Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 03 Aug 2020 16:17:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Incredible World of Photography Mon, 03 Aug 2020 15:55:18 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Berlin, Germany, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Orvieto, Italy, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Northampton, USA, 2020)

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

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

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

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

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

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Tokyo, Japan, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jörg Colberg — Untitled (Warsaw, Poland, 2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So it goes.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But are the pictures?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended (with a very heavy heart).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handbook of the Spontaneous Other Mon, 27 Apr 2020 19:09:10 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Ever since I realized that collage and graphic design share the same foundation — or maybe rather that graphic design evolved out of collage, I view the assembling of previously distinct elements of photographs — collage — with a heightened sense of my own reaction to it: Am I attracted to the graphical elements, to, in other words, how the photographs are being put together and interact with each other? Or am I attracted to the overall effect, the outcome of the composition?

Obviously, these two questions cannot be disentangled easily, even as answers seem self-evident when looking at particular collage artists work. If I were to pick two artists who occupy the extreme ends of the spectrum that ranges from a smart application of basically graphic design to a sophisticated piece of art that happens to be montaged, I would place John Stezaker and Hannah Höch at those ends, respectively.


Where Stezaker achieves the peak of intellectual wit, which draws attention to itself, in Höch’s case, it is the final outcome, the synthesis of the elements, that elicits attention, leaving behind considerations of what might have been done to get there. This is not to say that I cannot appreciate both — I do.

But of course, at the end of the day, I might pick one over the other, and on most days it’s the one that aims for synthesis: I’m going to have an “Oh, look at this!’ over an “I see what you’re doing here” — much like I prefer a great photograph reproduced in a newspaper over a mediocre photograph that exists as a precious darkroom print (your mileage might vary).

When I began looking at Aikaterini Gegisian‘s Handbook of the Spontaneous Other, I initially expected to be looking at something created using an essentially Stezakerian approach, based on what I initially encountered. The book is divided into a series of chapters — if we want to call the different sections that. These sections are separated through their pages’ background colours, which range from a creamy paper white all the way to black, while covering a range of colours.

The first section contains montages made from two source photographs that are placed next to or on top of each other to create mostly formal juxtapositions.  They are good, but I found that the pace with which I was progressing through the book was increasing. The second, pink, section then complicates the artist’s approach by introducing a variety of photographs, while letting loose with the arrangements a little bit. Despite the introduction of pornographic imagery, the work for the most part remains at a mostly cerebral level, albeit a very sophisticated one.

It is in the third, yellow, section where I found a strong sense of non-cerebral wit creeping in. Here, Gegisian in part abandons attempting to make Stezakerian sense in each montage, to embrace the kind of visual nonsense that in collage can make for a lot of sense after all. For example, one piece combines a colour photograph of a speed skater with a black and white photograph of a child diving and looking at some sea flora with a photograph of a cross-section of sea shell. I don’t quite understand the logic, but I like that quite a bit.

And so the book progresses, to offer a rather large number of montages. The inclusion of the pornographic material neatly unmasks the basic photographic qualities of these images: hypergraphic in purely sexual sense, they lose all their power (if that’s the right word) when placed next to other images, to actually resemble medical imagery more than anything else. I suppose nobody consumes pornographic imagery for its medical qualities, and they’re not medical in the sense that they’re made to be diagnostic. Still, there is the sense of exposure for the sake of exposure in pornography. With the inclusion of such images in the montages, these images essentially become neutered and reduced to mere descriptions of what’s on view.

I find the placement of some of the pieces in the book a little bit problematic. They’re placed in relation to the book’s gutter, which ordinarily I’m not opposed of — if, and only if, the book will allow for spreads to easily lie flat. Unfortunately, the book is a little bit too stiff for that to happen. As a result, at times I found myself more focused on prying the book open than on the piece in question. This is unfortunate.

In summary, Handbook of the Spontaneous Other offers a most welcome take on a form of art that by now has entered its second century. Often overlooked, collage/montage has much to offer. It can make for surprising visual juxtapositions that evade the limits of what is possible in photographs and, as is the case here, it can serve to both amplify and reveal the very fabric of photography itself. Much like in a well-made photobook (but obviously in a different way) a photograph used in a collage becomes a functional element that supports something larger.

Seen this way, creating photomontages is a form of visual criticism. And if there’s one thing that could not be any clearer these days it is that the more ways we are given to interrogate how images function the better.

Handbook of the Spontaneous Other; collages and text by Aikaterini Gegisian; 144 pages; MACK; 2020

A Walk with Gerry Johansson Mon, 20 Apr 2020 17:49:52 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Unlike any of Gerry Johansson‘s other books, Meloni Meloni starts out with a short piece of text. Upon seeing a sign advertizing melons by the road, he writes, he parks his car and starts walking down the road, a certain Via Bosca (which the colophon informs us can be found in Ravenna, Italy): “What a wonderful sign! My thoughts goes [sic!] to words like melody and melancholy. I immediately get in a good mood”.

I find this short introduction incredibly charming and refreshing. All too often, a photographer’s tale is being spun around seeing a possible good subject or object to photograph, and all kind of weight is then tied to that. It is as if photographs cannot be taken if their makers aren’t if not wallowing in their own self-aggrandizing pathos then at least being mindful of the presumed importance of the picture.

Not here. There’s just this mood induced by an actually pretty unremarkable sign (a picture of it can be found right before the words), there’s this road, and there are pictures to be taken.

After all, good pictures can be found everywhere. I’ve long abandoned the idea that it’s the world that offers us pictures. While that’s a neatly romantic idea, it limits human creativity to a lot less than what can be had. Good pictures can be found anywhere — maybe this particular spot is not the one where you can find one (someone else will), but there’s that particular spot right over there. And good pictures aren’t just found, they’re shaped by their makers.

To become a good photographer thus has very little to do with actual talent. Instead, it has everything to do with the determination to come close to one’s own strengths, to one’s own vision — one’s own looking at the world: it has everything to do with working very hard towards that. And how do you work towards it? Well, you walk down the road and take pictures.

Obviously, this particular photographer has done this for a long time, so he knows what he is doing. He knows that he can trust his instinct, and I want to think that much like all good photographers, he knows that some pictures come easy, whereas others are waiting to be found and then shaped.

At a surface level, most of Johansson’s book look exactly the same. They’re all the same size, they’re all cloth bound with a square picture on the front, and inside each page features a square picture (same size as on the front), with some very basic information added (a location name or just some number). But there is considerable variety in what they actually present.

Books like Deutschland or the more recent American Winter focus on a larger place and then present pictures taken at various locations. These pictures are loosely interrelated through the place, but in actuality, they’re each their own little entity.  Consequently, these books are sequenced alphabetically: a picture taken in a town whose names starts with an “a” comes before one with a “b” etc.

Pontiac, the book that had me discover this artist, is different in that the place is so small (relatively speaking) that through the sequencing, a sense of a progression is produced for a viewer. As s/he moves through the book, s/he is made to do the same in that particular place. The idea of a walk, in other words, becomes a focal point. This is the model used in Meloni Meloni.

And then there are books like last year’s Halland, which focuses on a place but which features landscapes in which there is a wind turbine somewhere. It’s not that easy to fill a whole book with such pictures, but it’s done extraordinarily well.

Back to Meloni Meloni, the idea of a walk becomes easily apparent from the pictures. It’s as if as a viewer is led by the hand through what isn’t necessarily the most remarkable place to experience what can in fact be seen if one is willing to pay attention. It really looks like good pictures are everywhere, whether it’s in the built environment, in the landscape, in every piece of botany.

There are plenty of pictures that I don’t think I have seen, yet, from this artist. Often, the photographs reveal an almost logical organization in the pictorial plane. But here, there are — for a lack of a better word — messy pictures, pictures in which a jumble of stuff somehow congeals into a good picture. This fact makes for a very pleasant push and pull as one progresses through the book — it is as if one’s gaze was made to focus at the variety present in the world of the photographer’s lens. Almost anything becomes deserving of a picture, revealing the world as one of visual richness.

Occasionally, two pictures are paired that were taken just a few short steps apart. Interestingly, unlike in the case of such pairings in the recent Stephen Shore book (see my review), here, there is no sense of indecision. One isn’t left with the feeling that the photographer was looking for that one picture (and the editor couldn’t decide, either). There simply are two good pictures.

I need to be aware of the background against which I am looking at this book. Much like large parts of the world, I am confined to my house, with a very unpleasant jumble of mostly nasty news being the dominant source of outside information reaching me. Meloni Meloni provides a most welcome respite from that. It shows the world as this place that has so much to offer, and it does so with a lightness of touch that cuts straight through the weight of these times.

I’m made to feel as if I were on a walk on that Italian road alongside Gerry Johansson, away from all my worries, and I’m deeply grateful for that experience.

Highly recommended.

Meloni Meloni; photographs by Gerry Johansson; 192 pages; Johansson & Johansson AB; 2020

Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 4.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.1

A Conversation with Yurie Nagashima Mon, 13 Apr 2020 15:26:44 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I first met Yurie Nagashima during my first trip to Tokyo in 2018. A talk she gave about her work left me deeply impressed and inspired. The following year, I had the opportunity to speak with her over coffee or during dinners, and we have stayed in touch since. Earlier this year, I approached Yurie and asked her if she would be available for an interview — in part to learn more about a book of hers that was just published in Japan. Our conversation, which which has been edited for length and clarity, was held on Skype in late March, and it focused on many aspects of her career, which not only involve photograph but also writing and criticism.

Jörg Colberg: Maybe we just start at the beginning. How did you get started with photography?

Yurie Nagashima: Oh, that’s almost 30 years ago now.

JC: You just picked up a camera?

YN: I went to art school because I wanted to be a film director. I didn’t get into the film department, so I was in the graphic design department. You know how hard it is to pass entrance exams for college here? The film department of my school was very new, like 3 years old, and before it was made, the graphic design department was where you could study movies and photography. So that’s the main reason why I applied for that department. I was also interested in editorial works and advertisements with photos. I liked looking at fashion magazines, and they always had beautiful photo stories and ads with cool photos with strong messages. I never have thought that I wanted to be a photographer, but I liked to take silly set-up photos with my friends in high school. In the first and second year at University, photography was the required subject. So that was when I got my own camera, a second-hand Nikon FE.

Self-Portrait (Father #13), 1993

JC: Do you remember why you didn’t want to be a photographer?

YN: Well, I just never thought about it. I was crazy about films and was fond of art, though. In art school, I was a bad student because I never followed the directions given by teachers. I just wanted to make something “cooler” than assignments, and that’s not quite the right attitude that a designer should have. One day, in class, my teacher looked at my assignment and said, “maybe you should be an artist” instead of scolding me. I was so happy to hear that, and he became my favorite teacher. I also took painting and sculpture classes. I really liked the teachers in the painting department. They were very interesting and free in mind.

I didn’t know what to do then, but I really wanted to make something to express myself. I thought I wasn’t that good at painting or drawing, so I guess I started using the camera instead.

JC: Did you start with the black and white photographs of your family? Was that at the beginning?

YN: No, I executed that work in my third year, so it had been 3 years since I started to practice B&W photography. There only was a black and white darkroom in my department, so all assignments were required in B&W at first.

I thought it’s strange how people instantly consider the female body as such for their sexual demands. Actually, I got hurt big time by that gaze. So I decided to do something by making works that can protest against the crazy ritual.

JC: You then took nude photographs of yourself and your family. Can you talk about how you got that idea? It’s such a radical idea, and it looks still so contemporary, even now.

YN: When I was a sophomore, my teacher gave us a big portrait assignment. He told us to take pictures of Japanese people, not foreign people. I don’t know why he cared, but he said so. It was homework for the summer break, but I had already bought a cheap ticket to Europe to spend the whole summer there. I was a backpacker. So, I went to talk to my teacher and said: it would be difficult to take pictures of Japanese people because I’m going to Europe. He said: Well, that’s your problem. I was like “Oh no!”, but I knew that he was being an asshole to me, so I couldn’t be defeated. On that trip I made many Japanese friends in Europe, and I also started to take self-portraits because I realized, okay, I’m Japanese, too.

It was pretty easy to use a tripod and shoot myself. They weren’t nudes at first. Later in the third year, I started taking nude self-portraits with different set-up situations. If you are a female art school student, many men would ask you to be a model for their artworks…. I tried it a couple of times, most of my friends did the same because it was supposedly “cool”. Soon I realized that it wasn’t fun because they wanted me to pose like a woman in their fantasy! They were just using my body, I knew they weren’t even looking at me. At that time, there was a big photographic wave called “hair-nude” photo¹ in Japan which made most of women realize that men basically are looking at us as sexual objects, period. As an art student, we are trained to look at the naked body without that gaze. Even when staring at a penis I didn’t feel anything because I just wanted to draw it well. So I thought it’s strange how people instantly consider the female body as such for their sexual demands. Actually, I got hurt big time by that gaze. So I decided to do something by making works that can protest against the crazy ritual. The self-portrait with my family was one of the ideas for that. I was seeking for ways to separate the naked female body from sexual context. One day, I thought “what if I do everything normal with my family but naked?”. Then, the visuals came to my mind instantly. The deeper I thought about it, the better I knew that it would work. Because family is the last place or relationship where you can see anything in connection with “sex”.

Tank Girl, 1993

JC: And then you found yourself being part of this Onna no ko Shashin wave of young female photographers. I think it was also related to those nice little snapshot cameras that everybody was using. You were turned into a “girly” photographer. How did you react to that at the time that the work was treated that way?

YN: If you read my book, you will realize how I wasn’t really grouped in Onna no ko shashin because I started my career a little too early for that. Also, I left Japan in December 1995, when it started to get really big and popular.

JC: …when you went to grad school, right?

YN: Yes. I was in the US. It wasn’t really the time of the internet so I shut off people from Japan. I rarely was in any magazine during that time.

When I won a prize in 1993, many magazines published my works with my interviews. Soon after, they picked up nude self-portraits of other female photographers and called us “self-nude” photographers. Then, quite many young women photo students and photographers followed us. This trend became bigger, but I don’t think that the media photo critics understood what we were doing.

Those female photographers made self-nudes under the influence of “hair nude” photos. I think mostly to against it. I assume that they were angry like myself because the male-dominant society used our bodies to make money. I understood it as a resistance. At least for me it was.

Two years later, Hiromix appeared, and things changed. Her character was different from mine, I guess I was too scary for the middle-aged male intelligentsia. Anyway, they literally fell in love with her. Kotaro Iizawa, a Japanese famous photo critic, called her and young female photographers Onna no ko shashin ka. It means girl photographers in Japanese. That term first appeared in the magazine called Studio Voice in March 1996. I think people started categorizing me in that genre after I got the Kimura Ihei Award in 2001 with Hiromix and Mika Ninagawa.

Torn Blankey, From the series About Home, 2015

JC: You went to grad school in California, didn’t you? How long did you spend there, two or three years?

YN: First, I went to Seattle for a year to study English, then to grad school for two years until 1999. In between, I came back to Japan for like half a year to get a new student visa.

JC: What was that experience of being in an American photography program like? How did this affect your photography and maybe your thinking about art?

YN: The biggest difference from Japanese education was that they trained me to explain what I was doing. In Japan, the myth of art still existed -– art requires no linguistic explanation by the artist herself because you can feel or see the virtue of it if the work is good enough. I mean, yeah, but no. Some students in my class still say so as the reason why they are interested in art. In a way, I believed it, too, until I studied at CalArts. There were so many arguments in critique classes there… It was really difficult for me because I didn’t speak English well enough. Also, I was from Japan, the nation of no arguments and questions. I even cried twice. So, it was hard. Now I think it was really good for me after all.

JC: So you have done a lot of education. You went to school for photography in the US. But you also later studied sociology?

YN: Very recently.

I wanted to change society for the better, for all of us, and that’s why I went back to school. In school I decided to write about Onna no ko shashin as my thesis, about how misinterpreted female culture was and the hidden discrimination in discourses which were made by a male-dominant society.

Full figured, yet not full-term, 2001

JC: Can you talk about why you did that?

YN: Soon after I won the Kimura Ihei Award, I got pregnant. Becoming a mother made me realize that gender equality was way too far from achieved here in Japan. I faced so much discrimination from many directions as a mom. For example, nobody really called my name in the mothers community. People called me “XX’s mom”. The city didn’t have enough nursery school, and they refused my application 3 times because they didn’t believe that I work full time as a “freelance photographer”. They said that I didn’t have enough paperwork to prove it. In elementary school, I couldn’t tell other parents what I do, so I pretended like I am just a “regular mom”. My ex-husband didn’t understand why he had to do a certain amount of house work, not for “me” but for “us”, neither did his father… and so on. It was like, people didn’t want me to be successful except as a mom. But I was, and it just wasn’t right that I had to hide it or to be ashamed of it instead of being happy about it. Then I remembered every single discrimination that I suffered from all my life; how I had to hide my good grades, how I had to abandon to play soccer in a team, how I had to pretend I know less than most of boys or can’t even carry my handbags… etc.

On the other hand, in my work relationships, several men asked me: “Why are you staying at home taking care of a baby? You are a genius. You have to work.” I understand that maybe it was a compliment or cheer-up words. But in my mind I was like “Okay, when are you coming to my house to take care of my baby so I can work?” They knew I was a single mother, so come on! I actually was put in a very complex situation, and I wanted to know why I suffered.

Untitled, From the book 5 comes after 6, 2008

Back then, nobody at my age had a baby in the work community. I guess that they knew they couldn’t work and have babies at the same time. Now some of them do, but my son seems the oldest. Many of my artist friends suffered just because they wanted to have a family. I wanted to change society for the better, for all of us, and that’s why I went back to school. In school I decided to write about Onna no ko shashin as my thesis, about how misinterpreted female culture was and the hidden discrimination in discourses which were made by a male-dominant society. I thought it was the work for me.

My book is about looking back at the history of discourses about a tide of female photography that occurred in the 90’s, in magazines and books in Japan, from 1990 up until 2014. I do discourse analysis, referencing the social constructionism’s approach.

JC: Do you have the feeling that it’s getting a little bit better in Japan?

YN: No.

JC: Not at all?

YN: No! Maybe a little. I think it’s not only in Japan but also all over the world.

Untitled 2000

JC: What are the reactions to in Japan regarding your book?

YN: I only read good reactions because that’s what my editor sends me. [laughs] I think it’s more difficult now to talk bad about feminism in public. So, bad reviews just don’t show up much, maybe? I am sure that there are certain social-media communities for people with a misogynistic mind where they are speaking ill of me and my book. I don’t look for it, though.

I got lots of newspapers and magazines interested in my book, and I did so many interviews already. It was also picked up in many book reviews, and they are mostly good ones.

JC: This might be a little superficial, but from what I know about Japan is that as a society if there’s a problem, you don’t really talk about it in public. Is that true?

YN: I think you can say that again.

Rice cake on fire, From the series About Home, 2015

JC: So with your book you are talking about it in public, right?

YN: I always talk about things with people. Some people gets scared or angry sometimes, but that’s who I am.

JC: Well, you’re an artist. That’s what you do.

YN: You think?

I like to ask questions. I like to look at the world with sarcasm and make fun of it. I also like to make people laugh – with whatever I do.

JC: I think so. Isn’t that what good art should do: to talk about things that people maybe don’t want to hear?

YN: I hope so. I guess that’s what interests me the most. People’s reaction followed by discussions.

I like to ask questions. I like to look at the world with sarcasm and make fun of it. I also like to make people laugh – with whatever I do. The book is pretty serious. But some of my girlfriends told me that it made them laugh, because all those crazy discourses were too funny after all. I totally understood, because I kind of thought the same. Their observations are not even close to the edge of what we think we are, and it’s like watching a corny soap opera.

Self-Portrait (Mermaid #01), 1994

JC: I guess in the world of photography, people will just say all this stuff and nobody calls them out. Very few people say “oh, this is really stupid.” Or discriminatory.

YN: Some respectable critiques wrote texts against these discourses, but those “voices” weren’t fascinating enough for most men. Also, many critiques didn’t even want to be involved because it was happening in the “women’s area”.

JC: Maybe it’s this idea that feminism somehow is something that women have to do or deal with, and it’s not for men. I wouldn’t agree with that at all.

YN: Right. Male society tends to think that women are opposite to them, that we can express different things from them. They have the knowledge and logical thought, so we can have body and emotion.

Myself, 1992

JC: I think in Japanese the language makes it even more complicated because there are differences in how women and men are speaking, isn’t that right? I’m learning Japanese now. So I have to learn not two languages but two parts. And I read in the book I use that you wouldn’t use this word or phrase if you’re a man. But you have to know what it means. This is so strange to me. I don’t know this from English or German. So the language separates men and women.

YN: You’re right. But I can use the male way of speaking, it just sounds offensive and bad as a lady. Or they feel really uncomfortable, or they think I’m a lesbian. Something like that.

One time, I had an argument with my dad, and I used the male way of speaking on purpose. Then, he became angrier because he thought it’s rude that I didn’t use female language. So I said to him that I just talked to him exactly how my younger brother usually does when they have an argument. I said, dad, you aren’t angry because of what I say, you just didn’t like it because I don’t behave like your daughter. It is called a gender discrimination.

The female way of talk doesn’t sound strong enough. It’s not designed to win. It’s the language to give it up for your owner: father, husband or son, any kind of male figure.

Yellow Wild Flower, From the series SWISS, 2007

JC: Your grandmother played a big role in your life as an artist and as a person, didn’t she?

YN: My grandmother passed away when I was 14. So I don’t know how much she could have affected me after that, but yes. I think she did.

JC: You’ve used her materials or photographs of flowers…

YN: She was my favorite member of the whole family. She was a crazy cool person.

JC: How was she crazy?

YN: She was raised in a very wealthy family. Her father was a Hikeshi, a Japanese fire fighter. Back in the days, Hikeshi had quite a lot of power in their community, and I heard that people called my great grandfather “boss”. He was organizing Matsuri, a Japanese festival in the area, he owned a Mikoshi and so on.

Our Bedroom (Night), From the series SWISS, 2007

So my grandmother was raised in special circumstances. She had a strong character, she was a tomboy and a bad loser. [laughs] I imagine that such a character for a woman was not supposed to be good in general, but she might have been welcomed by her father and his apprentices because they must have admired anyone who “had balls”. She was a young wife during the Second World War. She had my mother and uncle right after the war ended. I heard that she suffered so much because they had nothing to eat right after the war. I often wonder if she had decent adolescent memories. Women in her generation didn’t have many choices in their future, nor did they have chances to chase their dreams. She actually had the best education a woman could get back in that time in that part of Japan. She got married to my grandfather, but I heard that she was in love with someone else. He was also from an old family in the same city, but he only went to elementary school because he had to work for his family. To me, it’s kind of strange how she had a better education, but she couldn’t have a job outside. She ran away from their house twice. Hearing all those from my mom, I wonder if she was happy with her life. I mean, in the end, she might have been happy because of her children, us grandchildren and all, but I was too young to ask those things. My grandfather did OK. He worked hard, brought more than enough money home. Still, I have a feeling that she wanted to become something else if she could.

I started wondering about that after I saw the belongings that she left. I found them almost 20 years after she passed. I read her diaries and looked at things. I could see how time had suddenly stopped in them. Some of them were waiting to be finished. I could see that she also was desperate to make something to express herself. She wanted to become someone, not just a woman. This idea always makes me sad, but it also made me realize that we are alike. If she had been born in the 1970’s like me, she could have definitely become a photographer or whatever she liked. She makes me think like this.

I think you’re lucky if you’re an artist because I believe that art can help you to live your life. But you are luckier if you become a recognized artist because then, you can help other people to live their life.

JC: You made an exhibition with her belongings and your own work maybe two years ago?

YN: Yes, but only it was last year.

Poppy #2, From the series Past, Perfect, Progressive, 2019

JC: So it was like a joint exhibition that you gave her.

YN: The exhibition was held in her hometown. That’s why I chose to make that work.

Because Onna no ko shashin was treated as an amateur movement for a long time, I came up with those questions: what makes one a “professional”? How are some people recognized as talented and others are not? What is it that gives one authority as an artist, and how? My work is always about those questions, too. I think the criteria in the genre of Art is made by men just like most other criteria in our society. So, it mostly works better for men and what they do.

I like working with people in real life. I want them to have fun working with me and hopefully get more confident about themselves through making works. Photographers go to places and take pictures of someone’s life. To say, you’re borrowing those scenes from them. Of course, you are the one who makes all the choices, so if you make good choices that’s why you’re in a museum. But you always have to know that it’s not really just “your” work. It’s your work, but somebody always lets you make your work, and I think you shouldn’t really forget that. Otherwise you can be another famous “arrogant” great artist. I think you’re lucky if you’re an artist because I believe that art can help you to live your life. But you are luckier if you become a recognized artist because then, you can help other people to live their life.


¹ Japan’s obscenity laws state that the display of pubic hair or genitals is prohibited. In the early 1990s, a number of (male) Japanese photographers that included Noboyushi Araki and Kishin Shinoyama published books with photographs of (female) nudes that showed pubic hair, defying the law (part of the argument was that the pictures supposedly were art) and setting a precedent. These nudes were referred to as “hair nudes.”

Stephen Shore’s Small-Camera Footnotes Mon, 06 Apr 2020 19:23:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Stephen Shore has become one giants of contemporary photography. Much has been written about this photographer’s work — to add something else is to merely add a drop of water to an ocean.

Over the course of the past decade, my personal take on his work has evolved along with my ideas, preferences, and on-going education both what I think photography is — based on the photographers I know — and what I want photography to be. Initially in awe of especially Uncommon Places,  I now view the work more critically. I still like most of the pictures — but not as much as I used to.

Shore is mostly discussed as one of the pioneers of art colour photography. I feel this interpretation owes more to the art-photography world’s insularity and preference of some artists’ work over others’ than to its actual merit.

I see Shore as a reincarnation (of sorts) of Paul Strand. Where Strand worked against the tiresome cliches of pictorialism, to establish a form of what the Germans would end up calling Neue Sachlichkeit, Shore — more than any other of his contemporaries — pushed American photography out of the cult of the (inevitably male) small-camera practitioner who produces contrasty black-and-white pictures while pretending to be some sort of disgruntled beatnik (or worse).

Much like Strand, Shore, in other words, brought large parts of American photography back to photography — away from it being an expression of a particular life style.

Seen that way, it comes as no surprise that the older generation of contemporary German photographers, in particular those with roots in Düsseldorf thinking, see a strong affinity with this particular American photographer. I’d say that photographers like Garry Winogrand are quintessentially American photographers, much like Michael Schmidt could have only been German. The Bechers, however, were photographers whose country is created by the camera — and not by the passport — much like Stephen Shore.

I suppose many people might find it strange if I were to see Shore as a distant disciple of László Moholy-Nagy. But I do believe much can be gained from this approach.

“By deliberately choosing subject matter of no intrinsic interest, which they often frame in such a way as to further reduce any possible interest in the content,” Gene Thornton wrote in the New York Times, “they focus the viewer’s attention on the formal elements of the picture” (in the review, Emmet Gowin and Neal Slavin are also discussed, hence the “they”). Take away Thornton’s disdain of photographing what he calls banal and take away his apparent desire for photography to be critical (whatever that might mean for him — I’ll also get back to this later), and the critic actually has a point. Shore, I suppose, would talk about photographic seeing; why or how would that not be a perfect subject matter?

Of course, there is all of Shore’s work with 35mm camera, most notably (so far) American Surfaces (apparently, there’s a new version coming). How does that work gel with what I just wrote? Well, look no further than some of Moholy-Nagy’s photographic experiments in, let’s say, 60 Fotos, and you got your answer. Owing to the times, Shore’s experiments are merely of a different order — if I may call these photographs experiments without the intent of taking anything away from their merit.

Speaking of Shore and 35mm, there now is the newly published Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979. (If I were the curator of the recent MoMA retrospective, I’d probably emit a “say what?”) Apparently, while traversing the US with his view camera, the photographer also brought a small camera, whether a Rollei 35 or a Leica M2.

The book is hailed as “extraordinary” by one critic (these quotes all come from the publisher’s site): “it is hard to state how significant this is”. Another one gushes that there is — get yer Walter Benjamin on — “a distinct aura that emanates from these pictures, a” — now you really need to buckle up — “sense of another America […] that seems at times luminous in its very everydayness”. Well, no, no, maybe, no, and pass.

Working my way through the book I found myself frustrated at the muddying of the waters that was being attempted with this book. There are, to make this clear, some very good pictures in this book. But there also are plenty of photographs that, well, aren’t that good — unless they become tethered to other pictures, namely the ones Shore took with his view camera (the essay in the back of the book mentions this connection).

The better pictures fall along the lines of American Surfaces. However, the question would remain why they weren’t being made part of that work in the first place. And the other pictures can serve as study material for Uncommon Places, as, in other words, pictures that bring another — however small — dimension to the view-camera work. This all makes these pictures here valid and interesting, but I question why there was the need for a separate book (and I’m really hoping someone won’t email me and write something along the lines of “but they were made on slide film!”). For the most part, the photographs in this book are footnotes that are in need of being attached to already existing work.

To continue this train of thought, the Stephen Shore book I’m really waiting for is the one that operates along the lines of Moholy-Nagy’s 60 Fotos — possibly in a somewhat less disjointed and didactic way, and with references to other practitioners added.

If anything, Stephen Shore taught us a much more refined way of seeing, a way that as I argued above wasn’t necessarily new, but that when applied to the larger built American landscape resulted in crucial insights (however much Gene Thornton would have denied that very fact). These insights center on photographic seeing (which is a nice enough topic for photography insiders but, I suspect, not all that interesting for the rest of the world) and on what the place that we live in actually looks like if you don’t attempt to photographically zhuzh it up: it’s pretty damn horrible.

So there is that criticism that Thornton failed to see after all: it’s right there. All those surfaces, all that banality. That’s it. And that’s enough.

Transparencies: Small Camera Works 1971-1979; photographs by Stephen Shore; essay by Britt Salvesen; 192 pages; MACK; 2020

(not rated)

Modernism’s Mechanical Tombstones Mon, 30 Mar 2020 19:06:13 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Like many cities, São Paulo was supposed to become a different place than what it has become. Flying into it for the first (and so far only) time, I was struck by its sheer size, its gigantic sprawl (it’s the 12th largest city in the world). With the plane approaching the airport, I would cross a sea of apartment towers, being unable to make out what I was looking for, the city’s center. But there is a center, even though it would take a local guide, Felipe Russo, to show it to me on the ground.

In fact, Felipe had shown me the center in his photographs before. But somehow, I had been unable to understand the clarity of his photographic vision. In part, I believe this was because of the kinds of expectations that I had brought to the work, not having been exposed to cities so radically different from, say, New York, London, or Berlin.

At the risk of simplifying (and being at the mercy of my memory), there had been plans to build a city whose civic life would not be dominated by cars. People would deposit their cars at certain locations (we’ll come to that in a bit), and then they’d roam the city center on foot. Many of the modernist buildings erected to that end were still around, and to visit them was to enter a real world of wonder. As is the case in so many cities I’ve seen (the most radical exception being Tokyo), things have fallen into disrepair while they’re still being used.

With Centro, Felipe had shown me what this looked like, combining cityscapes with modernism’s detritus and the various contraptions or constructions visitors and/or workers would erect for a short time. Walking around in the “set” that he had used for photographs, I realized that these photographs had a much larger documentary component than I had anticipated. And they spoke of the atmosphere of the place, where nobody seemed to care all that much about things needing a coat of paint or some repair as long as there was life to be had.

São Paulo’s cityscape was interesting in its own right, because I was able to see the city as a city — and not as a canvas onto which corporations would plaster oversized posters to advertize the wares and life styles they wanted to sell (São Paulo has banned public advertizing). Instead of ads there would be paint splatters on the previous blank sides of buildings: artists would leave graffiti or, where easy direct access was not possible, they would hurl balloons filled with paint.

It was easy for me to miss a few buildings that were different. Here and there, Felipe pointed out, there were these towers — buildings without windows that had been built to house the cars people were supposed to leave behind before entering the city center. They were rather massive automated garages, where you’d deposit your car, and machines would stash it away.

Felipe said he was photographing them. In fact, he was photographing in their bowls. How or why he would do that I had learned not to question. I couldn’t imagine entering what I thought would be rather dark and dank spaces with a view camera to make pictures of… what?

Garagem Automática now presents the photographs in book form. It’s an imposing monolith of a book. The size of the book helps to convey the surprising beauty of the photographs. In a sense, the interiors of those garages look the way one might have expected them to look — a dark sea of grey concrete and steel, with blue being the most dominant added colour. It’s not an inviting world. But it’s being rendered with a surprising tenderness, a tenderness that mostly derives from the photographer’s careful attention to details.

It is as if Felipe decided to bemoan the unfulfilled promises of the modernist ideas behind these garages — much like there’s a deep affection in his photographs of the central parts of his native city. I’m finding myself thinking that if he were German, his gaze would have been more relentless; it is easy to imagine this work fitting in somewhere with the Düsseldorf School at its peak. But where the Germans tended to ultimately focus on their tool’s cruel gaze, this Brazilian artist realized that it was his job — I’d even argue his duty — to steer that gaze towards something beyond the surfaces in front of the camera’s lens.

It is the sheer beauty of these photographs that has me think more about their maker than about the garages. Somewhere in these not very inviting buildings, Felipe found beautiful photographs — not looking for forms or description (as valid as that might have been), but for beauty. The last photograph in the book is my favourite: it shows three levels of some garage (well, four but the lowest one disappears in darkness), three concrete layers on which grime has been accumulating for years. The image shimmers in grey and black and white and blue, and the light falling in from somewhere helps describe the rough surfaces.

I suspect that most of what I know about these garages’ background is not going to be communicated by these photographs. How could it? But there always is that final step to be made when in the presence of art: whatever it is that stirs us in a piece of art, even if it’s “just” its beauty, points at something else, at a larger truth or idea that the artist wants us, her or his viewers, to connect to. Here, it is these parking machines that were intended to help bring about a more human city.

Now left to only fulfill their most immediate function, the almost three dozen automatic parking garages around the center of São Paulo have become the city’s tombstones for a modernism whose maybe naive promise has not been fulfilled.

Garagem Automática; photographs by Felipe Russo; text by Erik Mootz; 64 pages; Bandini Books; 2019

Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.2

Rinko Kawauchi’s World of Wonders Mon, 23 Mar 2020 20:10:13 +0000 Joerg Colberg

If anything makes photography art, it’s not its ability to capture what is in front of a camera at some point in time, and it’s not the camera operator’s ability to produce a large piece of paper with that information on it. Instead, it’s a photographer’s possibility to make us look at the world anew, to have us be in awe of something that might have happened right before our eyes but that we simply would have missed. That’s what the best art photographers do: they re-create the world as a world of wonders for us.

If any living artist fits that description, it’s Rinko Kawauchi. For me it is her earliest books that most strongly convey her strengths as a contemporary photographer, in particular the sublime 2001 うたたね (Utatane). To describe the photographs in the book is to engage in an ill-fated exercise which is doomed to fall far short of the beauty of the photographs. But I might as well do so anyway.

Vast parts of Kawauchi’s early work was done with a square-format camera, a Rolleiflex. うたたね is filled with such pictures. The square is a much maligned format in certain parts of photoland (including, sadly, many art schools). It is true, the square tempts a photographer to place the object of interest into the center, but how or why this would automatically make for a bad photo is not clear (as an aside, square-weighted pictures are a lot worse in the much wider 35mm aspect ratio).

The second immediately prominent aspect of these photographs is their palette. Kawauchi’s treatment of her colour is very deliberate, shifting everything towards pastel tones, with a light blueish tint being very prominent in many of the photographs (this type of choice of palette isn’t necessarily unique for a Japanese colour photographer, especially of her generation).

Almost everything almost looks as if it were being dreamed. Even a flock of seagulls against what must have been a bright blue sky is transformed: it’s simply impossible to imagine the birds’ screeching while looking at the photographs. In much the same fashion, a crying baby also doesn’t appear as such.

Everything in front of this Rolleiflex camera ended up being transformed into its own piece of wonder, to be looked at and contemplated after it had been taken out of our otherwise noisy and messy world. There is a strong feel of serenity pervading this work, a serenity that makes the viewer forget about her or his own world and about all the incessant noise generated by it. As much as I usually detest photographs being described as dreamlike, these truly are in the best possible way.

A little while ago, I heard my former student Ward Long describe his own work as attempting to bring tenderness to them. This way of speaking about his work immediately made sense for me when I thought of his photographs, and this description also easily applies here. Rinko Kawauchi’s photographs are tender. They’re gentle. They don’t try to tell you something, they don’t try to impress you. They just are. Contrast this with the overwrought pomposity that pervades such large parts of photoland!

The majority of photographs in うたたね exist in pairs (Kawauchi’s website shows some of them). Two photographs being paired is akin to a dance; and much to her credit, Kawauchi deftly created a large variety of such dances. If you think you might be waltzing through the book (pardon the pun, couldn’t resist), you won’t: some pairs operate formally, some based on the photograph’s content, while others work with oppositions.

In other words, the attentive viewer is not reduced to having to figure out why this picture lives next to that picture — the simplistic where’s-Waldo approach to making pairs. Instead, s/he will experience something else arising from the pairing: an amplification of something, a pointing at something not contained in either picture, or whatever else.

The form of the book itself also contributes to conveying its photographs’ overall lightness: its a modest softcover book that makes it easy and convenient for the viewer to look at it. Contrast this with the overly large later books produced outside of Japan — heavy hardcovers with too many pictures that furthermore attempt to dazzle a viewer with unnecessary production choices. Such productions do nothing to enhance the quiet beauty of this artist’s work. If anything, they only add a completely unnecessary pomposity.

Much like the best photobooks, うたたね invites many repeated viewings. I take it from my shelf regularly to immerse myself in it. It’s a little bit shocking that the book itself is almost 20 years old by now. The photographs don’t betray their age. There are no markers of time I can make out. With each repeated viewing I’m not entering a rapidly disappearing world that has little to do with mine; instead, I’m being brought back to a state of timeless wonder again.

This really is the best one can hope for in a photobook. In particular at a time filled with anxiety and, let’s face it, outright terror, books like うたたね can bring a levity and enjoyment to our lives that, sadly, all-too-often is absent in what’s coming out of the world of photography.

うたたね (Utatane), photographs by Rinko Kawauchi; 64 pages; Little More; 2001

Support Photobook Shops! Mon, 16 Mar 2020 17:47:12 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Given the covid-19 pandemic, it’s going to be difficult to write the introduction of this article without it being out of date by the time it’s published. I started thinking about this article yesterday, to wake up to the news that Germany’s government decided to close all non-essential shops. Where this hasn’t happened, yet, it’s very safe to assume that it’s only a question of time. Other countries, such as Italy and Spain, are already under quarantine.

The best you can do for yourself right now is to follow the advice of actual health experts. Depending on where you live, this might entail engaging in what’s called social distancing. What this means and why this is useful is explained in this article by the Washington Post. If that’s too much text, you can start by looking at those animations. Those will give you a pretty good and quick idea of why social distancing is so important.

Obviously, social distancing comes at a price. In the following, I’m just going to be focusing on everything related to photography.  There are a lot of other, more important concerns, and you can read up on them elsewhere (I’m not qualified to write about labour or any other concerns).

If you’re mostly confined to your home, you’ll have to stay busy with whatever it is that you like to do. This is where photography might come in. It’s not essential for your survival — for that you need food etc., but it might help you stimulate or distract your mind.

With galleries and museums closed (or closing), now more than ever is the time of the photobook. If you’re already interested in photobooks and you might even own a small collection, you can now spend more time with them. And if you’ve never paid much attention to them, this is a good time to see what they have to offer (assuming you don’t want to read other books, binge watch some shows, play games, or whatever else).

However, you won’t be able to go to a photobook shop to buy them because in all likelihood if there’s one where you live it’s going to be closed (or closing very soon). To get new books you will have to shop online (obviously, if there are no photobook shops where you live you’ve been doing this already). It’s extremely important that you buy directly from either publishers, dedicated photobook shops, or artists. Here’s why.

Photobook making and selling is an incredibly difficult business. The target audience is very small and fragmented, and there is almost no way to get photobooks in front of a larger audience (there are exceptions). This means that photobook makers — aka the people who pay the money to produce them — rely on earning all the money they can. The reality is that most books don’t even sell the full edition, so sustaining a photobook business over a long period of time is very difficult.

Let’s say you’re interested in a photobook whose list price is $69.95, and you see it on Amazon for $44.61 (actual example, doesn’t matter which one it is; please note I’m talking about new books here, not second-hand ones). That looks like a great deal, doesn’t it? You’ll be able to save $25.34. If you buy the book on Amazon, you’ll thus save that amount of money — but it’s $25.34 not going into the photobook ecosystem.

You might find it odd that I’m talking about an ecosystem here. Isn’t this all just business? Well, sure it is. But someone is not going to get these $25.34. That might be a publisher who if this happens might not be able to publish more books, leaving a few artists stranded. Or it might be a photobook shop who might not be able to pay rent, forcing it to close down.

(Just as an aside, if you’re a photographer who self published a book and you’re selling it online for less than it costs in a photobook shop, you’re also damaging the photobook ecosystem.)

Publishers and photobook shops actually are the unsung heroes of the world of the photobook. You typically don’t see them described this way (it’s more like you’ll hear the completely misguided complaint that publishers are gatekeepers that somehow prevent all these great books from being made — not so!). But without publishers there obviously wouldn’t be all that many photobooks. And without specialty bookshops photobooks wouldn’t nearly get the exposure that they have now. Amazon aren’t going to have a book signing (where would this happen anyway? in a warehouse?), they’re not going to go to a book fair at some festival to show books.

So it’s absolutely essential now that if you want to buy a photobook (or two) to help you deal with social distancing and to bring the richness of all that these kinds of books have to offer into your own home that you do that either directly from a publisher, a photobook shop, or an artist (who will not give you a discount because that undercuts book shops).

(Btw, just now, while writing this article I received an email from a photobook shop that’s going to be closed until the end of the month.)

If you don’t know where to buy, below is a list of photobook shops that will fulfill your mail orders. All of these shops fulfill a vital function for the photobook ecosystem. Some have branched out into publishing, many have regular events (signings or workshops), and they’re all run by incredibly dedicated, knowledgeable, and passionate people. When you’re buying from them, you’re not only helping them sustain their businesses, you’re also helping publishers and artists.

This list isn’t complete and final — I’ll update it over the course of the next few days. Send me an email if a shop is missing, and I’ll add it (as long as the shop is selling online):

Ampersand (Portland)

Andrew Cahan (Akron; second-hand books)

L’Ascenseur Végétal (Bordeaux)

Beyond Words (UK)

Bildband Berlin

Book of Days (Osaka)

Bookoff (Poland)

Dashwood Books (New York)

Datz Press (Seoul)

Dispara (A Estrada)

Kaunas Photography Gallery (Kaunas)

Micamera (Milan)

Kominek Books (Berlin)

Leporello Books (Rome)

Perimeter Books (Melbourne)

Photo Book Store (UK)

Photobook Corner (Lisbon)

Photo-Eye (Sanfa Fe)

PhotoQ Bookshop (Amsterdam)

RRB Photobooks (Bristol)

Tipi Bookshop (Brussels)

Unobtanium (Bandung)

Vacilando Bookshop (Bangkok)

Zen Foto (Tokyo)

Now is the time that we all look out for one another. When it comes to photobooks, this is how to do it.

Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph Mon, 09 Mar 2020 18:34:08 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Some time in 2017, I was contacted by Odette England concerning what she called the Winter Garden Photograph Project. The project was designed to be “a photographic reflection on Roland Barthes’ unpublished snapshot of his mother, Henriette, aged five, referred to in ‘Camera Lucida'” (I’m quoting from the letter she sent me). The seminal and still widely read book was due to mark its 40th anniversary this year, and I understood that the project was going to be a collective tribute to it.

The criteria for a submission were loose enough to leave ample space for interpretation. England asked for something “photographic and physical” that “in some way echoes, suggests or reflects on the Winter Garden Photograph.” The project’s overall idea and its framing intrigued me very much. To begin with, I have always considered collective photography projects as very interesting even though a variety of the more well known ones ended up being so exceptionally weak and lackluster. For example, Magnum’s Postcards from America absolutely didn’t betray the presence of a large number of very gifted photographers behind it.

In 2017, my head space as a photographer was very different than what I have arrived at now — I was in the beginning stages of what would end up being a radical departure from the kind of photography I had taken before; but I immediately knew the photograph I would contribute. Two years earlier, I had found a set of photographs at a flea market in Budapest. The photographs came as a small stack, held together by a rubber band, and they were small (around 2.5″ / 6cm on each side). The images themselves were all rectangular, and they were quite a bit smaller than the paper they were printed on.

After I had brought them home (roughly two years before I received England’s invitation), I had scanned the photographs and gently worked them over on the computer. There’s no need to describe the changes I made — most were minor, some less so; I will just say that all of the changes were made to enhance what I already perceived in these photographs. One of them ended up sticking with me more than all the others. It showed a woman posing in a snowy landscape, and in the background there was this haunting spectral apparition — at least that’s what it looked like. It was immediately clear to me that this would have to be my contribution to the Winter Garden Project. I had a digital silver-gelatin print made and sent it in.

Keeper of the Hearth: Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph has now been published. I will admit that I had had certain trepidations concerning what it might end up being, and I’m incredibly happy to report that the book surpassed my expectations easily. To begin with, in form, the book successfully marries a very traditional approach with a rather contemporary one. Occasionally, a different paper stock and size is being used, which not only helps to organize the material — all text appear on these smaller pages, but also to make the experience of looking at the book more engaging.

Making a 300+ book with over 200 photographs by different makers engaging is no mean feat — there are only so many pictures anyone can look at. But the combination of smart design/layout and production choices does everything to help a viewer with what is a wealth of material. In addition, while the information who sent in which picture(s) is provided, it comes at the very end, leaving the viewer mostly with just the pictures themselves. Some artists couldn’t help themselves and sent in an image that’s very obviously just their regular work, but the bulk of the book thankfully is not that.

Instead, the book is an extended, somewhat melancholic meditation on desire, or rather a more specific desire tied to family and especially motherhood. The overall effect really is quite touching — not quite what I would have remotely expected to see. And I’m thinking that it’s the book that probably conveys this more than an exhibition could (for a variety of reasons, some of which might have nothing to do with the material at hand).

So it is possible in photoland to make a collective project that ends up having a lot of meaning. If anyone deserves credit for it then it’s first and foremost Odette England who has done an amazing job putting this all together.


Given I contributed a photograph to the book, this obviously is no review. I’m no disinterested person in this case. But for sure I’d highly recommend this book — not so you can see my picture (we got that covered: it’s right up here), but instead so you can enjoy the collective response to a seminal piece of writing.

Highly recommended.

Keeper of the Hearth: Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph; images by various artists, edited by Odette England; essays/texts by various authors; 320 pages; Schilt Publishing; 2020

PS: If you haven’t heard, yet, I started a Mailing List. If you sign up, you’ll receive an email roughly every two weeks with additional writing. You can check the archives to get a feel for what these emails might include.

Glass Strenči Mon, 02 Mar 2020 17:46:52 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Maybe we got it all wrong. Maybe we participants in the world of contemporary fine-art photography — and by extensions all other photo professionals: photoland — maybe we are the weirdos. Maybe we are the ones engaged in the equivalent of Kabuki Theater. For sure, what we do more often than not is heavily stylized (see, we have our reasons), and there always is plenty of drama (ditto). But the world at large is mostly not interested (in our white-cube exhibitions and our photobook fairs), and where it is interested we don’t manage to hold their attention for too long. Much like Kabuki Theater, our own might just be too weird to watch.

Exhibit A: “Basically, I wanted to take screwy pictures, but intentionally screwy pictures.” — Stephen Shore. Now if that’s not Kabuki Theater then I don’t know what is.

This would explain why all in all the world of contemporary photography is such an joyless affair. The joy that is being had is the joy of people trying to be intentionally joyful. You know, I like that world. Also, I’m German, so what do I know about joy? Still, I’ve peeked beyond the curtain, and I’ve seen the joy they’re having outside of photoland.

Take Stikla Strenči, for example (the book is now sold out, but I’m hoping that with this article and the — ideally — subsequent international interest in the book, they’ll reprint it). When I received the book in the mail (kindly sent to me by one of its editors, Anna Volkova), that was basically the end of my work day. The rest of the day I spent looking at the book in a very rare state of enjoyment and wonder. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re ever sent me a book, I love your book. But to be honest, I don’t love it as much as I love this one.

I had never heard of the Latvian town of Strenči before. These days, Wikipedia informs me, there appear to be 1,614 people living there. Between the First and Second World War, the time period covered in the book, there maybe were 100 less. A local photo studio operated by a variety of people produced around 13,000 pictures there, meaning that, as Kirill Kobrin points out in the afterword, it is likely that most people in the town were photographed more than once and thus are in more than one picture. Now this already is an intriguing idea, namely that every inhabitant of a town would be photographed and could thus be found in a visual archive.

What’s even more mind boggling, though, is the quality of these photographs. They all look like view-camera pictures with relatively slow materials (which would make perfect sense, given the era). Their resolution in very high, while there is the occasional motion blur of people who didn’t hold still for long enough (in this particular picture, the woman on the very left is slightly blurry). So here then are these collectors aiming for a rather fake mushroom that despite their best efforts appears to resist being plucked from the ground (please note that the book is large (it’s 13.25″ / 33.5cm tall), so you’ll have to imagine seeing this picture rather large in front of you).

Or take this picture of these young women in a creek (btw, if we take the number of 1,500 inhabitants at the time, you’re looking at 0.8% of the entire population right there). There’s no clowning around going on here, but each and every face asks to be looked at, in particular the one of the woman in front of the group. In fact, they all look a bit miffed, which has me wonder why they decided to step into the creek in the first place.

Here’s the town’s more official side, and while this must have been a serious affair, the seriousness translates only in parts. To be honest, the whole scene strikes me as a bit ridiculous (that little table?), and it’s that being ridiculous that has me think of my own times’ official events. Given how grim these times currently are, maybe the realization that we’re being made part of essentially a circus helps us get closer to a better understanding of what’s going on. After all, a circus only exists because there’s an audience for it, doesn’t it? And it’s just a bit too easy to say that we’re all completely unwilling participants.

I don’t know the story behind this picture, but I wish these two were my grandparants (or great grandparents) instead of the ones I actually had.

I could go on. Of course, you might wonder how showing photographs from a book and briefly writing about them is a critical review. But then if I were to use the criteria that work so well in the world of my Kabuki Theater and applied them here — what exactly would I be gaining from that? I’m not sure.

To use Stephen Shore’s term, most of the photographs in the book are “screwy” in a variety of ways. But they’re all great not because they’re “intentionally screwy” (that idea makes no sense once you start thinking about it), but because someone wasn’t trying to make something “screwy” while clearly not being aware of and/or not caring for the kinds of conventions that have created a creative straight jacket for Mr Shore and the rest of photoland. And that makes for great photography.

All too often, I run into photographers who need to really think about their next picture, who need to agonize over whether their idea might work or not (oh, the horror, when it doesn’t work!) — instead of going out to simply make it, consequences be damned. The photographers in this little Latvian town didn’t have the luxury to think about this. Civic events were to be photographed. People wanted to have their portraits taken (with masks — why not?). There was life, and that life demanded to be captured in pictures. And the results are nothing short of amazing, at least in this edit produced by Anna Volkova and Vladimir Svetlov.

One thing I know for sure: any time I’m feeling down on photoland and the sheer tedium of its Kabuki Theater I’ll pull out this book, to look at photographs that remind me of what a truly wonderful and joyful medium photography can be. This really is one of the best photobooks I’ve seen in a long time.

Very highly recommended.

Glass Strenči; photographs by various artists; edited by Anna Volkova and Vladimir Svetlow; essay by Kirill Kobrin; 204 pages; Talka; 2019

(not rated)

Photography and Masculinity Mon, 24 Feb 2020 15:27:55 +0000 Joerg Colberg

When I first heard of the exhibition Masculinities at London’s Barbican, I was intrigued and a bit irritated, the latter because of my own fraught relationship with the topic. I have never identified with many strands of the masculinity that would be associated with me, that, in fact, I was told was mine (I’m a heterosexual white man, now in his early 50s). I find its aggressive competitiveness unpleasant and unnecessary; I find its posturing of strength and dominance ludicrous and wasteful; I find most of its bonding rituals annoying and ridiculous.

Consequently, my adolescence was the probably worst time of my life, because I was expected to behave in ways that I simply didn’t identify with. I wasn’t a member of any sports club — not necessarily because I didn’t like sports (I eventually settled on playing squash and later did some karate), but because of the rituals associated with it, which were based on a male herd mentality that I didn’t want to partake it (to this day, I’m fiercely autonomous).

Having thought this over for a while now, I think this is the source of my irritation: given the society I grew up in and the society I now live in, masculinity for me amounts to an attempt to force me to be someone that I simply don’t want to be.

I’d like to think that my background has made me sensitive to all those struggling with being at the receiving end of the many consequences the dominance of masculinity has for our societies, but I can’t be sure. After all, if I were sure then possibly I would be too sure, falling into the very trap that I’ve been trying to avoid for such a long time.

Earlier this month, I spent three days in London. I had planned to see the exhibition, only to find out it hadn’t been opened, yet. Fortunately, the catalogue arrived in the mail a few days ago, and I’m going to use it as the basis of this article. Truth be told, I’m not a big reader of wall text in exhibition spaces; but I did read the essays in the catalog. My reaction to the book thus might be different than to the exhibition itself.

“In the wake of #MeToo the image of masculinity has come into sharper focus,” the exhibition’s makers write, “with ideas of toxic and fragile masculinity permeating today’s society. […] Touching on themes including power, patriarchy, queer identity, female perceptions of men, hypermasculine stereotypes, tenderness and the family, the exhibition shows how central photography and film have been to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.” (my emphasis — I’ll get to that part in a bit)

Masculinities approaches the topic through a series of sections that each explore a specific aspect. They are: Disrupting the Archetype; Male Order: Power, Patriarchy and Space; Queering Masculinity; Reclaiming the Black Body; Women on Men: Reversing the Male Gaze. Each of the topic presents an intriguing selection of work, with the usual suspects often being absent. I find this refreshing.

Obviously, I would be happy to argue over some of the curatorial choices, but that’s just par for the course. For example, instead of Richard Avedon’s portrayal of the United States’ 1976 power elite (The Family), I would have picked his portrait of the Chicago Seven against the leaders of the US military during the Vietnam War (I saw this pairing a few years ago in New York City; unfortunately, I was unable to find information about the show online).

But there is so much very strong work included that, I suspect, might not be widely known even though it deserves to be. There is, for example, John Coplans‘ 1994 Self-portrait (Friese no. 2, four panels), one of the various pieces that I’m sure in its exhibition setting is even more impressive. There are George Dureau‘s 1978/79 portraits of B.J. Robinson (here’s one; two of the four reproduced prints were signed by both photographer and model). There are two panels by Marianne Wex for her 1977 Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchical Structures. The list goes on.

At times, I felt myself wanting to break up the rigid structure of the book/exhibition and create a dialogue between pieces that here are being kept separate. What happens if you show, let’s say, Samuel Fosso‘s self-portraits from the 1970s against some of Karlheinz Weinberger‘s photographs of queer rockers from the early 1960s? You would break away from the academic filing approach employed here (in this case Queering Masculinity and Reclaiming the Black Body, respectively), and that might be interesting. Again, much like in the case of my pick of different photos above, wanting something different obviously is easy for me.

My main criticism, however, is something else entirely. It’s the insistence on the sheer indexicality of the medium, the insistence that the only thing that is deserving of attention is the male body in the camera frame. In light of both the history and culture of photography, this omits one of the medium’s most problematic aspect, namely the machismo that has run through photography itself from the very beginning.

The topic that’s missing is the one containing the likes of Nobuyoshi Araki and Antoine d’Agata and Bruce Gilden and Garry Winogrand and Ron Galella and Terry Richardson and so many countless others. That would be the chapter of horror, and a large part of the actual horror would be to see how so many viewers wouldn’t even see the massive problem at hand: namely that the medium of photography, in the hands of mostly overly aggressive males, has become a handmaiden of exactly the toxic masculinity that this exhibition strives so hard to dispel. Photographs are being “shot”, there’s an insistence on that one successful photograph (besting all others), there’s the photographer as the hunter (Daido Moriyama even named a whole book The Hunter) on the prowl for pictures, etc. etc. etc.

In actuality the very making of the pictures and, consequently, the results have as much to do with masculinity — a mostly very narrow range of masculinity — as these various pictures of mostly male bodies. Where is the photograph of Araki posing next to a suspended bound female model? Where are the photographs of the mostly male photojournalists posing with a handful of cameras around their necks before the advent of digital photography? Where is, for example, Ron Galella’s What Makes Jackie Run? Central Park, New York City, October 4, 1971? Where’s the photograph of Lee Friedlander’s shadow on the back of a woman in the street somewhere?

What I’m after here is the following. It’s undoubtedly very interesting to look at how masculinity (or masculinities if you want to follow the exhibition’s approach) is portrayed in photography. But in light of the history of photography it’s equally — if not even more — interesting to look at how photography has been shaped through its mostly male- — I’d even argue: macho- — centric approach. So many photographs that do not explicitly show masculinity express masculinity implicitly. To understand the role of masculinity in photography means to study and understand this aspect as well.

So there is a lot left to be studied here that goes beyond what’s on display in Masculinities. The material at hand is very good and I presume it will challenge many ideas of how masculinity is presented in photographs. The next step now must be to look at how masculinity is presented through photographing — that crucial aspect of the male gaze that so often is ignored.

Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography; photographs by various artists; essays by Alona Pardo, Chris Haywood, Edwin Coomasaru, Tim Clark, Jonathan D. Katz, Ekow Eshun; 320 pages; Prestel; 2020

Day Sleeper Mon, 17 Feb 2020 16:34:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg

If we are going to be remembered at some stage in the future, in all likelihood it will be one thing or aspect out of the many others that constitute our lives. In the case of Dorothea Lange, that’s the photograph known as “Migrant Mother”. The image has become iconic, meaning it has transcended the narrow confines of photoland and is now part of the collective myth that underpins the United States. The woman in the photograph, Florence Owens Thompson, has become a cypher — as has Lange herself.

This particular photograph aside, one of the main reasons for why photographers usually end up as these rather one-dimensional creatures is because there usually is so much control exerted over their legacy, meaning both their work itself and their image. More often than not their estates control every aspect of what can and cannot be done with the photographs they own, essentially cementing narrow views and preventing genuinely new discoveries or re-interpretations.

Of course, this system is not restricted to photography, but I do think it’s particularly harmful here: after all, for most photographers, there exists a large pool of unknown work in the form of pictures that were never used, never seen before. With access to such material usually being very restricted, estates (in collusion with curators) guarantee that most photographers are never being re-discovered. Instead, they become part of some sort of canon, while also becoming more and more irrelevant for a contemporary audience.

In the case of Dorothea Lange, the Great Depression photograph “Migrant Mother” speaks of a time long gone while the associated myth makes it even harder to create connections to our present time. After all, what does Florence Owens Thompson have to tell us for our own neoliberal era, where more and more people have to rely on working two or three poorly paid jobs? In much the same way, Lange’s own sensibility has disappeared as well — the things she might have cared about, things that would be communicated to us through her work, assuming we’d have the right access to it.

Photographs are only alive if they are allowed to exist in new contexts, contexts that possibly force a new meaning onto them. Where such new contexts are not a chance to arise, photographs wilt like flowers deprived of water. The history of photography essentially is mostly a collection of dried flowers that have become too brittle to exist as anything other than something to be gawked at, something that doesn’t speak to us any longer.

A new book entitled Day Sleeper now lifts Lange’s work out of the stasis it has found itself in for too long. For the book, Sam Contis used the archive housed at the Oakland Museum of California (plus images from the Library of Congress and the National Archives). In her afterword, Contis writes that “[t]he more I spent looking through her contact sheets, the more I started to feel an unexpected kinship. […] I formed the idea of making a book that would show her in a new light and also reflect a shared sensibility.”

There are two words here that I find absolutely crucial, namely kinship and sensibility. Through her deft choices, Contis has allowed the rest of us to partake in her own discoveries, essentially giving Dorothea Lange a contemporary life, a contemporary incarnation. To begin with, we get to see aspects of Lange’s work and personality that I don’t think we were familiar with. A touching tenderness pervades the book. With very few exceptions — a crucified eagle being maybe the most drastic example — the photographs are very tender and far from the open expressiveness found in “Migrant Mother.”

At the same time, because visual markers of time are largely absent these people and places from the past could have been captured just the other day somewhere. It is tempting and easy to think of Dorothea Lange as that Great Depression era photographer. But underneath, there was a human being whose aspirations, dreams, and feelings were at least in part shared by Sam Contis. And it is those aspirations, dreams, and feelings that are being communicated by Day Sleeper, allowing for Lange to reemerge in a new light.

If anything, the book demonstrates how much can be gained from the radical reinterpretation of a photographer’s work that we are given here. These photographs, taken decades ago, speak to us about our times. It is as if they were being made for us, to be seen by us, to have their maker urge us to look at this world. And it is Contis who we have to thank for this; after all, she could have decided to create just another edit of the work that would follow an art-historical approach, picking different photographs of already existing ideas.

Despite the lack of the open expressiveness we might have come to expect from Lange, the book clearly is not without an edge. There is, as I noted already, the photograph of the crucified eagle — the bird of prey strung up on barbed wire. I think this picture is absolutely essential; had it not been included, it would have been too tempting to dismiss the book as a contemporary apolitical exercise. And there are other photographs that hint at something being profoundly wrong in the land. What is wrong is not being spelled out — does it have to be? Isn’t it completely obvious if you just look around?

I’m hoping that Day Sleeper is going to become the seminal book it deserves to be, followed by many others in which someone will reinterpret the work of a photographer long gone. There are, after all, many artists whose work is in dire need of a reinterpretation, of a rediscovery. As this book demonstrates, it’s not just the artists who benefit from such an effort, it’s all of us.

Highly recommended.

Day Sleeper; photographs by Dorothea Lange, edited by Sam Contis; MACK; 2019

(not rated)