some time, they become weak. All of these cases are worth discussing. I would say, maybe it sounds banal but there’s always something that does happen because of an image. And there’s a lot that does not happen — sustaining the status quo is some sort of activity too.

This discussion reflects the expectations and the needs we have towards images. In my opinion, there is no doubt that we can do things with images, and they do things to us — both when they are ephemeral through sharing on the internet and as real objects. The APP newspaper is a result of such thinking.

But one of the greatest examples for me is what happened with an image taken by Activestills, the Israeli-Palestinian photo collective. Oren Ziv took a portrait of a Palestinian activist who later got shot at a protest. That picture became a poster. And that poster became a shield. They put the the images on shields when Israeli soldiers were shooting. The image was protecting them.

So there’s this whole range of things that you can notice that images do with our help. I research visual culture. But at the end of the day I would rather ask how we, as human beings, change the world?

JC: Maybe this is a good opportunity to talk about a project you did with migrants coming to Warsaw. Can you talk about this a little? I think it’s called New Varsavians?

KG: Nowi Warszawiacy Nowe Warszawianki. It started as an idea to run a workshop. This is an old idea and not my invention. It’s a participatory project with some elements of photo voice, where you approach a certain group of people, and you want to do research with them. So I thought that I would create a group of people and I’d teach them photography. Financial support was provided by the city of Warsaw, which is still relatively liberal.

As a group, we would meet regularly. We would also go to galleries. I invited people to come and teach certain topics that I’m good at but also so they would meet other professionals and talk to them. I had a very diverse group of people, diverse also when it came to their ages. Initially I didn’t want to work with kids. But it turned out that I had four people under age 18 in my group. They were from different countries, with a different levels of Polish. Through the funding, I managed to buy them cameras.

The idea was really, really simple. I wanted them to speak about themselves and reveal as much as they wanted to. We never really talked about their traumas or their stories. Some of them had just arrived in Warsaw, some of them had been there already for a couple of years. Some were integrated, some still lived in the refugee center just outside the city. They simply built their stories.

We had an Instagram account, I posted some of the images they made. At some point, we had an open studio for portraits where they were the photographers. It came from an idea that it’s very easy for photographers like me to go and photograph refugees, to enter a refugee center or look for a protagonist and portray them. You take a picture and add some story or something. You represent that person. I wanted to reverse the situation where they are the authors, the creators.

At the end, we made a newspaper together. I edited some of the photos. I proposed the selection to them. I also had a journalist working with me. She was briefed about everybody and their photos, and then she would meet everyone and and based on the meeting write a little story.

We also had an exhibition, which funnily enough was the longest exhibition last year in our gallery because of the lockdown. We had a pretty great turnout and media coverage. I decided to use that with a very specific reason in mind. The day after the the opening, we launched an online petition because one of our participants, 17 years old at the time, and her mother faced the risk of deportation at any moment. We couldn’t let that happen. Thousands of people signed the petition. The media kept this story alive for weeks. That was a situation that we created, and of course, this is beyond the typical artistic activity here. But I thought that if this project was good for something, it was good for something like this.

Recently I completed another project where photography is only a pretext. During the Nowi warszawiacy workshop one girl mentioned her family struggles with finding a flat — landlords reject them because they are refugees. So I dedicated my time to become an agent to find housing. Alija was my partner in this project. We made a list and started calling people. The conversations were difficult for me, so I cannot imagine how difficult they were for a teenager.

In refugee families, children learn the local language much quicker than parents, so they start acting as adults — when going to a doctor, a layer etc. For her, I wanted to avoid that. The whole process was recorded on video, with images and audio. I also invited experts who explained what is housing discrimination is and why we should help migrants find homes.

The visual part is just a documentation. The most important part is that the family found a flat. The visual layer is present, but the core of this project isn’t visible in a traditional way.

JC: Besides doing all these things, you’re also taking pictures yourself. There’s this project of the recovered territories, which I actually see as related to everything else. Your family came to Poland from what is now Ukraine, and they settled in an area that used to be German and then became Polish. So there is a refugee/migrant aspect to the whole work. Can you talk about this a little bit?

KG: Yes, all these things are connected. I think the first reason for the project came up when I was still in India back then in 2015. I had a phase of missing Poland, going through my family archive and making the resolution that when I come back, I’m going to explore something in my territory. Already then I must have known that I was not going to stay in India forever.

To be honest, I have to say that I do not like those sentimental, personal stories. I really wanted to avoid that and make this project as universal as possible. I spent a long time taking photographs, but also reading about history. I realized that I’m not talking only about my family here, because the journey from the east to west after the Second World War happened to millions of people.

Contrary to what Communist propaganda was saying for decades, this was a forced migration. People arrived from areas in what is today Belarus or Ukraine, and they were brought to houses that were still inhabited by German families. Those families were waiting for their turn to go to Germany because the borders of Germany also changed. So this happened not only to Poles but also to so many other nationalities.

I found out that my young great grandma and great grandfather moved in with a German family, and they lived together for a year. Happily. At first I couldn’t believe this story. At school, I had been taught something else. Back then, at the beginning of the 1990s history was still very black and white. Germans were always enemies. They were all Nazis.

So this was a revelation: “We lived here together until they had to go, and we were very sad. Then they would come every year in the summer to visit us. And we were writing each other letters.” I started exploring these unexpected parts of the story. It was easier to understand the sentiment for what had been left behind in Ukraine. But missing the Germans? This story goes all the way across nations. Obviously, the activity of the German compatriots… how do you call them in German…

JC: Vertriebene.

KG: That is a problematic aspect. But I do understand the tragedy of people who had to leave things behind.

JC: That’s the part that I knew before I learned about yours. They were always really right wing, and they had a big political influence in West Germany. I didn’t know the story until much later. And even if you read up on it now, the stories that you read are still about people in East Prussia who had to flee the Russian army. The story that you’re telling, I had actually never heard anything about.

KG: In all of these places, in all of those houses there were dramas happening. There’s a book by Magda Grzebałkowska called 1945. War and Peace. Month by month, she describes twelves stories. She says that while working on the book she discovered that 1945 was not the year of the liberation when everybody was happily going back home or taking over new places, new territories, starting new life. It was a year of death, desperation, migration, losing family, acquiring new furniture… It was crazy.

Many of those stories are about people who were from Prussia, who were chased away by the Red Army and  had to cross the frozen sea with horse carriages. The ice would break and whole families would drown. It’s an amazing book.  There were things in it that I read, and I remembered them from home: “this is not ours really” or “going back would be nice” or “what we left behind was so great”. That’s the historical part, that’s the sentimental part.

This project is not finished, yet, so I don’t know if I’m succeeding. But I’m trying to connect it with what we think of migration today. I’m trying to base my reflections on epigenetics, on how we pass on certain traumas, and how they are reflected in later generations. I see that in myself, whatever my grandma went through, her need to pack things, to be ready because “you never know”. I saw that behaviour in me when I was a child already.

I’m trying to connect all of that with migration today in the sense that I’m asking: are we able to realise that we have that migration experience in us? Again, I’m not talking about myself or people who live in the recovered territories. But almost all of us are children or grandchildren of migrants. Remembering that, even if it’s just something that we would have to wake up in our body, in our muscles — is there a chance that we are able to empathise with people who are in that situation today? I see this as a thread that is connecting the “1945”, but it’s going through generations, and it’s still in us. We should be able to realise that people who are migrating right now, who are forced to escape, are in the same situation we were in yesterday.

Maybe it’s a pathetic call for solidarity, to remember that this has happened already… I have many chapters in this project. There are images of German furniture present in our houses — what does that mean? How did we acquire them? What do we feel about them? Why are we even attached to them?

There’s a chapter about going back to Ukraine. Actually, last year, I was supposed to go to the village that my grandparents came from. Due to the pandemic I wasn’t able to go. So I made this little film, arriving through Google Earth in this village, and I’m looking around, looking for maybe the houses we see in photographs from many years ago. But it’s impossible to find them. There’s a cemetery but I cannot enter because of the limits of the technology. I’m basically so lost, and I don’t feel anything. This goes against that sentiment that was imprinted in me that there’s this paradise that we left behind. No, I don’t feel so. I feel really great in this post-German architecture in Breslau, in Berlin. Whenever I arrive in Krakow, I feel it’s abroad.

There are all these things that I adopted culturally without even knowing because we never really approached that experience. We didn’t work on it. We never really looked back at our history. We’ve been very focused on being a victim of the war, of all the oppression, and I think that’s the reason why the right wing is so strong right now.

A Conversation with Karolina Gembara Mon, 25 Jan 2021 01:14:37 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Ever since my first trip to Warsaw in 2016, I have been following events in Poland. To begin with, the year before the far-right PiS party had won the elections, in many ways foreshadowing what the US went through in 2016.

Especially Warsaw is home to a large number of young and very active artists, writers, and curators. In many ways, the city has possibly the most underrated art scene in Europe, having preserved the can-do spirit that in a place like Berlin has largely been replaced by complacency after waves and waves of gentrification.

In addition, unlike many of their especially Western European counterparts, more often than not Polish artists, writers, and curators are politically very engaged. I can only speculate about the reasons. It might have something to do with the fact that many of them — certainly the ones old enough — experienced the fall of communism in their country as children.

Over the past few years, I have stayed in touch with many of the photographers I met. I have been following what they have been up to, in part through photobooks made in Poland. Last year, after massive protests erupted all over the country as a consequence of abortion being outlawed completely, I noticed how photography became an active part of these protests.

I decided to approach activist, researcher, and photographer Karolina Gembara, to speak with her about the protests, the role of images, plus her own photography. The following conversation was conducted over Zoom in mid January 2021. It has been edited for clarity. Given its length, it’s going to be published in two parts (with the second part coming next week).

Jörg Colberg: Poland has been ruled by a right-wing government. Late last year, the Supreme Court basically prohibited all access to abortion. Can you talk about the political background a little bit and how it affects you as a person and a photographer?

Karolina Gembara: Well, when it comes to political background, things have been very different since 2015 when the right-wing party won the elections. Back then I was already terrified. Just like when Trump won the elections in America, people were thinking “this is the end.” But you still didn’t know what was going to happen. You expect a lot of shit to happen, but you don’t know the details. I remember coming back to Poland in 2016 from India, and I asked myself, if it really was a good moment to come back. I was considering going somewhere else, maybe to Germany, because after seven years of being in India, I had seen what right-wing politics look like.

I had kept the potential of going home as something that would be liberating because in Poland I would feel safer. But that was not the case. I remember thinking in 2016, especially with the war in Ukraine, that we’re at the edge of a serious military conflict. Something really drastic might have happened. I was panicking and wanted to get out. But then things started happening to me professionally. I started my Ph.D. research which is politically engaged, I was invited to join Sputnik Photos. I became very busy with work and also became involved in some activism. So I thought that there’s so much to do here work-wise.

The Women’s Strike started in 2016 with regular Black Protests. The right-wing government proposed that abortion would be banned. We already had a very strict abortion law in in Poland because of a compromise between government and church that goes back to the beginning of 1990s. With our resistance and mass protests we managed to postpone drastic changes. But what happened last year was very surprising. It just shows how extreme it all became. This was especially surprising, also for the Catholics.

The more liberal part of society and more progressive groups always thought that the abortion compromise is something that we had to change. But at least there were these few cases when we could terminate pregnancy. But now everything was suddenly gone. think people just got so angry that this was happening, and it was happening behind our backs, without any understanding of widely supported proposals for a new bill.

A few male judges, presided over by a woman judge, decided that terminating pregnancy in the case of severe and irreversible disability of the fetus or an incurable life-threatening disease is unconstitutional… That’s when people took to the streets, organising the biggest demonstrations since the collapse of communism.

All of these demonstrations that have been happening in the last couple of decades are part of new movements, new movements that are more about values than, let’s say, labor law. For example, we have protests about climate, protests defending democracy, and so on. But in the case of Women Strike, it’s something very basic. Very quickly, this protest turned from women’s fight into a fight against the government. Many people joined because of that. This is an opportunity for them to express how angry they are.

An interesting aspect of the protest is that communication — verbal and written — became very radical. There are many “bad” or nasty words and expressions. Before this happened you would be called rude if you used them, especially if you’re a woman. You would be told “don’t express yourself this way”, you would be told not say to say “fuck off!” because nobody will take you seriously. There was an understanding that when it comes to verbal expression, we have maintain some level of civility. But something broke.

The day when the constitutional tribunal announced their decision, women already brought a huge banner. I think they had been getting ready for that. It said “Fuck off!”. There are many slogans like that. The cardboard banners that people bring to the protests are direct, vulgar, or use intimate symbols. No one is surprised to see a vagina drawn on a banner.

(Odwagi — translation: have courage)

I feel that the language was the easiest to break because it is a mode of oppression. But even liberal media get hysterical over “filthy language”. I mean really? Shouldn’t they get hysterical about real discrimination, real violence? Why is there this expectation that I have to be polite? Cursing doesn’t diminish me as a person, as an artist, as a woman, as an academic. I have to shout because asking and waiting has never increased my rights.

JC: I can’t read Polish but I saw some of these slogans or curses in the newspaper that you had a role in. I think it was made by a collective of photographers. Can you talk a little bit about this? Are you photographing? How did you contribute to the protests?

KG: Are you talking about the Archive of Public Protest?

JC: Yes. Can you talk about this a little bit and about your role?

KG: It’s called APP [Archiwum Protestów Publicznych — Archive of Public Protest]. This is Rafał Milach’s idea (my friend from Sputnik Photos). He invited other photographers who have been present in the streets since 2015 or 2016 to create an online platform where people could look at images from different places, from different protests, and use them.

I never took pictures during the protests apart from snapping something with my phone. At times, I was in a dangerous situation and I would manage to do a live stream. So I do have this rather irresponsible drive, but I never worked as a reporter.

In 2017, I enrolled at the university where I started researching the visuality of protest and how images of recent events have contributed to the way we see the protests. These public gatherings are a relatively new phenomena in Poland. It also is a good opportunity to talk about the agency of those images. Are they oppressive or emancipating? I thought that as a researcher the Archive would be a great study case for me.

But I don’t intend to contribute to it with images because the competition stresses me out. Right now, we have many great photographers, many of them women, who do a great job. I feel that I have nothing better to add.

I do go to protests, but not to all of them. I like to feel that I’m part of this amazing energy. These gatherings have become very spontaneous, they are like a street game. The police warn us that being on the street is illegal, which isn’t true. According to the constitution, even during the pandemic you cannot ban these gatherings. So they chase us and we run away. Then they cut us off somewhere. Some people have to stay, the rest is going to block the street and traffic stops…

As you probably know the police have been very brutal. They use tear gas, they beat people, attack people using undercover cops. Let’s say this is like a participatory research that I’m doing. I observe how people behave, what they do and what they say, how sometimes even the presence of the photographer changes everything. This is something I can notice because I’m not a photographer at the scene.

So I’m present or try to be present, but I’m not as present as I wish. There are people who are real activists, 90% of them are women. They are there every day. They go to the solidarity demonstrations that happen in front of the police station if somebody gets arrested. They are amazing. They devote so much time and effort to show their solidarity. I don’t do that. I wish I had more time. Maybe I wish I was less egoistic because sometimes I decide that I don’t want to go because I feel tired or depressed. Sometimes I am afraid.

Coming back to the archive, at some point Rafał invited me to join the group because he said there’s this great energy, and he would like me to contribute somehow. I was afraid he would ask me to take photographs [laughs] so I offered to write. Right after the October protests we decided to publish a zine, a newspaper, with photographs. I wrote an introduction about the possible performance through the Archive.

The Archive obviously has a structure that reflects a certain way of thinking. There also is an aspect of power and maybe even violence when you go deeper into the nuances: we show certain situations and we do not show other things. It’s selective. So we thought that the newspaper should become a performative object that can be used freely.

It’s a collection of photographs but also of slogans. It’s something that you can hold in front of yourself when you go to the protests. The slogans are taken from different banners. They’re common, and people are familiar with them. There is also the symbol of the Women’s Strike, the red flash designed by Ola Jasionowska.

My job also was to distribute the newspaper during the protests. I walked around with those big plastic IKEA bags and handed it people. They opened them at the protest, they hung them in windows and cars. We pasted them on walls at night. This happened even in Berlin where Polish girls have organised many supporting events.

We’re hoping to spread the idea of an active archive. The images of protests are not only for online contemplation. Thanks to crowdfunding, we’ve just been able to publish the second issue. The text I wrote this time focuses on the state of emergency. Giorgio Agamben describes Western democracies as pseudo-democracies where things have been organised in a way that you can always find an excuse to ban something or interrogate somebody. There’s the naked body, which can be controlled in so many ways, also biologically.

I think that in this very case this idea really applies to the bodies of women who are objectified in the name of religion, twisted tradition etc. We also included quotes from people who have been detained by the police. They talk about what they went through emotionally and how they were treated. So this issue focuses on power and authorities. It focuses on the emergency situation that we already have and on the law that does not really protect us. You avoid dealing with the police. I’m sure you can identify with this issue when it comes to events in the US.

Both newspapers have been delivered to small towns. The first issue had quotes from women who were part of the protests in very small towns. Here in Warsaw, we think of ourselves as Warsaw photographers, Warsaw activists. But we want to be able to hear other voices and include them.

The newspapers travel to places where it’s extremely difficult to protest, for example when there are roughly 50 people in the streets in a small town like my hometown. Everybody knows everybody, and people think that being engaged politically is shameful. Some people will face problems at their workplaces. It’s very different when you are a part of a crowd of 100,000 people in the middle of Warsaw.

(Part 2 of the interview)

Photography’s Table Top Joes Mon, 18 Jan 2021 15:39:29 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Educational Archive Mon, 11 Jan 2021 19:46:01 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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To pick up a book about stones Mon, 04 Jan 2021 17:44:45 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Rose George 1944-2020 Mon, 28 Dec 2020 16:27:51 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace, Alice.

Photography’s Neoliberal Realism Mon, 21 Dec 2020 18:13:28 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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