Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 15 Aug 2022 14:38:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Klara and the Bomb Mon, 15 Aug 2022 14:38:58 +0000 Joerg Colberg

When nuclear powers agreed to stop testing nuclear weapons, they didn’t do this out of the goodness of their hearts. Instead, they agreed to the ban simply because they knew that they could run tests of another kind. Ever since, powerful supercomputers have been dedicated to running simulations of nuclear weapons. In fact, some of the top spots in lists of the most powerful supercomputers are consistently occupied by such machines (here’s a list from 2018). It that’s a very sad state of affairs. Unfortunately, it’s just one aspect of the enormity of resources that major nations spend each year on entirely destructive purposes.

One might naively imagine that you need a supercomputer for very complicated scientific problems. But that’s actually not necessarily the case. It is true, some problems are very complicated and thus hard to model (in the world of astrophysical research that I did my doctorate in 25 years ago, hydrodynamics would be a good example). But there are other problems that come down to a numbers game.

If you think about a pool table, writing a program that simulates a game of pool is relatively straightforward. But if you try to imagine a three-dimensional pool table with billions of balls you can see how calculating all the different movements would require enormous effort. My doctorate revolved around such simulations. The underlying physics was very basic. But we needed to use the largest parallel supercomputers available to do it on a scale large enough to deliver useful insight.

In principle, you could do such simulations by hand — if you assembled enough people. That’s how things started out early on. Actual people performed rather basic calculations that had been carefully modeled into a more complex pattern. Once the first primitive machines became available that could take over what previously had been done by hand, the role of the people involved in the computations (they were called “computers”) changed: they would now operate the machines (which, in turn, became known as “computers”).

These people were women, one of them being a certain Klara von Neumann whose story is now being told by Crystal Bennes in Klara and the Bomb. If the name von Neumann rings a bell, it’s almost certainly because of Klara’s husband John, one of the 20th Century’s most important scientists.

John plays a major role in the book, as do a number of other aspects that were directly or indirectly linked to Klara’s work (and to a lesser extent private) life: the development of computers and Klara’s and John’s roles in them, the development of nuclear weapons in the US, the testing of these weapons at the Marshall Islands, the treatment of people from the Marshall Islands by the US (essentially a colonial story), the role and meaning of so-called Monte Carlo simulations, and photography.

As you can imagine, this is an incredibly complex story, and it’s being told through large amounts of text into which sections of photographs are inserted. Many but not all of the photographs are archival. From the onset, Bennes is clear about her goals. Hers isn’t “a comprehensive history,” she writes (p. 35); instead, “it’s fragmented and partial — curbed both by my lack of access to many still-classified materials, as well as by the specific nature of my interests.”

“But it’s also a history,” she continues, “that attempts to be attentive to what Black feminist theorist bell hooks criticises as one of the key problems with more conventional interpretations of feminism: women merely aiming at equality with men under current social, political and economic structures. Instead, women must aim for a completely new system constructed around ending oppression.” (ibid.)

Interestingly, Klara von Neumann emerges from the book as a strange cipher. Even as she left an (unpublished) autobiography, many of her motivations and ideas ended up being unknown. Her husband and her were separated for long periods of time, given John von Nemann’s incessant traveling. They wrote each other letters. His were preserved. Most of hers appear to have gone missing. How or what she responded to his at times strangely hectoring missives remains unknown.

When I was still working in astrophysics, I was always somewhat proud of the uselessness of what I was working on. In scientific terms, the research was very much useful. But you couldn’t make use of what still is called dark matter to build bombs. In fact, to this date, I have been trying to understand the mindset of people who willingly work on creating weapons that are claiming the lives of people, whether in war or, as has become increasingly common in the US, in civil life.

How do you justify creating an even more efficient bullet? How would you outsource or switch off your conscience while doing that? For some people, such considerations might simply not be an issue. Some famous scientists were equally famous for being callous, anti-social people. But there also were the scientists who spoke up against nuclear weapons. Even at the level of the bullet — how can you possibly justify working on that?

For me, this was one of the most interesting aspects of the book — not that I necessarily expected (or received) an answer. John von Neumann, I suspect, would simply see the bomb as yet another “interesting problem” to work on. He would eventually die from a cancer that he probably contracted from exposure to nuclear tests. And Klara? I have no idea whatsoever. She later remarried and ended up losing her life drowning (classified as a suicide). “[A]t the end of this long research project,” Bennes writes, “I feel as if I hardly know her as a person.” (p. 335)

You could view Klara and the Bomb itself as a Monte Carlo simulation, where through a large number of very detailed vignettes you get closer to an understanding of very specific circumstances — the making of nuclear weapons in the US. But in the end, there only are new questions. In the sciences, you would conclude that you need even larger and more detailed simulations. In the arts, you realize that not all things can be fully understood, and that’s a good thing.


Klara and the Bomb; photographs and text by Crystal Bennes; 320 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2022

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Beautiful, Still. Mon, 08 Aug 2022 14:50:07 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Photography is often used to communicate the essence of a community, the feeling of what it might be like to be immersed in it. For very good reasons, a lot of discussions have centered on this very idea. Can an outsider, someone who was and is no member of the community, arrive at what an insider, someone from the community, will be able to see? In all likelihood, the answer is no.

In the very worst cases, which more often than not can be found in photojournalism, helicoptering in an outsider will at best paint a surface picture and at worst perpetuate harmful stereotypes. This is not to say that an outsider by definition will be unable to arrive at a deeper truth of the community. But to get there, a lot of careful work will have to be done. A recent example of how this can be done masterfully would be provided by Anders Edström’s Shiotani.

Given that photography is a visual medium, the feeling of community has to be communicated visually. Unless there is added text, the sense of community has to come across through the combination of photographs: in essence, a viewer has to be able to feel that they are in the presence of a community, even as they might be experiencing things far, far away and mediated through the artifice that is the photobook.

Colby Deal‘s Beautiful, Still. provides a very good recent example of a portrait of a community made from the inside. In its second picture, which comes right after a short poem by Hakeem Furious, two Black women in bright white clothing are depicted standing in what looks like the backyard of a house. They are turned away from the camera, and the taller woman is holding the other one in a caring embrace. It’s a photograph of intimacy and care, and it sets the tone for much of what is to come in the book.

The next few pictures sketch out more of the larger environment, an environment that depicts a genericness that is very distinctly a feature of the United States, even as there are variations based on class and regions. As someone living in the Northeast, the book transports me to a locale somewhere further south.

While there are people in some of the first pictures, it is the first photograph that gives unconditional attention to a young woman that jolts the viewer, letting them know that this is a book about people forming a community rather than a description of place. The photograph shows a young woman in a white, laced dress. She’s holding her hands folded in front of herself. Her gaze is directed at the camera, projecting a combination of calmness and confidence.

A number of photographs of other people follow, a mix of more formal portraits and pictures taken while life was going on. From there on, the book develops the themes thus introduced, fleshing out life in a Black community (in the Third Ward in Houston, Texas).

For the work, a number of different cameras appear to have been used, resulting in differences in formats, with square photographs and rectangular ones being present. Different tools allow for approaches catered to different situations, enabling the photographer to mix a formal setup with a more fluid approach. This is very effective.

However, I am not sold on the inclusion of so many photographs that are technically imperfect in the book. This is not to say that I’m oppose to imperfect pictures in general. But in the context of the book, they have to work in support of the book’s overall message. A good example for that is provided by Sabelo Mlangeni‘s Isivumelwano where the use of technical imperfections is deliberate in a Brechtian sense.

Here the imperfections feel photographic only — which would be fine if the book centered on what photography is or can do. Alas, that’s not the focus of the book. As a result, the imperfections feel like too simple a device for an otherwise very sophisticated and visually beautiful body of work. In general, technical choices should not be allowed to focus the attention on themselves — instead of on the larger ideas.

The end result of this all is an impressive debut monograph by a photographer whose voice is now added to the growing canon of American photography. We ought to pay careful attention to Colby Deal, in particular given his ability to both convey what being a member of a particular community means and to have outside viewers partake in it visually.

Beautiful, Still. contains all the beauty that will forever be elusive to photographers that helicopter into some community, regardless of whether they want to “bear witness” or “paint a portrait”.

To take good pictures means to be able to feel a moment shared with others. That, and only that, is what can make photography art.

Beautiful, Still.; photographys by Colby Deal; poem by Hakeem Furious; essay by Garry Reece; 160 pages; MACK; 2022

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Let’s Talk About Our Tools Mon, 01 Aug 2022 13:12:16 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Imagine you wanted to put a nail into the wall to hang up a framed photograph. You check the toolbox for your hammer, only to find that it has changed. It’s covered with advertising that you’re not interested in. Total strangers added graffiti. The actual head has shrunk drastically, making it unusable for the task at hand. But the hammer suddenly features all kinds of additions. The fact that it now oozes vast amounts of oil might be most troubling: your whole toolbox is filled with oil.

You decide to call the company but never make it through to a real person. You go online to check what happened to your hammer. You find a number of somewhat creepy videos in which people who might or might not have a normal social life try to convince you that they love hammers, but oil is where it’s at these days.

The above obviously is absurd. But it’s not any less absurd than what has happened on Instagram. Years ago, you could share photographs knowing that the people who followed you would see them. In turn, you would see what people shared whom you followed. That idea is long gone.

Instead, because its makers decided to copy a number of popular competitors, the app now contains any number of things that have nothing to do with photo sharing. In fact, the latest “update” (the company’s word choice) was so atrocious that even the Kardashians complained about it.

Of Instagram’s many problems for photographers (the censorship, the algorithm that doesn’t show your material to people who follow you, the “reels” nonsense, and the erratic ways in which things are constantly changed without user input), there is one that seems rather minor. But its outcome is very toxic as well. Instagram not only fuels nasty spats in its comment section, it also draws much too much attention to itself.

As a consequence, being on Instagram is a draining experience that is detrimental to one’s personal health. The other day, I noticed how draining the experience is yet again.

Having decided to phase out Instagram, I went back to Tumblr. Much like a lot of other people, I had used Tumblr years ago. It was an incredible site, but, alas, it got bought out and ruined. Now there are new owners, so it looks like a feasible option to share photographs again. I set up a new account, and I downloaded the app.

The next morning, I looked through Instagram, and then I looked through Tumblr. The difference could not have been more striking. While I was getting increasingly aggravated on Instagram, given that I had to scroll through about 90% garbage to find stuff I had actually subscribed to, on Tumblr, it was the exact opposite of that. Seeing the difference made me realize to what extent Instagram has changed over the past few years.

It also made me realize how much sheer crap I had accepted on Instagram. If anyone was to blame for the mess, it wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg and his minions. It was me. After all, I had decided to continue using the app.

But I really don’t want to focus more on the garbage site that is Instagram. Even the idea of writing more words about a site that obviously doesn’t care about photographers makes my blood pressure go up.

Instead, I want to focus on something else: as photographers, why do we stick with a site that very obviously doesn’t care at all about us, that doesn’t do what we need, and that we ultimately hate?

The usual answer I hear is: there are not alternatives. I think that’s a bad answer.

I’m not particular interested in discussing the merits of alternatives, because I’m after something different. Any of these sites/app are tools. We use them because they do things for us (at least that’s the idea). They’re like hammers. If I need to get a nail into a wall, I’m going to pick a hammer. The hammer will do the job. Perfect.

I think that photographers in general are not very good at choosing the right tools that work for them. Photographers will stick with Instagram even though it’s not really a photography-sharing site any longer. Similarly, photographers will also decide to use view cameras despite the fact that they’re incredibly expensive and cumbersome. Digital cameras have long achieved a degree of quality that makes film cameras obsolete, and yet many photographers will work themselves up into a frenzy when someone dares to say this.

My point here is not to discuss the merits of film or digital or the merits of Instagram. Instead, I want to point out that we should pick the tools that are right for us. We should pick the tools that work for us — instead of the tools that make us work for them. Every photographer will have to do this on their own, assessing tools based on what they need. In order to do that, they have to do a simple cost-benefit analysis.

I have been present in many discussions around view cameras. Those never included a cost-benefit analysis. Instead, there was what came across as simple dogma mixed with a very selective focus on specific benefits that somehow were turned into the most important criteria.

That’s not a very useful approach. In fact, it’s very likely to lead you into the situation where you stick to Instagram even though you hate it, or you insist on using film even as with the money you could easily get a high-quality digital camera that would increase your productivity by huge amounts.

I’m writing this as someone who has experience with all of this. I have justified my presence on Instagram partly by thinking that as a critic, it would help me see what people are up to. But up until last week, I hadn’t asked myself whether I can and want to justify dealing with associated costs.

When I started using Tumblr, I noticed that there was a lot less to see. But the overall experience is so much better. As of now, some of the benefits offered on Instagram are absent. But the costs are much lower. That’s what I want — and need.

Using a tool such as Instagram, Tumblr, or any other social-media site should not be a drain on one’s mental health, something one dreads doing every single day. Instead, it should be a source of joy, of gratification.

Years ago, I decided to switch from a film camera that I loved very much to a digital camera. I can’t say that the camera in question (a digital SLR) is particularly attractive. But I realized that what I had stubbornly held on to (the supposed quality of film) actually created a lot of costs (in terms of money and time) that severely limited what I was able to do. With the new camera I was and am able to take pictures easily. Even as I hated figuring out how to do it, my productivity exploded. I would have never been able to produce a photobook had I stuck with that film camera.

Again, it all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis: what are the costs, what are the benefits? And then you have to be very clear about whether the benefits really outweigh the costs, or whether you’re not tipping the scale.

While teaching, time and again I have come across photographers essentially making bad choices because they stubbornly stick to a tool that doesn’t work for them. I’ve had students stick to film cameras, as a result of which their productivity was minimal. But I’ve also had students stick to high-end digital cameras that resulted in the very same outcome. It’s not about film or digital. Instead, the question is: do you have the camera that is the right tool for you? If it is not, ditch it, and pick the one that is.

This also applies to white-cube galleries or photobooks. They’re tools to disseminate your work (and possibly make you some money if you’re lucky). Typically, photographers don’t approach them as such and, again, allow themselves to work for their tools — instead of the other way around.

If you read my recent interview with Rob Hornstra, you’ll see a photographer who has thought about this and adapted his practice to what he needs for his work. Even if your choices might be very different, I’m convinced that 90% of all photographers could learn a lot from how Rob approaches the use of his tools.

If you’re a photographer, make a cost-benefit analysis for the tools you’re using on a somewhat regular basis. If there is a tool where the costs outweigh the benefits, be prepared to make a change it — even if that means adopting a new tool that initially you might not like.

Obviously, I’m aware that we’re all just human. We all make decisions that aren’t necessarily based on what’s good for us. But we do have the capacity to check what we’re doing, which at least theoretically gives us a chance to help us make better decisions.

Ditch the tools that don’t work for you — after a careful analysis of their costs and benefits. That’s what it all comes down to.

Isivumelwano Mon, 25 Jul 2022 14:51:46 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Weddings happen in a larger context that is defined by social, religious, and political traditions and by capitalism. As such, they express social conventions and ideologies a lot more than people might want to admit. Whatever commitment to one another the two people getting married want to celebrate, there is the contractual aspect, which is highly regulated by both states and faiths.

I will admit that I have always been repulsed by some of the traditions around marriage, such as, for example, a father “giving away” a daughter  — as if she were his property. But this is exactly part of that tradition, even if (one would hope) in modern times nobody thinks this way any longer. Property did and does play a huge role for a marriage. People might sign prenuptial agreements that secure the interests of both parties etc.

Wedding photography reflects part of that, even if the premise, of course, is that photographs taken at weddings celebrate the happy couple. Depending on the context (the society in question), wedding photography might produce different outcomes. But within a given context, the outcomes are typically so consistent that analyzing wedding photography to reveal what is being communicated is an extremely useful tool for visual-literacy classes.

Obviously, analyzing another societies’ wedding photographs often is a lot easier than one’s own. Learning to overcome one’s sense of familiarity, of ignoring what one simply takes for granted, in other words defamiliarizing the familiar (the essential Brechtian task) — that is the hardest part of becoming visually literate.

This work is not necessary for Sabelo Mlangeni‘s Isivumelwano, a collection of photographs taken at wedding in the artist’s native South Africa over the course of the past two decades. Already the very first photograph leads the viewer into uncharted territory. The upper two thirds of the picture look as if they had been covered with a veil. Only the lower third contains some information in the form of a voluminous dress touching the ground, with a pair of thin legs that end in what look like sneakers next to it (possibly a child’s legs).

The next photograph shows a column of cars that have balloons attached to them. Afterwards, we see two men holding hands, their fingers interlocked as if they were dancing. The man at the right is wearing an elegant bright suit. Of the other man we can only see a white glove on his hand and an outline of the left side of his face. His figure disappears in a dark shadow that cuts through the frame.

The fourth picture finally puts full focus on the idea of wedding. A bride is seated next to what might be her groom. But again, only parts can be made out: her veil, a big bouquet of flowers, the top of a white dress, the collar of a white shirt. All other details and faces disappear in the shadows.

With few exceptions, it would be safe to assume that were members of one of the wedding parties to receive any of the photographs in the book, they would not be particularly happy with them. What one would expect to see in wedding photographs is largely absent. Instead, there often are photographs of meaningless details. And where a bride or groom can be seen, a photograph itself might show what I described above or might be literally degraded (underexposed or scratched). Often, the “right moment” has been missed.

What’s going on here?

“In Africa, like many other parts of the world,” writes Tshepiso Mazibuko at the end of the book, “young women are raised to believe that their ultimate duty in life is to become married and to become a loyal and devoted wife. […] Knowing the inner workings of such marital agreements and the idea of it being a kind of covenant, brought out my rebelliousness.” The photographs in the book speak of a similar sense of rebelliousness, of wanting to look past the carefully planned and staged beauty of the moment, to pull back the veil of what marriage might stand for.

As someone who has never been to South Africa and who has what realistically speaking is merely surface knowledge of the country’s most recent history, there are many aspects of the book that are likely to escape me. That its title, isivumelwano, is a word from Nguni languages meaning “a contract, agreement or alliance” I learned from a text by Emmanuel Balogun in the book. The deeper meanings of the word in its original language I can’t comprehend any more than, say, those of similar words in Japanese, a language I’m currently attempting to learn.

(As a very brief aside, I should have started learning Japanese a lot earlier: learning a language so different from my own and originating in completely different society involves a lot more than cramming vocabulary and understanding grammar. Instead, I have to learn details about social conventions and traditions in ways that also allow me to see how their equivalents play out in my own context.)

Given that in the larger context of the arts, photographs also have to conform to certain conventions, when first looking at the book I was briefly confused: even as I realized the source of my confusion, I also realized how conventions in different spheres can point at similar backgrounds, at similar expectations. Unlike wedding parties, though, I can work with the Brechtian idea of the alienation effect (or whatever your preferred translation of Verfremdungseffekt might be). So I found myself looking differently at the photographs, and more carefully.

The following might read entirely like too convenient a sentiment of writing, but I do think that I was able to connect some of the irritations I wrote about at the beginning of this piece with these pictures. The pictures are irritating, and they were made with that idea in mind. Granted, if the book contained traditionally beautiful wedding photographs, I would be irritated for a different reason. In that case, however, I would hardly revisit it.

I had not expected to ever see a photobook made around wedding photography by someone consciously producing such pictures as an act of resistance, an act of wanting us to look more closely at what is going on at weddings to reveal the traditions and ideologies in the background. I also had not been expected to become engrossed in such a book.

Isivumelwano; photographs by Sabelo Mlangeni; essays by Emmanuel Balogun, Athi Mongezeleli Joja, Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni, Tshepiso Mazibuko; 120 pages; FW:Books; 2022

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

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Mentoring, Workshops Mon, 18 Jul 2022 14:39:02 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Over the past two decades, I’ve invested my energy into writing, teaching, and photographing. I will have to admit that I find it difficult to promote myself and what I have to offer. It’s not something I’m comfortable with. However, it is obvious that if I don’t tell people about it, I can’t expect them to know. Having said that:

Online workshops are the newest addition to what I have to offer. At the time of this writing, there are two workshops planned, both scheduled to begin in late August this year. You can find all relevant details on the website I created for them. Here are some teasers:

The first workshop centers on Image and Text. The idea is for participants to develop the beginnings (or possibly more) of a text-image piece: how do words next to pictures, how do words work with pictures? If you’re curious about that and you’ve always wanted to try it, this workshop will be for you. For this workshop, you will want to have some pictures already. That way, you can focus on creating the text.

The second workshop centers on Boredom. Here, we’ll look into what boredom actually means. We’ll find out why dismissing something as “boring” usually doesn’t say anything about the thing we’re talking about. In a nutshell, we’ll vastly enrich our idea of what art is and/or can do. This workshop will include some readings, and participants are going to produce a small “boring” project (which obviously won’t be boring at all). I’m really excited this workshop, because I think all-too-often, photographers struggle with making pictures of things that are mundane or maybe very familiar. Isn’t the mundane boring? Well, not at all, and we’ll find out why.

Mentoring: In late 2020, I started working with photographers on an individual basis, meeting with them online to work on what they need help with. I have a decade of experience doing such work at an MFA level. For my Mentoring, I will work with all levels, though, and we focus on what each individual photographer needs. That can be developing a project, understanding one’s photography better, developing a book, or any combination of these.

The Mentoring is set up in blocks (I call them Modules) that typically cover three or four months (it’s six meetings that happen every two to three weeks). That way, signing up doesn’t feel like such a huge commitment. With most photographers, I’ve been working for extended periods of time. It’s all very flexible, and like I said it’s completely catered to what a photographer needs. It will get you a very solid chunk of an MFA education at a fraction of the cost.

Before we start working together, I meet up with photographers interested in Mentoring to talk about their goals and about what I can do for them (the meeting is free of charge). That way, we can find out whether the commitment makes sense for them.

As part of the Mentoring, a number of photographers have developed photobooks. Given that I’m heavily invested in the world of the photobook, this outcome probably will not surprise anyone. Part of my work has included teaching people about what you have to do once you have a dummy: what do you do with this? How do you approach publishers? How do you understand whether a publisher’s offer works for you?

In a nutshell, with the Mentoring you get access to someone who has taught at an MFA level for a decade, who has been critically writing about contemporary photography for even longer, who is a photographer himself (thus knowing a lot of the struggles and challenges first hand), and who has worked on other people’s and his own photobook(s). With MFA students, I also worked on exhibitions.

There is a lot of information included in the pages I created for Workshops and Mentoring.

If you’re interested or want to sign up, please be in touch via email (

Verdigris Mon, 11 Jul 2022 15:15:37 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Verdigris is one of the words that is a lot less familiar than what it stands for. “A coating of verdigris forms naturally on copper and copper alloys such as brass and bronze when those metals are exposed to air,” the dictionary tells me. “Some American English speakers may find that they know it best from the greenish-blue coating that covers the copper of the Statue of Liberty.” I’m intrigued by the the word “some” in that sentence. Possibly that’s a rabbit hole that might not be in service of what I’m after here, namely to write about the new book by Harold Strak.

In a number of ways, Verdigris does not fit neatly into the current world of the photobook. It’s not topic based, and ideas of narrative are very far. Instead, it’s entirely concerned with photography itself.

Of course, there is a lot of work right now that focuses on photography itself. The vast bulk of that is what I think of as “Akademiefotografie” or “photography for the academy:” it’s made in academic settings (art schools) for academic audiences (peers and teachers, and then curators). It’s usually very good — and, at the same time, very soulless. Sometimes, I like looking at it. But mostly I don’t: photography for the academy is much too concerned with winking at those who are already in the know.

You couldn’t say this about this book and the work it showcases. In fact, it’s the complete opposite of Akademiefotografie. I have never met Harold Strak and I know nothing about him. But looking at this book I’m thinking that he really loves photography and what it does. You could cut out any of the pages from this book (not that I would encourage that) and hang it on a wall.

Obviously, you could do that with many other photobooks as well. But here, you’d look for a nice, understated frame — maybe something you’d find in a thrift shop, and you’d have something precious on your wall.

“Precious” is a very good word for the book itself as well. It’s published by Van Zoetendaal. “[P]hotography in print,” their website says, “must be optimally lithographed and printed so that it ‘becomes a new form of vintage.’” A new form of vintage — when you receive a book made by Willem van Zoetendaal in the mail, it usually feels as if you’re receiving something that has always been around, possibly to have been ignored or underappreciated until just now.

In fact, many of the objects depicted in the book were ignored and certainly underappreciated before they were photographed. Strak took pictures of 15,000 objects found during an archeological dig in Amsterdam. Those photographs made it into Amsterdam Stuff, which I reviewed here. Some of these pictures (a very small number of them, compared with the original set) are now included in Verdigris.

In addition, there are a number of pictures of Amsterdam itself: views of canals, of buildings, of trees (occasionally through what looks like a large studio window). I have been to Amsterdam a number of times, and I was struck to what extent these photographs transported me back, re-immersing me in this peculiar city’s atmosphere. Much like any of the cities that I enjoy returning to, my fondness for Amsterdam in part derives from it being attractive as a city only to some extent. It has its pretty corners, but there’s also the grime of life — the thing that makes a city interesting for me.

There’s something somewhat disconcerting about this book. There’s a difference between looking at a photobook and writing about it. But mostly, there is a convergence between those activities: to be able to write about a book, I need to look at it. During the process of writing, this looking can become almost obsessive, in particular if words fail to arrive. Books thus mostly lead me to the words.

Here, though, any time I pick up the book to get over a moment of being stuck, the photography doesn’t lead me to new words. Instead, it makes me think about something else. I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of art writing that focuses on its own discontent or its own process. So I’m finding myself slightly annoyed right now about doing it myself.

But I do think that the fact that this book resists being written about by me points at something: the photographer’s enjoyment of making pictures and the publisher’s enjoyment of making an finely crafted book translate into this viewer wanting to be immersed in it without having to think too much about what it all means, let alone having to try to convey it to strangers. I suppose that’s what I was trying to get at before when I wrote that the book “does not fit neatly into the current world of the photobook”.

Verdigris is a book of exquisite beauty where you’d expect none to exist. For example, in one spread, there’s a photograph of what looks like a flattened spider encased in a web (some other spider’s?) against a black background next to a picture of an old shoe, photographed to show its sole. Given this description, it might be hard to imagine that the pairing would be beautiful. But it is. Throughout the whole book, there is a lot of that kind of beauty.

What this all comes down to is the following. If you love photobooks, you should get yourself a copy of Verdigris. It combines the best of photobook production with a much needed reminder that there is joy to be had in photography. It’s the joy of seeing what photographs can do when they’re done well.

This strange combination of photographs taken by Harold Strak takes us deep into the photographer’s mind while making us think about how we connect to what is on view.

Highly recommended.

Verdigris; photographs by Harold Strak; essay by Vrouwkje Tuinman; 120 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2022

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The Politics of American Property Mon, 04 Jul 2022 14:51:17 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Possibly the most important and symbolically potent photograph in Mitch Epstein‘s Property Rights comes at the end of the book, right before the author’s essay. It shows the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Richmond, Virginia after protesters had adorned its base with graffiti and a number of protest placards in 2020. There are groups of Black people visible at the memorial — some posing for pictures, others taking them.

I’m struck by one person in particular, possibly the one easiest to miss. At the left edge of the frame, there is a small child looking at what is in front of her or him. The child is easily dwarfed by everything around, including the monstrosity that is this memorial that was constructed in 1890 — long after the end of the Civil War — and that was finally taken down as a consequence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that had led to its adornment.

The child could not have been cognizant of the meaning of what presented itself in this spot. At that age, the child could not have known that all over the country, its own enemies — defeated in a long and bloody war — had been honoured with these kinds of statues, all in the name of some supposed tradition that, as was clear to everyone, basically meant that if Robert Lee had been on that spot, the child and all the other Black people would not have been.

The fact that until the end of the Civil War human beings — Black people — were considered property in vast parts of the United States has remained as the heaviest unresolved burden of the country’s history, in particular since the defeat of the so-called Confederacy resulted in only a partial fulfillment of what the Declaration of Independence had announced decades earlier: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Since its very beginning, in the country that declared “that all men are created equal” and that they all were “endowed […] with certain unalienable Rights”, the lived reality of large numbers of people has been very different. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. I’m writing this article shortly after the Supreme Court invalidated Roe v. Wade, essentially decreeing that in vast parts of the country women have less bodily rights than men. Yesterday, a video emerged that showed a man named Jayland Walker being gunned down in a hail of bullets over a minor traffic violation. Only a subset of men get to enjoy the “unalienable Rights” promised in the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, the United States arose from a number of colonies, making it not the only but certainly the most powerful and wealthy country to have emerged from a settler-colonialist background. The land was taken from those who lived here originally, Indigenous Americans. Property thus emerges as possibly the one entity that gives the United States its own identity.

You can trace pretty much every conflict seen in the US today to questions of property, or more accurately: to an in group not wanting to share the property they have amassed with others and to asserting that the rights derived from it allows them to take even more.  This is the premise of Property Rights.

After a brief prologue, the book begins with a chapter on Standing Rock, which in 2016/17 became the site of protests because of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is followed by a chapter about the US-Mexican border, crossed daily by numerous migrants in search of a better life.

Not every chapter is literally about a conflict over property. There also are others where property is one or more steps away. There is a chapter on some of the consequences of global warming: wild fires and floods. And there is a short chapter about the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.

Property Rights thus offers a sweeping panorama of the conflicts the United States has been dealing with over the course of the past ten years, some of them old and re-emerging time and again, some of them brand new but not any less dangerous.

The book mostly features the view-camera photography that its maker has become well known for. It must have been an incredible amount of work to create it (not to mention the resources required to do so). But I usually don’t judge books by how much effort it took to make them. As viewers, all we have are the pictures (plus, in this case, some text), and that’s what we have to go by.

The book is filled with a plethora of very good photographs. Even as I have developed severe concerns about the use of a view-camera (I’ll get to this later), when it’s used well, the results tend to be stunning — as they are here. I suppose the sheer beauty of most of the landscape photographs alone might make people look at the work who otherwise would be turned off by what they perceive of as the artifice of fine-arts photography.

And I want to give Mitch Epstein full credit for his personal investment. It’s one thing to profess one’s concern for urgent issues; but it’s quite another to travel to so many hot spots to put the one tool one knows well to as good a use as possible. Property Rights is an overtly political book by a member of a generation that has often shied away from making political work (even as they might loudly profess their admiration for books like Robert Frank’s The Americans). I think the creation of this book is a very important statement on its own.

That said, Property Rights might well be the last relevant photobook to emerge from the American view-camera craze that started in the late 20th Century and that had predominantly male photographers crisscross the country in search of photographic masterpieces. Even if there are things to be said for the format, its language has now exhausted itself.

The photographic conversation as much as larger societal topics have now moved to an extent that trekking out with some boxy camera that requires absolute stillness (and a lot of money to operate, given associated costs) simply is incapable of capturing the general energy that is in the air. In all fairness, there are some pictures in the book that get at that energy and that it would seem were taken with a different camera (for example, pictures from BLM protests). But even they remain mostly very still, very reserved.

Furthermore, in form Property Rights is almost indistinguishable from the artist’s 2003 Family Business, which I think is an absolute masterpiece. There, Epstein trained his camera on the failing furniture business his father and aunt were trying to maintain, while dealing with a number of disasters in the rental properties the father owned. At the same time, the book is a touching reflection on a fraught father-son relationship.

Property Rights now uses the same format as the book that was published almost two decades ago. But it would have benefited from a more contemporary form, using some of the newly refined tools that photobook makers have been exploring of late. The chapter structure feels too rigid, and it makes seeing similarities between them more difficult than it could have been. The book certainly would have benefited from a much tighter edit.

Crucially, an oversized coffee-table book might not be the best format for a book that is filled with criticism of property and the problems arising from it. Of course, whether it would have been possible to make something different isn’t clear, given that the publisher, Steidl, appears to have dialed in that one formula to make a book (big, thick paper and thus overly heavy, pricey), possibly thinking that a book’s physical heft automatically translates into artistic weight.

I see Property Rights as finishing something that Epstein started out with Family Business. Where the earlier book looks at a family dynamic being made almost impossible to deal with, given the failing family business, the new book now talks about what is becoming very obvious before our own eyes right now: the whole country’s dynamic is becoming more and more impossible, given an incessant placing of property rights above all else, including, crucially, the majority of the people living here.

Even as the family business disappears, Family Business ends on a good note: father and son begin to understand each other, to create that somewhat rickety, yet precious peace and understanding that can exist between previously conflicting family members of different generations. There is not such end note in Property Rights — how could there be? As viewers, we can only hope that eventually, a good end note will be reached as well and that that promise from the Declaration of Independence will finally be fulfilled for every person.

Property Rights; photographs by Mitch Epstein; text by Mitch Epstein and Susan Bell; 288 pages; Steidl; 2021

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The Devil Is Leaving His Cave Mon, 27 Jun 2022 14:47:28 +0000 Joerg Colberg

In early 2021, I spoke Karolina Gembara about her work (you can find the long conversation split up into part 1 and part 2). There was one particular aspect of the conversation that I kept coming back to in my head (it’s from part 2): “Recently I completed another project where photography is only a pretext. During the Nowi warszawiacy workshop one girl mentioned her family struggles with finding a flat — landlords reject them because they are refugees. So I dedicated my time to become an agent to find housing. […] The whole process was recorded on video, with images and audio. […] The visual part is just a documentation. The most important part is that the family found a flat. The visual layer is present, but the core of this project isn’t visible in a traditional way.” (my emphasis)

It was the conclusion of this description, the part that I emphasized, that made me think. I remember how initially, I lost interest in the project, given that it wasn’t about pictures (or visuals). But with time, I started to challenge my own assumptions, in particular once I started looking into the two books that ultimately resulted in my recent article about photographers and their idea of collaboration. Am I too attached to what Karolina called “the traditional way,” namely the idea that at the end of a photography project, the pictures ought to exist on a wall (possibly framed) or in a photobook?

Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love looking at prints on a wall or in a photobook. But this particular format has its limitations. To begin with, its audience is limited. It often excludes the very people who would find themselves in the pictures. Furthermore, as I’ve argued in my article about collaboration, in the end, the real problem to be solved tends to be a photography world one — unlike in the case of Karolina Gembara’s project where the “most important part [was] that the family found a flat.”

“The art world has never known what to do with Wendy Ewald.” Abigail Winogrand writes in her essay that’s included in The Devil Is Leaving His Cave (p. 114) “Indeed, it has frequently underestimated her. […] her work remains difficult to categorize, particularly in  a market and institutional landscape still defined, financially and otherwise, by the heroic notion of the singular artistic genius.” In what follows, Winogrand nevertheless attempts to place Ewald into an artistic context. On the one hand, that’s a worthwhile endeavour: how can we understand an artist when they’re completely detached from everybody else?

On the other hand, maybe resisting the impulse might be the bolder move. After all, as the history of art has already shown, there exist artists who push what we understand as art and/or what art can do in a singular, determined fashion. Maybe we can understand Wendy Ewald this way? Especially photo and art historians might be most resistant to such a push — it’s difficult to write art history by ditching parts of one’s own frame work.

But for the rest of us, I do believe that there is ample food for thought here. After all, why should the work produced by this particular artist be made to conform to parameters that aren’t very well suited for it when doing the complete opposite — expanding the parameters — might not only lead us to a better understanding of it, possibly leading to a better way to recognize the strength of her work, but also to a collective re-understanding of what photographs can do?

Maybe this should be our task, especially when we deal with the idea of collaboration in photography: instead of having the world conform to our conventions, we might want to explore a widening of the conventions so that there is more space for the world — and, consequently, a widening of the possibilities of photography itself.

But no, photography itself does not need a widening of its possibilities. It already is very wide. Instead, it’s how we see and treat photography within confines of the art world where the narrowing is happening.

The Devil Is Leaving His Cave makes this clear. The book contains two separate bodies of work (if that’s even the right word) that are interrelated. In 1991, Ewald went to Chiapas, the southernmost province of Mexico, to lead photography classes with a number of children from local communities. Roughly three decades later, the artist worked with fifteen young Mexican Americans living in Chicago. The later part entailed a number of differences: photographic materials had changed, and there also was the (at the time of this writing ongoing) Covid-19 pandemic that required some remote teaching.

In terms of their approach, there are some differences as well. The children living in southern Mexico set out to produce a record of their daily lives that, crucially, also entailed staging photographs of dreams. This is where the book’s title originates: it’s the caption (“description”) of the picture on the cover (that can also be found inside the book). “For the Maya students,” Ewald writes in her introduction (p. 15), “dreams played as important a role in understanding the world as waking events”.

Photographically, the photographs are incredible. But they defy easy categorizations. How do straight up documentations sit next to depictions of dreams that derive their visual power in part from their own technical crudeness? Well, they do, especially if you accept the approach the Maya students would have taken: all of the photographs speak of the same thing — their lived reality.

The later workshop produced text heavier outcomes, possibly in part because its participants were a little older. Here, the concern with the aspect of immigration comes into sharp focus. “When you’re little,” workshop participant Marestela Martinez writes (p. 108), ” it’s not so hard being Mexican and American because you’re still growing. You don’t understand what people are saying. You think they’re talking just to you. But now it’s hard, because you understand.”

Next to Marestela Martinez’s large portrait and right above her testimony, there’s a photograph she took of a mural showing George Floyd. Around his head, she wrote the following text: “His daughter will grow up and see her dad’s last moments everywhere”. It’s too awful a sentiment to consider even as of course, this is exactly what’s going to happen. And it’s equally incredibly touching to see the young Mexican immigrant sympathize with George Floyd’s daughter.

At the end of the day, I don’t think that photographers have to change anything if they want to pursue their idea of collaboration. There’s nothing wrong with producing something made for and seen only by people in the world of photography. At the same time, in light of the explosion of crises we are facing right now and in light of our own governments’ reluctance to provide even a modicum of a solution for any one of them, this approach increasingly reflects the luxury position that being an artist entails.

It is work such as Wendy Ewald’s The Devil Is Leaving His Cave that has the power to point toward possibly more interactive approaches in photography where a collaboration ends up being a give and take. Ultimately, at least some of the ideas we cherish in the world of photography might have to be diluted, if not expanded (where not abandoned).

In the end, this can only lead to the world of professional photography becoming richer, as it soaks up some of the ideas that people who don’t consider themselves photographers have taken for granted for a long time. At the same time, professional photographers and artists do possess skills that have the potential to enrich the contributions made by those we ask for a  collaboration.


The Devil Is Leaving His Cave; photographs by a number of contributors including Wendy Ewald; essays by Wendy Ewald, Abigail Winogrand, Edgar Garcia; 144 pages; MACK; 2022

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Abdo Shanan’s Dry Mon, 20 Jun 2022 14:10:42 +0000 Joerg Colberg

A few years ago, we witnessed a boom in self published photobooks. A huge number of emerging but also established photographers decided that they wanted to take on all aspects of making and publishing a photobook themselves. For me, the most exciting outcome of the boom were the widely felt senses of possibility and experimentation that the staid area of photobook publishing suddenly experienced. However, even if there now are a small number of publishers that have retained those senses (Hans Gremmen’s FW:Books is my go-to example), unfortunately since the end of the boom the world of photobook has become a bit boring again.

I am fully aware of the fact that publishing books is a very risky business. So if you have arrived at a model that works, then there’s no good (business) reason to change it. Still, I feel that a photobook produced in, let’s say, 2022 ought not to look and feel like a photobook in 2002, simply because in those two decades a few more possibilities might have opened up. Thus, mine isn’t a capitalist argument (dress up the same thing in new packaging, hoping to sell some more). Instead, I’m concerned about the book itself and what it can do for its audience. As Hans Gremmen and a few other publishers continue to show, you can make a photobook that looks and feels contemporary even when the source material is very old. That’s the way it should be.

The above will not surprise anyone who has been following this site for a while. I have insisted on not producing Tupperware style books for a long time, arguing that if you view your book as some random container, then that’s not going to help your pictures. Of course, there are all those people who will say that a photobook should be all about the picture. Nothing should be allowed to take any attention away from those. But do those people actually understand that a photobook is its own medium? You don’t read a novel, expecting to look at the words, do you? I know, these kinds of comparisons aren’t ideal; but I’m sure it is clear what I’m trying to get at.

I had to think of these aspects of the photobook again when I received Abdo Shanan‘s self published Dry in the mail. The book and an accompanying booklet are held together by a wrapper (described on the photographer’s website as “a three flaps black jacket”). There’s the black silhouette of a barren tree printed onto its black card stock. Open the first flap to encounter the words “How is it possible for an Island to exist in the middle of an Ocean?” Open the second flap to see the book itself: its outer cover is black as well. Inside the wrapper, there are three photographs (printed with silver ink), which look archival and which are hard to make out. There are a man, a woman, and a group of people (they look all male, but it’s impossible to be certain).

There are black sections at the beginning and end of the book as well. As on the wrapper, silver ink was used to print photographs on it. The viewer first encounters an interior, a stair leading down somewhere, a closed door, a gate, a cemetery, a hand reaching into some foliage, and lastly (and much bigger) what might be the edge of a jungle. It’s all very mysterious and intriguing. The first page of the following section (using white paper) contains the title page. Afterwards, the book presents a combination of black-and-white and colour photographs (answering the eternal and eternally boring question: can you combine these two types of pictures? with: of course, you can if you do it well).

I’ve looked at the book a few times, and the mix of what is being shown still surprises me. To begin with (this will satisfy the most conservative members of photoland), there are a lot of great pictures. Furthermore, the editing and sequencing has been done really, really well. You’ll have to remember: as someone who hasn’t looked at the book and who thus knows nothing about it, the book needs to reveal itself in a way that won’t make you put it away. It really does, and it does it in a way that wants you to look at it again and again.

The use of the portraits is very intriguing. More than once, the same person is shown in two different photographs — this is a technique Michael Schmidt used in Ein-Heit to great effect. It’s startling to see the same person again. At some stage, you encounter a short quote, which doesn’t tell you all that much (which only adds to the mystery). A few pages later, there are more quotes. They continue underneath the photographs, a number of portraits of people with a variety of skin tones. The first quote reveals the book’s topic. It begins with “I wouldn’t be able to live in Algeria permanently.”

The selection of short quotes centers on what that might mean — Algeria, a country with a colonial past or being Algerian. “[T]here is no such thing as a homogeneous Algeria,” the final quote in the book concludes. It is placed opposite of a portrait of a man who decided to lean outside of the frame. There merely is a sliver of his beard left.

When I first looked at the book, I didn’t read the quotes. As a bookmaker, you cannot control how people decide to encounter what you’ve made. Even though I was unable to tell where exactly the book had been photographed (I’d learn that later, reading the text), the overall idea of the book was communicated very strongly to me. You can see it. This is what I want in a photobook.

It’s not that I mind reading text (quite on the contrary). But if you can visually communicate the idea of your book — a sense of displacement in the environment that in principle you should feel completely comfortable in, then that’s great. It’s great because this sense might be shared by people in other parts of the world as well. Algeria is merely one of the many countries with a colonial past. Furthermore, questions of national identity and belonging are now also wracking the very countries that are responsible for the mess they left behind in their former colonies.

Thus, Dry is a book of and for our times. Those who want to learn more about Algeria can read the booklet. Therein, excerpts from Karima Lazali’s Colonial Trauma: A Study of the Psychic and Political Consequences of Colonial Oppression in Algeria are reproduced. “For centuries,” part of it reads, “Algeria has been the site of many conquests and of battles fought against the Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, and the French. Each of these upheavals has had an impact on the habitus and languages of this land’s inhabitants for many generations.” For most Westerners, this is something that would have to be imagined. For people in many other parts of the world, this forms the background of their culture and society.

There are no other books listed on Abdo Shanan‘s website, making this a very, very impressive debut photobook. I’m hoping it will be seen and appreciated widely, given the relevance of what it covers and given how well it was produced.


Dry; photographs by Abdo Shanan; text by Karima Lazali; 104 pages; self published; 2022

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.4

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On Quitting One’s Day Job Mon, 13 Jun 2022 14:38:50 +0000 Joerg Colberg

There is a very telling anecdote in Robert Slifkin‘s excellent Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work. “Such was the power of Hare’s singular vision,” Slifkin writes near the end of the book (p. 215), “that […] his mother resisted having her portrait taken by him for fear that she would look like all of the other characters in his pictures.” The source for this is a tape that the photographer produced himself, a recording of a conversation he had with designer Marvin Israel around the time of his first and only exhibition at MoMA.

It is relatively easy to spot a photograph by Chauncey Hare, in particular one of the peopled interiors. Typically, one or more people are depicted in what through the use of a wide-angle lens looks like a cavernous, barren room. More often than not, the scene is harshly illuminated by a flash. At times, some of the subjects in a picture are posing for it, while other are not. Some of Hare’s sitters were unaware of the wide-angle lens so they simply assumed that they wouldn’t end up in the picture.

Today, Chauncey Hare would be a well-known name in the world of photography, much like, one suspects, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, or maybe Allan Sekula. But he is not. There were three books made during his lifetime, two of which I own. The first — Interior America — was published by Aperture at the occasion of the aforementioned MoMA exhibition in 1977. The second book — Protest Photographs — was published by Steidl in 2009. They’re both out of print. For a number of reasons, Interior America is the vastly better book. Hare’s third book — This Was Corporate America — was self published in 1984. By that time, Hare had completed his withdrawal from the world of photography almost completely.

There’s something very interesting about Hare’s photographs. You could crop parts of some of them, to arrive at a different photograph’s picture. Often, a single photograph will allow for more than one such crop. I can’t easily think of another photographer that includes, say, a Diane Arbus picture alongside a Walker Evans. This is not to diminish the quality of Hare’s work — on the contrary. I think that Hare was a more interesting photographer than (to stick with my example) both Arbus and Evans. He was able to combine an incredible skill at composition (with some very minor staging thrown in) with highly charged portraiture.

Much like in the case of Arbus, there’s a deeply unsettling aspect to Hare’s portraiture — exactly the thing his own mother picked up on when she declined to be depicted. In the photographs, people typically come across as being completely lost in the cruel and unforgiving world of their own homes, when they don’t look like Arbusian characters. It’s not clear whether Hare was aware of the fact that his portrayal of people could be seen as abusive, even as he set out to show with them how they were being abused by corporations.

I’m writing these words as someone who has long admired Hare’s work. Over the years, I have come to the realization that good photography (or maybe photography that manages to reach the level of art) does not offer a single path towards what it might mean. In good photography, there is more than one element. The combination of the different elements creates a push and pull for the viewer, having them face conflicting emotions.

(For a long time, I thought Arbus possessed this element. But now, I think the pictures merely reflect their maker’s cynicism and cruelty. There’s the push, sure. But the pull viewers end up having to construct for themselves: nobody wants to admit that much like Arbus, they’re fascinated by visually sneering at people.)

There’s an agenda behind every photographer’s work, even if some (possibly many) of them would like you to think that’s not the case. Hare was upfront about his. In fact, any time you see a photograph of his today (which is very, very rare) it comes with the disclaimer. In the list of image credits in Quitting Your Day Job, the disclaimer can be found after each of Hare’s pictures. It reads in full: “This photograph was made by Chauncey Hare to protest and warn against the growing domination of working people by multi-national corporations and their elite owners and manager.”

How or why this makes sense (or not) is brilliantly laid out by Robert Slifkin in Quitting Your Day Job, which might be re-setting the standard of what a photographer’s biography actually ought to look like. It balances criticism with admiration. It presents the photographer as the kind of conflicted human being that we all are. This is a much needed deviation from the hagiographic attempts of biography produced for a number of famous American photographers recently.

I suppose in many ways, Hare made this easy: he had quit the world of photography in ways that decades later left strong recollections with a great many people. In fact, it would be tempting to view Hare as a strange interloper (in my own experience, I’ve noticed how photoland loves these kinds of people — they’re part of the system but, intriguingly, they’re not). While you could certainly think about it this way, the care and attention that Slifkin devoted to Hare and his work resulted in a book that goes very deep into this man’s life work and that indirectly also comments on the world of photography itself.

Throughout the book Slifkin manages to remain accepting of Hare’s predicament, even as he details the many, many unusual events that happened during the time when Hare was considering himself a photographer. Told out of context, some of them are too strange to be true. Did Chauncey Hare actually picket an exhibition at SFMOMA that he was included in, severely damaging his prospects of future engagement with the museum? Yes, he did. But there are a lot more details here (and elsewhere) that are worthwhile knowing.

What struck me when reading the book was how Slifkin managed to strike the perfect balance between being sympathetic to Hare’s ideas and aspirations and laying out all the details of the various conundrums and problems created by a photographer who found himself at odds with the world around him more or less all the time. In a nutshell, Hare must have been an incredibly difficult person who appeared to have lacked the understanding that human relationships of any kind are impossible without a degree of compromise. I’m thinking that these are the perfect ingredients for great photographs and great trouble.

Hare had started work as an engineer for the company that is now known as Chevron (previously SOCAL), possibly the kind of job that would have set him up for a comfortable life. But he was deeply unhappy in that job and had found that photography offered him an outlet. Through sheer determination, he managed to produce photography that was so good that it easily competed with what was being fêted by John Szarkowski, the most well-known and most powerful curator at the time.

After his MoMA exhibition, Hare pursued an MFA. Attending San Francisco’s Art Institute, he studied with teachers such as Sekula, Martha Rosler, and others — even as, the book makes clear, Hare clearly didn’t think he needed to learn anything. He wanted the MFA to be able to teach. The book dives into these aspects as well, much as it covers, say, Hans Haacke’s institutional critique, which could have easily provided a framework for the direction Hare was heading in (with his inclusion of text and audio materials in exhibitions).

I’m now thinking of Hare’s photographs as the missing link between American photography as established by Walker Evans and the photographers that ended up being lumped together in the New Documents movement. As I already noted above, Hare managed to charge most of his pictures with elements of both. The combination makes the results more interesting than either the older or Hare’s contemporaries’ work. The contradiction between two impulses creates the sparks: it’s not either blank description or slightly cynical (and possibly sneering) observation at arm’s length — it’s both at the same time. What a combo!

However, as Slifkin writes (p. 127), “MoMA […] was just as much corporate entity as SOCAL (one, moreover, that had shared origins in the Rockefeller family), and the museum seemed to propagate many of the same oppressive practices that made his experience as an engineer so frustrating and at times nauseating.” In Hare’s own words (p. 126f.): “I couldn’t tell any difference between Szarkowski and some person at Chevron who is about three levels above me. The same kind of authoritarian outlook.” Within the logic of his own mind, there could only be one conclusion, one possible way to deal with the situation he had placed himself in.

“Hare’s disavowal of photography,” Slifkin observes (p. 188), “wasn’t so clearly an act of willful renunciation as much as one of disheartened resignation.” If you want to take anything away from this biography, it’s this. Hare deeply loved and cared for photography. But the world of photography was unable to love him back on the terms that he wanted.

It was, in Hare’s words (p. 159), a “playground for the rich”, filled with people who are “seeking personal recognition above any responsibility to themselves as complete human beings.” He followed through on what he believed in and eventually ended up becoming a therapist.

Hare had, in Slifkin’s words, “sought — and in many cases succeeded — in rendering the world in his photographs as an extension of his interior self.” It’s just that in his particular case, the photographer’s interior self was unable to deal with the fact that while the world of photography loved the world in his photographs, the world in his photographs was incompatible with the world of photography.

Very highly recommended.

Robert Slifkin — Quitting Your Day Job: Chauncey Hare’s Photographic Work; 242 pages; MACK; 2022

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Atelier Yamanami Mon, 06 Jun 2022 13:32:01 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Masami Yamagiwa has been living at Atelier Yamanami since 1990. According to the Atelier’s website, he “likes his daily tasks such as cooking, washing, cleaning and collecting waste paper for recycling, at a fixed time every day. For him creating artworks is one of them. […] His most important work subject is called ‘Masami Jizo’. ( ‘Jizo’ is a small stone statue representing bodhisattva, wearing a red bib.) Masami Yamagiwa has been creating ‘Masami Jizos’ for more than 20 years, and the number of the statues he made now exceeds over several hundred thousand.”

Rinko Kawauchi encountered Yamagiwa at her first visit to the Atelier in 2018 as she details in her afterword to Yamanami (やまなみ). Upon entering, she came across his booming voice singing Happy Birthday. On top of making a huge number of ‘Jizo’ sculptures and going about his daily chores, Yamagiwa has also memorized the birthdays of every person at the Atelier, inhabitants and staff alike. On their given day, Kawauchi notes, “first thing in the morning […] he walks up to that person and sings the song.” (quoted from the afterword)

There is a photograph of some of the ‘Jizo’ in the book. There must be dozens and dozens of such figurines, but due to the camera’s limited depth of field, only perhaps three dozen of them can be seen clearly. A viewer familiar with Kawauchi’s work might detect the artist’s visual signature at play right away, with its heightening of what is being paid attention to. In this Japanese photographer’s pictures, every little detail, however significant or insignificant, becomes a little miracle.

Another photograph of some artwork at first looks like a collection of leaves from an aloe plant. But then you realize that it must be a sculpture. In the index at the end of the book, the photograph is revealed as Hideaki Yoshikawa‘s ‘Eye, Eye, Nose, Mouth’. What initially look like dots reveal themselves as tiny faces that the artist uses to cover his artworks with. There is a photograph of Yoshikawa in the book. Holding a wooden (bamboo) tool in his right hand, you can see him work on an object that bears similarity to the ones in ‘Eye, Eye, Nose, Mouth’. The tip of the tool is placed in the center of the frame; as a viewer, you can feel how all of the artist’s concentration is channeled towards what for other people might be an insignificant detail.

Most photographers are aware of the fact that taking pictures of other artist’s work creates a conundrum. A very well-known German artist once told me that he stopped taking accepting commissions by architects, given that in the photographs, so much attention would be garnered by the buildings — instead of the photographs themselves. Kawauchi clearly didn’t seem to concerned about this problem. Reading her afterword and having followed the trajectory of her career, I’m not even certain she would consider it as such. When you see her photographs you know why. They are very much her own, betraying her very specific artistic sensibility, even where they focus on artworks created by other people.

Atelier Yamanami is no ordinary shared art space. Instead, it houses almost 90 people with disabilities who are encouraged to channel their creativity into artistic outlets — much like Masami Yamagiwa and Hideaki Yoshikawa. Its website features the artworks created (with text in Japanese and English). You might want to set aside some time to look through what is being on offer.

With a little disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Kawauchi spent three years photographing at the Atelier. The outcome is nothing but magical and endearing. As a viewer, you can feel an incredible amount of tenderness at play. Thinking about the photographer’s approach, I have been imagining a fly-on-the-wall approach (what an ugly image, though): being observant, while resisting the temptation to interfere too much. But many of the photographs show a closeness to what is being shown that is not just physical but mental as well. The photographer clearly must have felt a very deep connection with what or who was in front of her camera.

In her afterword, Kawauchi conforms the suspicion a viewer might have arrived at earlier. “Laughing with the person in front of me,” she writes, “or being absorbed by the great concentration they put into working, allows me to rediscover the space within me.” If only all those other photographers supposedly collaborating with their subjects would realize the importance of this sentiment! “It is like a mirror,” Kawauchi concludes, “everyone reflects the light illuminating each other.” (For more details on the beauty of Kawauchi’s afterword, please see the article I wrote for my Patreon.)

After As It Is, a book about the birth of her child (reviewed here), the Japanese artist has now produced another stellar photobook. Kawauchi has clearly found back to the visceral strength of her early work, which has now been infused with all the insight you gain from having lived on this planet for a while. Yamanami not only proves all those people wrong who claim that photographers produce their best work early on. It is true, for many photographers their early success traps them in that narrow space where everything merely is but a weak copy of something already done.

But photography — as much as anything else that can be art — gains much from an artist’s maturity, assuming they are able to listen to the lessons provided by early success and to see the world anew every day. Of course, this can only happen if — and only if — they are paying good attention to it.

It’s hard not to see Yamanami as an absolutely essential masterpiece that I’m sure will hold a special place in Rinko Kawauchi’s career trajectory.

Highly recommended.

(Please note that I’m supplying a link not to the original publisher, but to a Japanese distributor whose site offers English text and which offers convenient and very reliable shipping to destinations outside of Japan. Please also note that the books comes with two different covers — essentially different wrappers around the hardcover, which are referred to as “A” and “B”. My copy is “B”.)

Yamanami, photographs by Rinko Kawauchi; essays by Rinko Kawauchi and Masato Yamashita; 104 pages; Shinyodo; 2022

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

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Writing About One’s Photography Mon, 30 May 2022 14:25:41 +0000 Joerg Colberg

How does one go about writing about one’s photography? Few photographers seem to know. As a consequence, I often find that project statements or the blurbs that come with press releases of photobooks are quite bad. Having followed this particular aspect of photography for a while, I think that it’s a combination of factors that is responsible for the rather sad state of affairs.

To begin with, I don’t think writing about photography is taught to an extent that is truly necessary. For the most part, the general idea appears to be that writing about one’s work is one of those things you (have to) do when everything else is done. That’s a really bad approach, though. If what you write about your work basically is little more than an afterthought, then it’s probably not surprising that the outcomes often are so bad.

In my own teaching (and art making), photography plays out in an iterative fashion. As new photographs are made, they are looked at in a critical fashion. That’s an extremely important aspect of being a photographer: you have to be exposed to your own work. You need to be able to pick up on the possibly many threads that are playing out in the pictures. At the same time, you have to be careful not to get in the way of your own photographic discovery. But typically, that’s not a problem caused by looking carefully (in my experience as a teacher, it appears to arise from the exact opposite).

With this approach, photographing becomes an iterative process: as you take more and more pictures, your careful looking at them guides you and helps you to develop the work. Whatever your project might be slowly takes shape, and you allow yourself to be guided by your own photographs. As you gain more and more clarity, expressing what the work is doing is a vital part of this process. I typically advise photographers I work with to keep a notebook to write down ideas, thoughts, etc. The project statement then emerges from this process. Creating it is as much part of the process as photographing. The clarity that comes out of engaging with one’s work fuels the process of putting together the final statement. Photographing, editing, writing — approached this way, they’re all part of the same process.

A lack of training cannot be the only explanation for the rather unfortunate state of photographers writing about their work, though. Often, project statements or descriptions read as if they had been written for effect. Instead of using the opportunity to fully showcase their own artistic sensibility, there’s a tendency towards writing something that seems only dedicated to making curators and gallerists happy. Consequently, the language often manages to combine pomposity and a huge distance from the work in question. Those types of statements are not only painful to read, they also severely undercut the work they are supposed to serve. They are a huge missed opportunity.

Of course, there’s the art-speak aspect of it all. For example, I have lost track of the number of photographers who somehow find themselves in some “liminal space” or who are dealing with “liminality”. Even worse, almost every photographers appears to be “exploring” something — as if taking photographs and putting them together had magically something to do with, say, Jacques Cousteau diving in the deep seas or a Mars rover rolling across that planet. All hail to the intrepid explorers of photoland, boldly going into all the liminal spaces where nobody has gone before!

But how does one go about writing about one’s pictures? It might help to look at examples that are really well done. So let’s do that.

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Laissez Faire Mon, 23 May 2022 14:42:42 +0000 Joerg Colberg

If analogue photography has developed much of its allure from taking pictures of grimy surfaces, digital photography excels with glossy ones, especially if there is a lot of light around. I wouldn’t want to attribute any deeper meaning to that (at least for now). Over the course of the past two decades, our seeing of the world has been increasingly shaped by how digital cameras describe the world. This development has gone so far that parts of our world are now being created in such a way that they look good in digital pictures.

While in general I am not too interested in photography that seems too camera-technology specific (regardless of whether it’s analog or digital), I do get the occasional kick out of something that is really well done, something that pushes a particular technology to great effect. For me, there is a degree of guilty pleasure in this: I might have spent too much time looking at and attempting to critically write about photography to be able to just enjoy something — unless, and this is rare, the work in question is so strong that it manages by short circuit my critical abilities (this is an exceedingly rare event, given photoland’s sea of visual and conceptual sameness).

The only problem with digital photography pushing shiny surfaces and modern light is that in principle, it’s the same message that also underpins neoliberal capitalism. Your neoliberal realism is often right there, and whatever critical idea a photographer might have had in mind is being undercut by the sheer visual appeal of what often is pretty noxious.

This might be the main difference between capitalism roughly 100 years ago and now: where in the past, getting access to factories was difficult because of the resulting visuals, now, modern factories are almost always open. Neoliberal capitalists are only too eager to have consumers (or images and products) ooh and aah over how shiny robots and human beings arranged around them to present environments that look as if they were taken from some science-fiction movie.

If you think about it, this is a nifty move: we are so conditioned from popular entertainment to view certain things as fiction (or “science fiction”) that by performing that mental association, we don’t realize to what extent we are in deep, deep trouble already. The disaster has arrived, but it’s looking pretty great in pictures.

As Bertolt Brecht already noted, both one hundred years ago and now photographs won’t get at the underlying ideologies and mechanisms of exploitation. But today, workers don’t look exploited any longer — even if they are as abused as their colleagues a century ago.

If you’re a photographer, how do you avoid this problem? I have no idea. What seems clear is that individual photographs will not be able to do the job (see Andreas Gursky or, to pick another example, Edward Burtynsky’s photographs from inside factories in China). It might only be the combination of such imagery in the form of a photobook that offers a chance to create a fissure in the facade (obviously, I’m not talking about a catalogue or monograph of individual photographs here).

Cristiano Volk‘s Laissez-Faire showcases contemporay life under neoliberal capitalism in all its shiny glory where tackiness always is but a step away (if even that). “[I]t’s all about the meat baby”, a neon sign advertises in one picture (one shudders to imagine what might be on sale), while in another the names of corporate brands (Canon, Toshiba, …) tower high over municipal high rises. It’s not clear what exactly the buildings are — office or apartment towers? But it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the life experience they offer is shallow (again: if even that).

And so it goes on and on, with colourful lights being captured the way we are used to now, where everything not only is made to look good in a picture but also can be easily captured in one (given how well modern camera sensors and associated algorithms are able to work with what previously was low light). Perhaps not surprisingly, everybody is having the good time on offer, and everybody looks great (even sea life in some aquarium).

Leisure time and work life seamlessly transition into one another in the book. This makes sense, given that neoliberal jobs require being present 24/7. When we’re on our gadgets, we work for free for the makers of the various social-media and messaging apps that promise to connect us to the world.

I don’t know whether Laissez-Faire offers me anything that I don’t know already. But if photography wants to create that fissure that I spoke of before it maybe might result less from some Brechtian Verfremdung and more from relentless exposure. Maybe at some stage, we will realize how we have created an environment for ourselves that is only serving a small number of billionaires.

For sure, the book comes appropriately packaged. There is a bright yellow plastic dust jacket around the softcover, which inevitably has the book stick to my hands in ways that I want to wash off (it’s not helping that while I’m writing this, it’s 33 degrees outside, a new record in late May as the news told me). But what I really want to wash off, of course, is not so much the book but rather the way it makes me feel.

I hear neoliberal capitalism whisper into my ear: enjoy me, resistance is futile.

Laissez-Faire, photographs by Cristiano Volk; essay by Eugenie Shinkle; 216 pages; FW:Books; 2022

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.7

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Perfect Pearl Mon, 16 May 2022 13:46:59 +0000 Joerg Colberg

How people decide to live with each other forms the most hotly contested area for human beings. At the smallest and most basic scale, we typically have one person living with another person (there are other arrangements, but they’re rather rare). At the core of this arrangement sits love. It is an emotion that we all know intimately well, one of the most basic and important ones.

At no point in history have people been able to experience and enjoy love unconditionally, regardless of whether it’s romantic love or any other form of it. At first, this might sound like a strange statement. But these days, you don’t need to look very far to witness some people telling other people what they can or cannot do with each other.

In the West, we have witnessed massive progress regarding what it typically called one’s identity over the course of the past two decades. At the same time, a neofascist counter-movement has positioned itself to not only take away all current achievements (for example gay marriage), but also to roll back past ones. For that movement, some forms of love are more valid than others. It’s crazy that in 2022, this is the world we even have to live in. But here we are.

Even as many other areas on the planet are centered on very different cultural, societal, and political traditions, many of the West’s ideas have been sweeping the globe because of the dominance of neoliberal capitalism. As a consequence, in many places, traditional ideas are now competing with non-traditional, Western ones that often are known only through how they play out in terms of consumption.

A recent photobook that centers on how this can play out is Tara Fallaux‘s Perfect Pearl. The book looks at how ideas of (heterosexual) romance and love plays out for young women in China. The book is based on an artist residency in Xiamen that lasted almost half a year, giving Fallaux ample time to get to know a number of young women. In the back of the book, their names are given as Binge, Lova, Muse, and Rocy.

In many ways, focusing on a small number of people who are trying to deal with a very basic and essential conundrum is a good approach. As I already said, we all know what love is or, and (this is not necessarily the same thing) what it feels like; we also all have an idea of romance.

Furthermore, even as our individual ideas might all be a little bit (or very) different, we all are familiar with trying to figure them out, trying to deal with them: given my options and my preferences, what can I do to get to that perfect place in life that we all aspire to be at (and, let’s be realistic, mostly never get to — in part because neoliberal capitalism teaches us that we can always do better)?

Given that you cannot photograph many of the ideas around love and romance, Perfect Pearl uses text to fill in the gaps. There is a longer text by one of the young women. In addition, there are frequent short text snippets that are taken from anonymous WeChat messages. “I’ve admitted,” part of one reads, “that whatever I’m doing, it’s the little things that make me happy, as always. So I stopped looking for reasons to ne unhappy for myself to be happy enough.” Ok then, to be happy enough.

The book is produced following the binding that Hans Gremmen/FW:Books used for Andres Gonzalez’s American Origami. The idea is quite simple actually (as is pretty much always the case, the best ideas are simple). You basically produce a softcover book. Then, you fold it in half. As a consequence, when a viewer looks at the book, holding it in their hands, they only get to see the half of the pages closest to the fore-edge — unless they decide to open up the rest.

As you can imagine from this description, this construction creates two types of spaces in the book: the one you can see easily and the one that requires a little bit more work to access. Consequently, you can “hide” material in the latter part. In other words, the construction of the book creates a very nifty way to organize materials simply through the construction of the book (obviously, you could use a different construction and then have a graphic designer do the organization in other ways).

Here, the text messages are all hidden away in the book. To be able to access them, you have to fully open up the book. But unlike in American Origami, this book doesn’t follow this approach for each spread. As a consequence, you never quite know whether you will access more text or imagery that for a lack of a better word feels more intimate — or simply more of what you’ve already seen outside. I do think that this approach works in the book’s favour.

Most of the book plays out between the portraits Fallaux took of her friends and photographs of women or couples who are about the get married. There is a large beach in Xiamen which appears to serve as a frequently used backdrop for wedding photographers. There also are cityscapes, interiors, and still lifes. Especially the latter feel rather reductive, though.

Perfect Pearl deftly paints a picture of young women trying to find their place in life against the background of their culture and the various expectations placed onto them (whether by others or themselves). Even as details might differ considerably, this struggle is playing out all over the world, a struggle that, as I noted in the beginning, is not fully independent from the frameworks created by societies and political systems.

In the end, part of the question always remains to what extent one is supposed to — or maybe has to — push back against restrictions that are too tight and that only serve to define oneself in other people’s terms. There is no good answer. But we might note the choices we, and others, face.

Perfect Pearl; photographs by Tara Fallaux; texts by various authors; 60 pages; self-published; 2022

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.7

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Photography is a force that gives us meaning Mon, 09 May 2022 13:50:44 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I would love to believe that it is our intentions that determine the outcome of what we produce. In some ways, they do — if, and only if, we manage to have the outcome of our work reflect those intentions. That, however, is not a given. Often, it’s not the case.

As a viewer, how would I know about a photographer’s intentions when I only have their work? How, that is, if s/he didn’t explicitly provide a list of intentions? In the absence of such a list, I can only try to infer the intentions from the work. I might or might not be successful. Thus, I have maintained for a long time that discussions of a body of work that center on a photographer’s intentions are not very fruitful.

With that in mind I want to consider two recent photobooks: Agata by Bieke Depoorter (self-published in 2021, of which I own a copy of the second printing) and Anastasiia: She folds her memories like a parachute by Christian van der Kooy (published by The Eriskay Connection in 2018). Both books centre on the same idea, namely that the interaction between a photographer and her or his subject (another person) is considerably more complex than the traditional model of the privileged storyteller telling someone else’s story. Both books attempt to solve the problem by incorporating the subject’s voice, by giving her an opportunity to speak for herself.

We might note that both books contain a degree of fiction, the full amount of which is unknown to anyone other than their makers and, possibly, their subjects. I should note that I view the word “fiction” in a neutral manner. A fiction might arise from any number of fictional events, places, or people just as much as from omissions and other decisions made while producing a body of work.

In the strictest sense, all photographs are fictions, given their photographers’ choices. But in a number of circumstances, we can ignore this fact (even if this might decision might run the risk of falling for the very fiction whose presence we’re ignoring). In the case of these two books, there might be ample fiction. We don’t know the full extent of it. We’re well advised to keep this in the backs of heads.

I’ve read what has been written about the books. Still, it’s always a bad idea to trust photographers and photobook makers too much: trust what they’ve made, but don’t believe their spiels.

While the overall stories behind Agata and Anastasiia are different, the two books have a number of things in common (in the following, when the names are written in italics, they refer to the book). In both cases, their basis is a relationship between two people who started out as strangers. Agata Kay and Bieke Depoorter met as subject and photographer and ended up being friends, even as the extent and full character of the friendship is not fully revealed. Anastasiia (no last name given) and Christian van der Kooy met as fixer and photographer and became lovers. In both cases, the books contain an extensive amount of photographs of Agata and Anastasiia, plus their own words.

There are different production strategies employed to convey the stories in Agata and Anastasiia. The latter uses graphic-design elements to show the difference between the photographer’s and his subject’s words. They are reproduced in black and magenta, respectively. In the case of Agata, most of the young woman’s words is shown as handwritten text. The bulk of it is initially hidden inside the folds of pouch pages (this is a type of binding commonly used in traditional Asian books): a viewer/reader has to cut the (perforated) fore edge to get access to their interior, which either contains text or photographs (or occasionally simply blank pages).

Conceptually, this is a nifty game that I have seen being played in other books. Given the perforation, though, it doesn’t feel as if my — the viewer’s stakes — are quite as high as they could be. After all, the pages will come apart easily. The perforation makes me think of a zipper. Opening up the pages feels a lot less consequential than in the case where I would have had to use a knife.

There is the old belief, now mostly discarded, that a camera can steal one’s soul. This idea now strikes us as naif, even if, I maintain, some photographers are aware of the fact that something like that can actually happen. In an extreme case, a camera can become a weapon. At the very least, writing someone else’s story with a camera takes away that person’s agency.

What we thus ought to be talking about is that it’s the photographer, not the camera, who is doing the stealing. Let’s keep this in mind.


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Shiotani Mon, 02 May 2022 15:27:41 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The standard process for making a photobook goes something like this. You take your thousands or hundreds of photographs, and you whittle them down to the few dozen strongest ones, which you then proceed to put into an order based on the idea of the work. This method is well tested, and it works well with 99% of all photography. The reason for that is that in the world of photography, the main (mostly unspoken) idea is that photographs are special entities.

If you go to art school, say, to get your very expensive MFA, that’s what you’re being taught: focus on the single picture and try to make it as brilliant as you can. As I outlined earlier, this model is based on the idea that photography is an art form. Thus, it better conform to that world’s conventions. To a large extent, the art world has let itself be defined through commerce. And art dealers prefer unique, expensively made things because that’s what rich people like to possess.

But as Lewis Bush pointed out, photography is too interesting to be treated as art. Even if you still think of yourself as an artist, you might want to consider what this means. It might have consequences for how you see photographs — especially your own. A few years ago, I wrote about what this could mean. In hindsight, I feel that the article doesn’t quite convey the importance of what it tries to get at. (I tend to have this problem with my articles. It tells me that I’m still learning: moving my own goal posts. I’ll stop writing once I find that I’ve stopped learning.)

If you ditch what I called the precious-picture problem, you’re in a different world. To begin with, you’ll have to re-consider how you make your pictures and work with them. How do you edit work when you’re not merely picking the “strongest” pictures (whatever this might even mean)? And what exactly does the work communicate? What could a book look like?

An absolutely brilliant example of such an approach is provided by Anders Edström‘s Shiotani. As an object, the book is modestly sized and relatively hefty. Once you start looking at the book, you realize where that heft is coming from: there are hundreds of pages printed on a rather thin paper stock. But the book’s real heft is what it is doing. I’d find it hard to attribute regular photobook terms to it because if you’re looking for anything that’s common in other photobooks, it’s completely absent here.

From what I know, every form of art has its outlier creators that push the boundaries of their chosen medium by essentially exploding them. If you approach their work expecting to be faced with what you’re familiar with, you’ll inevitably be disappointed. And it’s likely that you will also find yourself bored because you’re not being given your regular kick, while the work demands to be seen on its own terms.

For example, if you watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker expecting a movie that follows Hollywood standards, you’ll be in for a huge disappointment. Somehow, nothing appears to be happening. Or rather, there are a few things that are happening. But you could essentially condense that action into five to ten minutes of movie. In much the same fashion, if you listen to a classical symphony expecting it to use the conventions of pop music, you’ll also be bored out of your mind. However, if you listen to a piece of free jazz or psychedelic black metal you’ll be just aghast: how the hell is this music? Where is the structure you’re so used to?

All of these examples have in common that they unfold on different time scales and, crucially, that they need to be experienced on their own terms. This very much holds for Shiotani as well. How do you look at a photobook with hundreds of pictures, in which seemingly nothing is happening at all? Well, you just do. You allow yourself to give in to it, because the rewards are incredible.

What exactly do you encounter in the book? There is a relatively small group of people, many of them elderly, that live in what looks like a traditional Japanese house somewhere in an impossibly nondescript countryside. The location lacks any of the visual attractions that you might think of in the case of Japan. The hills look perfectly pleasant. But there are no torii gates, elaborate rock gardens, or bamboo forests. If they exist somewhere nearby, they are not shown.

Shiotani, Google Maps tells me, is a hamlet to the northwest of Kyoto. On my smartphone, it is a red marker surrounded by green. When I zoom in, the marker remains even as the rest of the map starts to fill in with details. At the smallest level, it turns into a red outline around its name, with some Ono Dam slightly to the south and a Mt. Chorogatake to the north north east. Is this the correct Shiotani? A few Google Street view pictures have me convinced that indeed it is.

My guess is that almost all photographers I know would have a hard time taking a single picture in that location. It would seem that there is nothing to take a picture of. But where are all the pictures in the book coming from? That’s where it gets interesting. In a nutshell, with very few exceptions, none of the pictures shows a moment that’s worthwhile remembering. That is the book’s brilliance.

As you start moving through the book, you’ll slowly get rid of expectations of something happening, to instead become immersed in a world that cherishes its quiet moments, its being very mundane. This is, in other words, our own world — the one we too often try to get distracted from by looking at precious pictures or whatever else. Nothing is happening: there is a meal, and then there is another meal, someone gets up to exit the room, the seasons change, and every once in a while someone dies.

There’s a movie that’s connected to the book. I haven’t seen it so I can’t say anything about it. In all likelihood, the film will be doing some things that this book cannot — and vice versa. Films do their own things — there’s the sound, and there’s the pacing that the viewer cannot control (or rather is not supposed to control; obviously in the day of Netflix and streaming sites that insert advertising that idea has long gone out of the window).

The book brings a viewer closer because it needs to placed into their immediate vicinity — on a lap, a table. It demands more of the viewer because when you close it it’s still there. I’m thinking it’s the still-being-there that would have me prefer the book over the movie (that, again, I haven’t seen — I’m writing these sentiments out of my feelings). I want its intimacy.

In Shiotani, the mundane becomes extraordinary simply because of Edström’s refusal to give in to conventions. If most photobooks are made for a specialist audience, this one really will only appeal to people deeply devoted to them. I don’t see that as a problem, given that this particular book will probably end up in that very small category of truly groundbreaking photobooks. You could place it next to Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu or Lieko Shiga’s Rasen Kaigan. That is this book’s company.

Shiotani is an immersive masterpiece that derives its beauty from its makers’ refusal to work with art photography’s most cherished conventions. Daily life in a small Japanese hamlet becomes extraordinary because every little moment, every little thing is given attention by Anders Edström. As a viewer, you find yourself in the middle of life as it is experienced by a small group of Japanese people. Coming away from the book, you can’t help but look around yourself to wonder whether paying a little more attention might not yield equally unexpected results.

Very highly recommended.

Shiotani; photographs by Anders Edström; texts by Jeff Rian, C.W. Winter; 750 pages; AKPE; 2021

Photography: An Insecure Craft Mon, 25 Apr 2022 13:35:21 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“It’s hard to resist the thought,” Susie Linfield wrote, “that a very large number of photography critics—including the most influential ones—don’t really like photographs, or the act of looking at them, at all.” I find it hard to disagree. As a field (or maybe practice), photography has produced a very strange set of writing around itself: there is not very much to begin with, and what exists is often oddly dismissive of what photographs can do (and, let’s face it, it’s usually also shockingly elitist).

It’s not just a problem of critics, though. Photographers themselves do not tend to take their medium as seriously as painters do, or sculptors, not even to mention writers. Or rather, they take it seriously in some ways, but they always have an eye on something else. Photographs often are described as “painterly” (whatever that is even supposed to mean); they have been compared to poems (say what?); and of late photographers have embraced the conventions of movie making, resulting in photographs that feel like an excuse: I would do real movies, but alas… (it’s a lucrative game, though, collectors and museums love buying oversized and overpriced photographs filled with shallow artifice).

You might wonder: if photographs are so often described with references to other media, what does this say about photography itself? Is this particular medium so dull that one can only make sense of it with the help of other media?

If you look at photography’s infancy, large amounts of time were spent on discussing what it might mean to take a photograph. There was the convenience. But then there also was the fact that somehow, photographs resembled reality too much. Charles Baudelaire, a poet, famously called photography the “refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies”. And photographers ate this up. In fact, I think they still do.

This resulted in a number of attempts to make photographs look more like art, spawning visual schlock such as pictorialism or, most recently, what people called New Formalism. Let’s ignore the fact that such attempts are based on a very shallow idea of what art might actually be and/or look like.

At their core, though, these attempts start out with an admission that, yes, on its own photography isn’t art, that it is the refuge that poet spoke about. So now one has to sexy up the photographs because on their own, they’re possibly as “ill-endowed” as Baudelaire claimed their makers were. That the poet’s comments might just have been some petty and rather ill-informed cattiness, emerging from Parisian art circles famous for exactly that — that thought didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone.

Today, photography is by far the most powerful and popular medium. And yet the field of photography is filled with insecurity regarding one’s own work and outright dismissiveness as far as popular-culture applications are concerned. Many practitioners always have at least one eye on other forms of art (in particular painting) — as if they can’t deal with the fact that like any other form of art, photography’s true power is based on its own restrictions.

Of course, part of the problem stems from the fact that photographers have embraced the commercial-gallery system with all its flaws, in particular its insistence on large, splashy pieces and editions (which can be sold for nice money to hang over some rich person’s couch). I now routinely come across websites where photographers list the dimensions of their prints and the edition sizes next to the work. I get it, selling three prints at some large size might make decent money — but what does that have to do with photography?

And there is the craftiness of it all. When I was teaching at an MFA program, I must have spent hours listening to people discussing the merits of one Mohawk superfine paper over some other. I’ve never been able to keep track of all the paper names. But I also remember that all the prints basically looked the same once they were deemed to be good. This is very curious if you think about it. You would imagine that photographers would strive for the prints to reflect their own artistic ideals. But no, there’s a sea of bland inkjet-print sameness.

It’s just a very curious situation: almost everything that makes photography photography — its endless possibilities, its limitless reproducibility — is being dismissed by the medium’s own most serious practitioners. Consequently, real advances in image making now happen outside of the narrow confines of photoland. Many social-media influencers are more adept at creating new images than artists who somehow can’t untether themselves from an art world that only produces benefits for a small number of photographers.

You would imagine that the world of the photobook is in a better shape. But the same problems play out there, albeit in slightly modified form: the elitism, the catering to the wealthy and subsequent production of luxury items, the endless repetition of utterly tired conventions. When it’s not an exhibition in some white space (ideally in one of the centers of the art world), photographers want an expensively produced photobook that they then end up selling to their friends and other photographers.

In all my years of teaching and looking at photography, I’ve seen maybe a handful of photographers or artists who attempted to break out of this tiresome model. For example, Moyra Davey printed out photographs, folded them up, and sent them out in the mail. Alas, later those pieces then end up on the walls of galleries or museums again. Zoe Strauss hung up prints under a highway overpass.

Why can’t a photograph not be printed on your $69 office inkjet printer? Why couldn’t it not be printed by a commercial printer that usually produces posters for advertising? Why do photographers stick to a framework that eliminate about 90% of the true creative potential of the medium?

I think in the end, it all circles back to the idea that photographers want to make art. For photography to be art, it has to look like art, meaning: it has to conform to conventions that were made for other art forms and that do not serve photography particularly well.

These days, NFTs are all the rage in photoland. You’ll find the very same mechanisms playing that have plagued art-photo circles for decades. Just swap out bland art-marketing speak for tech-speak gibberish, throw in some claims that might make normal people think you’re on some substance, and you got your NFT photo statement. Instead of a glitzy car dealership, you now have your Carvana.

It’s not even that I mind galleries and expensive photobooks. If you’ve followed my writing, you know how much I love books. I even like looking at exhibitions (when they’re well done).  It’s just that I’m missing a sense of experimentation. I’m missing the realization that an insistence on boring craft while dismissing photography’s true potential reduces a potentially very powerful medium to the caricature that large parts of art photography essentially have now become.

My theory is that experimentation proves to be too risky when there are only those two possible end results (gallery exhibition and expensive photobook). Obviously, there is only limited artistic freedom within those very narrow parameters. And that, in turn, has led to the stasis that we witness in today’s art photography.

Unlike the various critics mentioned by Susie Linfield I genuinely love looking at photographs. I might have my misgivings about certain things (who doesn’t?), but I love photography. I look at photographs every day, all day long.

But that looking is becoming more and more of a drag. It’s not because there are too many pictures (that’s just a silly talking point). It’s simply the sea of drab sameness, the lack of experimentation, the rejection of most of the possibilities offered by a medium that like no other reflects the world back to us.

Cut with the Blade dada through the Last Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Photoland Mon, 18 Apr 2022 13:05:46 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Hannah Höch and Rould Hausmann, the story goes, discovered the potential of photomontage by chance — while being on vacation. “[V]isiting the town of Heidebrink on the island of Usedom […],” Maria Makela writes, “the couple encountered in homes and businesses of the residents a popular type of engraving in which photographic portraits of heads of local men away at war had been collaged atop generic, uniformed torsos. Höch and Hausmann returned to Berlin and immediately began to experiment with the medium by clipping photographic reproductions from a wide variety of illustrated sources and then mixing and matching them to create startling, often unsettling new imagery.” (Maria Makela: By Design: The Early Work of Hannah Höch in Context, in: The Photomontages of Hannah Höch, ed. Janet Jenkins, Walker Art Center, 1996, p.59)

It was Höch, the sole female member of Berlin’s dada art scene and, I’d argue, the only of those artists whose thinking wasn’t mostly one dimensional ended up having the largest impact in the long run. At the time, her contributions were mostly overlooked and/or belittled by her dada collaborators (incl. Hausmann, who treated her very poorly). The large photomontage entitled Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands (1919-20) is frequently taken as the first photomontage in what by now is a tradition of 100 years.

It is a possibly slightly earlier and much more modestly sized work entitled Staatshäupter (1918-20), though, that sets the tone for many of Höch’s later works. In it, German Reich President Friedrich Ebert and Defense Minister Gustav Noske find themselves on top of an iron-on embroidery pattern. At the time, Höch was employed by publisher Ullstein Verlag, producing a variety of textile designs and patterns for embroidery and other handicraft. As Makela outlines, Höch didn’t mind the work and considered craft as being on the same level as art. Ullstein produced a large variety of magazines and periodicals, including the well-known Illustrirte Zeitung that in August 1919 had featured Ebert and Noske on its cover, standing up to their knees in water at some Baltic sea resort.

Germany had just emerged from an autocracy under the Kaiser as a democracy. Seeing the country’s first democratically elected president displayed in bathing trunks caused quite the ruckus. Deftly, Höch amplified the magazine’s message with her montage, cutting the two politicians down to size. Where the massive Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser piece attempted to compete with the bombast produced by her male peers, Staatshäupter brought Höch’s genius to the fore: collage works best when its wit is not undercut by bombast, when artistic skill does not have to compete with showboating.

(Unfortunately, when it comes to photomontage/collage, puns around cutting are hard, if not impossible to prevent. The image itself is not particularly subtle; but then, there are many things in life that aren’t subtle — or rather: that cannot be properly critiqued with subtlety, given that subtlety itself often is a sign of its user’s privilege.)

“I’m coming for you with a blade,” Justine Kurland proclaims on the cover of SCUMB Manifesto. SCUMB stands for Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books. This references the late Valerie SolanasSCUM Manifesto, a feminist piece of writing that starts out with “‘Life’ in this ‘society’ being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of ‘society’ being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” Solanas famously shot Andy Warhol, which unfortunately for most people might be the sole thing they know about her.

As I noted in the introduction to my conversation with 10×10 Photobooks, the world of the photobook is overwhelmingly male. Efforts are made to rectify this situation — whether in the form of cataloguing books by women that previously have been ignored, bodies of work being published long after they were made, or whatever else. That’s all good and very much worthwhile. Yet a full reckoning will have to include talking about the books that have been celebrated so far, simply because there is no reason that each and every book that is part of the canon should retain its position or, at the very least, should continue to be treated uncritically.

Kurland’s solution is simple and radical. The artist literally cut up a large number of books from her collection and created collages from their material many of which she then attached to the books’ cases.

Strictly speaking, the world of the photobook isn’t an institution. Despite its amorphous shape and form, though, it acts like one. This fact might be a lot clearer to all those trying to get a seat at the table than those already sitting. Seen this way, you could view SCUMB Manifesto as a form of visual institutional critique.

As a writer I’m glad that I don’t have to write articles about many of the books Kurland cut up and reconfigured. What exactly can one write about, say, the book that contains Lee Friedlander’s nudes? The photography is so bad in so many ways that I’d find myself struggling to arrive at anything other than exasperation. Wielding her blade, Kurland does not have this problem. A few deft cuts and montages, and — voila! — there it is, the fantasy of what many men mistaken for a healthy heterosexual desire.

Most of the collages in SCUMB Manifesto follow the model of Höch’s Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser. They’re visually compelling and visceral, betraying their maker’s considerable artistic wit and intelligence. With plenty of nudity in the source material, Kurland’s combination of blade and glue serves to amplify the underlying lecherousness of so many of the books that were reconfigured. There is a list of the books’ titles at the end, in case as a viewer you’re curious about the source material.

While after a century of photomontage, the practice appeared to have mostly fallen by the wayside, SCUMB Manifesto demonstrates that in the right hands it has not lost its original revolutionary potential.

I personally don’t believe in an afterlife. But were it to exist, I’d imagine Hannah Höch being mightily pleased, seeing that the knife is still being put to good use: to cut down men to size.

SCUMB Manifesto; collages by Justine Kurland; essays by Marina Chao, Renee Gladman, Catherine Lord, Ariana Reines; 282 pages; MACK; 2022

Paris Nord Mon, 11 Apr 2022 14:55:54 +0000 Joerg Colberg

As Western societies get richer and richer under neoliberal capitalism, the accumulated wealth is distributed more and more unequally. The problem isn’t just that a relatively small number of people (billionaires) are hoarding money like modern-day Crassi. The real problem is that what not so long ago was referred to as the 99% is no homogeneous block.

Just look at how what used to be social-democratic parties are now organizations devoted to preservation and betterment of the relatively well off. Beneath those, there is a growing assembly of citizens that politically and economically are not represented by anyone any longer and that have been stripped of whatever few rights and little wealth they might have been able to accrue under previous social-democratic conditions.

As a consequence, those at the very bottom of the economic ladder have become outcasts, regardless of whether they are refugees from foreign countries, stateless wanderers, or the kinds of economic losers whose presence is necessitated by the collusion of billionaires and the clients of “reformed” (“centrist”, “third way”, …), previously social-democratic parties. Those that  advocate for the vast new underclass are now usually described as “far left” by the media that are solidly devoted to “centrist” ideas, and they often lumped together with the far right, as if social justice and fascism posed equal threats to democracy.

As can be seen in a large number of countries, this situation is toxic for democracy itself. If people are given the choice between neoliberal technocrats whose main focus is “the economy” (resulting in ever shrinking social services while taxes on corporations and the rich are lowered) and neo-fascists who offer a vision, as noxious and outright dangerous it might be, then in the long run the neo-fascists can only win, leading to the likes of Trump, Orban, Kaczynski, Le Pen, Bolsonaro, Modi,  etc.

It’s easy to see how this configuration poses a lose-lose situation for democracy. A neofascist victory typically results in the erosion of democratic norms and rules (if not their outright suspension as courts are being politicized etc.). To prevent that situation, many people feel blackmailed into voting for the “lesser evil”. But that erodes trust in the democratic process itself, given people are led to think that there is no choice whatsoever. This in turn feeds the neofascist narrative that liberal democracy is the problem.

How would one go about photographing around any of this? French photographer Myr Muratet‘s Paris Nord focuses on a number of aspect mentioned above. If I understand the publisher’s description of the book properly, the book combines a number of projects and intermingles them to arrive at a searing indictment of the very mechanisms that are driving more and more people into the margins.

(It is a coincidence that I am writing this article on the day of the first round of the French presidential elections that once again resulted in the choice between a neoliberal technocrat and a neofascist that openly supports Russian dictator Putin.)

There are a number of reasons why the book is extremely noteworthy. To begin with, it’s filled with a number of incredible, visceral photographs. Even as many of its ideas aren’t very new at all, every time I look through the book I can’t help but feel that this is a milestone of photography that shows me something I am familiar with in a new light, rattling the cage that most of us find ourselves in.

It’s strange: Photography originated in France. And yet over the past few decades, the country hardly has been at the forefront of contemporary photography, even as some of photoland’s most cherished events are happening there (Paris Photo and Les Rencontres d’Arles). These days it’s mostly artists from its central and eastern parts that are pushing the conversation forward in Europe. In some ways, France reminds me a little bit of Britain before the arrival of a new generation of photographers working in colour in the 1980s re-ignited the fire there. Will we be able to witness a similar revival in French photography now? Paris Nord for sure is a book that I hope will make its mark and stake such a new claim.

As an object — and this is something I have to get out of my system, the book isn’t particularly attractive. It’s a relatively large softcover with a clear plastic dust jacket and a paper that’s rather unattractive to the touch. It’s testament to the sheer strength of the photography that this hardly matters. Possibly, the book was made with costs in mind: on the publisher’s website, the book is listed for 25 €. That’s crazy cheap for what you get when you buy a copy. And potentially making more of a luxury object would run counter to what’s presented in the book.

Regardless, as you leaf through the book, you encounter an urban environment that is openly hostile towards at least some of the people who are trying to find a home there. Muratet is very adept at photographing Paris in such a way that the various contraptions created around its inner-city buildings designed to keep out people without homes resemble the fences and barriers around motorways or other areas that are not to be entered. The City of Love has thus become a mirror of neoliberal violence: if there’s love, it’s strictly kept from anyone who finds themselves at the margins.

There are many photographs of these people. After all, they have no choice but to try to make the city their home, regardless of whether they’re welcomed or not. Some of the most searing pictures show people sleeping in what essentially are body bags for bodies that are still warm: large sheets of plastic or maybe thin fabric that delineate the sleepers’ contours. These photographs show how much these people are worth to the French Republic in which they find themselves in.

If you find my read of these photographs too drastic, consider the case of René Robert, a Swiss photographer aged 85, who one night slipped somewhere in Paris and then spent a total of nine hours lying in the street helplessly before he died from hypothermia. Not a single Parisian bothered to check whether the main lying on the ground was OK or not. We only know of Robert’s fate because he had friends in well-off circles. If one of the people depicted in Paris Nord dies, we will never hear about it.

If it is sheer indifference that resulted in the death of René Robert, Myr Muratet’s should be seen as an act of resistance: Indifference is a choice, whether in the voting booth, on the street, or when walking around with one’s camera.

Paris Nord is an exceptionally strong photobook that you don’t want to miss.

Highly recommended.

Paris Nord; photographs by My Muratet; essay by Manuel Joseph (French only); 240 pages; Building Books; 2021

The Craft of Photography Mon, 04 Apr 2022 15:44:46 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Stephen Shore describes Modern Instances as “a subjective scrapbook of thoughts and impressions. An impressionistic memoir” (p.10). A memoir of sorts it is. It also is “a subjective scrapbook of thoughts and impressions”, even as I feel that this description is too modest. All photography is subjective, in particular when it aspires to be art. And given how carefuly considered and thoughtful the book is, to describe it as a scrapbook might seem a tad too modest.

There is something to be said for Shore’s modesty, given that he has served as an educator for a long time. He writes “I see my role in the classroom as that of a guide—leading each student to find their voice as an artist” (p.12).

As far as I can tell, to see oneself as a guide — as opposed to, say, a drill sergeant — speaks of two things: generosity and confidence. If as a teacher you want to guide your students, you need to be generous with your advice, knowing that teaching is not a zero-sum game where you students learn from you at your own expense. At the same time, you need to possess a degree of confidence in your own abilities: a guide might lead some but not all of the way.

Having read Modern Instances, I can’t help but feel that Shore must be an excellent teacher. The two qualities I spoke of — generosity and confidence — shine through very clearly in the book.

But writing a book of this particular kind poses a pitfall for the guiding teacher, especially one with so much experience: the risk is that you mistaken your reader with a student. A reader might in fact be a student — someone eager to learn more about photography. But there might be other readers, for example someone who is curious to know more about Stephen Shore as an artist or even as a person. I have the feeling that this latter reader might not get all the answers they would be looking for.

Modern Instances is subtitled The Craft of Photography. A Memoir. In a conversation, I once was asked to compare Shore with fellow photographer Joel Sternfeld. I came up with the idea that while behind the view camera, Sternfeld looked at America whereas Shore looked at the ground glass. “Both of these pictures are based on one-point perspective,” Shore writes about a pair of photographs made in 1974 and 1975, “with the vanishing point in the center of the image. The Los Angeles image is much denser; there is more information to organize. When three-dimensional space is collapsed into a flat picture, objects in the foreground are now seen, on the surface of the photograph, in a new and precise relationship to the objects in the background.” (p. 20) All photographs are information organized in a two-dimensional plane. If any photographer has spent a lot of time thinking about this, it’s Shore.

I’ve now arrived at thinking that American Surfaces is my favourite body of work by this artist. In his memoir, Shore describes it as an exercise in seeing. But I do think that there’s a sense of playfulness and looseness in these pictures that is absent from the later work where possibly because of the use of a view-camera those aspects had to fall aside. This has me thinking that the work might have been more than merely a study in photographic seeing. Maybe my own path as someone looking at pictures is the opposite of Shore’s as someone making pictures, moving from what is measured and confined to something that is freer, looser.

In the book, Shore connects his own photographic problem solving with examples of art made before him. In a section entitled Influences and Inspirations, he lists a number of them (there are others scattered elsewhere in the book). They include Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, a number of architectural spaces, and more. And then on page 117, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera makes an appearance, which almost made me fall out of my chair. While Shore focuses especially on the lyrics, Brecht’s caustic lyrics and Weill’s helter-skelterly music to me are the complete opposite of the spirit that runs through Shore’s photographs and writing, with its polite, measured, and carefully considered delivery. I suppose this only shows that whenever you think you know something about a person, there still are ample opportunities for them to surprise you.

Shore’s artistic references are mostly male, white, and Western. This makes him a good representative of the vast majority of American artists from his (and later) generation(s). It’s probably obvious to most readers how such a set of references is limiting for a large number of contemporary practitioners. But dismissing the book for that reason would be a mistake. To begin with, Shore’s work simply is too strong and masterful to be cast aside. There are ample opportunities to learn from his work and thinking, the latter of which is laid out in full detail here. Even if as an artist you don’t see yourself as a strict formalist, Shore overarching important lesson is most important: you will have to get your craft perfect.

What is more, to understand the history of photography involves immersing oneself in a lot of material that for any number of reasons one might be tempted to dismiss as not being relevant for one’s own work. In my own experience, I have now come to realize that there is almost no photography that does not offer an opportunity to learn something about what it means to use a camera. For better or worse, the very male and white world of artists that dominates the book has something to offer; understanding how it came about and relates with itself forms an important part of moving to something more diverse.

Stephen Shore is one of the very rare cases where a person combines being an excellent, groundbreaking artist with being a generous and open teacher, and a very good writer. With Modern Instances, we now get access to that universe. This makes for a unique opportunity to get access to something that too often is hidden: how a person developed into the artist they are, given the material and people they associated themselves with.

In my own teaching, I often describe photographs as gifts: they are given to you if you’re able to spot and then take them. This book is a gift. If this (or any other) article spotted it, all that’s left for you is to take it.

Stephen Shore — Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography;224 pages; MACK; 2022

Photography After Capitalism Mon, 28 Mar 2022 14:38:45 +0000 Joerg Colberg

One of the problems with capitalism is that inevitably, we have to deal with it from the inside, from being thoroughly embedded in it. As denizens of photoland, we can also say the same about photography: we often don’t or can’t see its many fault lines, given that we tend to look at the world as either something that is photographable or that has already been photographed. As a consequence, looking at photography, capitalism, and the relationships between them is difficult to understand in more ways than just one.

It is no secret that I have had an interest in the topic for a long time. My approach is old-fashioned in the sense that I see photographs as manifestations of capitalism (and other ideologies): I look for how they express whatever is embedded in them, reading their codes in ways that follow the tradition of Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes, while mostly ignoring more photo-specific details. For example, in Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, I argued that focusing on the photographic artifacts in the work of Annie Liebovitz, Gregory Crewdson, and Andreas Gursky is completely besides the point I was actually interested in.

But there are different ways to approach the larger subject matter, and these include expressly taking the way photographs are being made into consideration. This also includes the fact that larger parts of photography cannot really be considered in a classical sense any longer.

What is called computational photography focuses on the fact that photographs are no longer made only by the person pressing the shutter button (whether a physical one or some area on a smart-phone screen). Instead, photographs are increasingly being interpolated if not outright invented by computer algorithms that a) correct for known deficiencies of photographic equipment and b) work towards what the programming team has deemed to be the desired outcome by a target audience (I don’t agree with parts of this recent article about the latest iPhones, but it gives you a good idea of some of the topics that are being discussed).

Ben Burbridge‘s Photography After Capitalism is a recent book that looks into a larger number of such topics, with a focus on the relationship between photography and labour itself. After all, someone will have to press that shutter button (or take that screenshot) and potentially move through some space. That is a form of labour. Photographs don’t make themselves, and there are repercussions from this very fact.

What’s more, those at the other side of a camera are also part of the equation, even if this aspect is one that usually is being completely ignored by photoland. The topic came up in my conversation with Rob Hornstra who recently started to give subjects whose picture he sold to collectors a portion of the proceeds (see the interview for details). As Burbridge details in a chapter about this very idea — involving subjects in the financial aspects of picture making, selling, and/or distributing, things can get considerably more complex than in the cases discussed by Hornstra.

Possibly the most extreme case is the one of Renzo Martens whose Enjoy Poverty caused a huge stir a little over a decade ago. I got so intrigued by Burbridge’s discussion that I looked for more information about the project and its reception. I found Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens‘ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, a collection of reviews, articles, and interviews made around the project. With its 370 pages, there is much to chew on.

I don’t think I have been this engrossed in a book of criticism in a long time. If you are even only remotely interested in the photojournalistic industry taking pictures in a place like Africa, for sure you will want to read the book.

Enjoy Poverty encapsulates a huge number of aspects of photography under and as a tool of capitalism, with possible ways out potentially only being provided by the most breathtaking cynicism that, however, doesn’t even work.

In a nutshell, Martens went to Congo to help local photographers make money by teaching them to take the kinds of pictures outside photojournalists sell for a lot of money. The idea didn’t work, because nobody wanted to buy the pictures: stuck in poverty and misery, there’s no way out; and of course, some white guy coming to help just adds another layer of complication.

The beauty of Photography After Capitalism is that even where Burbridge’s examples are maybe not quite as interesting as the author wants to make us believe (for example, Mishka Henner’s rather pedestrian screenshots of oil fields are hardly as insightful as they are being made out), there still is considerable insight into either what is at stake or (and this part interests me personally more) how photographs can be connected to larger issues.

One of the problems writers and critics face who are trying to understand the effects caused by recent changes in the technological landscape of photography is the following. Often, things change so rapidly that the moment a book makes it into print, an example already is at least somewhat outdated or has been superseded by something more recent. The strength of Burbridge’s writing is that it typically spans a wider range (both in scope and time), meaning that the focus always is on the undercurrent and not so much on what currently floats on top.

Whether talking about snapshots or appropriation, Burbridge deftly ties together a number of recent and older photographers/artists. As a consequence, readers learn more about artists that are already part of (for a lack of a better word) the canon and very recent ones that might operate in seemingly very different ways. This approach not only yields in a lot of depth and insight, it also ensures that Photography After Capitalism is likely to be relevant in a day and age when, say, Instagram has become what Tumblr or Flickr are now. Unlike a lot of other books (especially those written about photography and social media), I suspect that this book will age very well.

In his final chapter, Burbridge notes that “[a]rt can be an important site for politics, but only if we remain attentive to the politics of art.” This statement sits at the core of parts of what I have focused on for a while. Given how deeply embedded photography is in capitalism, in effect there cannot be a photography without politics: even as capitalism attempts to convince us it has nothing to do with politics, the reality is the complete opposite.

Obviously, a lot of photolandians would rather not have so much to do with politics or think about capitalism. Doesn’t photography (or art) provide a refuge, where dealing with things larger than petty concerns provides solace? Well, sure. That is a valid and often valuable way of thinking.

However, Photography After Capitalism demonstrates its futility. In the day and age of computational photography, it is impossible to avoid looking into the politics of labour in the world of photography, regardless of whether it concerns those far away who mine the materials cameras rely on, those far away who moderate our content on social media (whether we actually want that or not), those who develop the algorithms that make our pictures look the way they look, those we see in front of our cameras, and, of course, ourselves, the usually unpaid labourers of our own work.

This doesn’t mean that we all now need to make work around these topics. But at the very least, we owe it to ourselves to become more aware of the undercurrents I spoke of earlier.

Ben Burbridge: Photography After Capitalism, 256 pages, Goldsmiths Press, 2020

Anthony Downey (ed.): Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens‘ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, Sternberg Press, 2019

The Beauty of the Body Mon, 21 Mar 2022 14:47:11 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I happened to look at Anne Morgenstern‘s Macht Liebe for the first time after having spent some time on Instagram. This made for a jarring experience. Larger parts of Morgenstern’s photographs would not be able to exist on Instagram simply because they run counter to what the company euphemistically calls its “community guidelines”: essentially a framework that permits complete freedom only to straight white men, some freedom to straight white women, and very little — if any — freedom to anyone else.

Obviously, we could all just leave Instagram. But the company and its app are not any more the problem than Donald Trump was. They’re merely symptoms of an underlying culture that values one particular type of body at the expense of everybody else’s and that equates nudity with sex. If for a reason that is pretty much entirely out of your control you happen to have a body that does not conform to the widely demanded norm, then, well, you’re out of luck.

You’re not only out of luck because you will be discriminated against in a number of ways (whether on Instagram or in our larger visual culture); you’re also out of luck because as a society we’re really bad at talking about bodies and what it means to inhabit one. If you’ve lived long enough it’s not difficult to conclude that almost every person has some problems with their body, and yet almost nobody is able to vocalize them. Instead, we all bottle them up. When someone attempts to do it anyway, let’s say on Instagram, we might double tap to “like”, maybe we leave a comment in some form, and that’s about it.

Open Macht Liebe and you’ll encounter a completely different universe. Or rather a version of our world that has shed all constraints and that embraces each and every body simply the way it is. Obviously, one of the reasons why the book is so good is because the photography itself is so stellar. Where Morgenstern’s previous books were already very good — you can find my reviews listed here, this new book feels like a quantum leap forward.

The photography feels contemporary — you can tell that the artist is very much aware of the current visual discourse. At the same time the photographs don’t feel as if they were made for the academy: that cliquish group of art photographers and curators who make work only for themselves, without any regard for the larger world — even as they very much pretend to do the opposite of that. Instead, these photographs are very much alive: they breathe, they’re open, they often are playful, and yes, they’re very beautiful.

The photographs cover a variety of people and objects. There are portraits (photographed with a sense of generous tenderness that is very, very rare these days); there are details of body parts; there are still lifes; there are photographs of animals; there are photographs that evoke snapshots without losing focus of the task at hand.

And there are bodies, large numbers of them, all kinds of shapes and forms and ages and sexual orientations and gender identifications and whatever else. It is the strong sense of acceptance mixed with playfulness that prevents the work itself from being didactic. As a viewer, you’re invited to look and become a part of what is on view, even as for sure every viewer will find their own limit to how far they might be willing to go.

In addition, the object itself, the book, embraces what can be done with this particular form and elevates it beyond your regular monograph. Each spread offers space for four vertically taken photographs, even as that space is not always completely filled. For example, the book opens with a spread of three pictures, followed by four, which are then followed by two. Occasionally, there is a horizontal photograph instead of two vertical ones, so the fourth spread shows one horizontal pictures next to two vertical ones.

While this might sound confusing when described with words, the experience of the book is the complete opposite of that. The combinations of the photographs and the effect achieved through the variations creates a very powerful visual game, in which each and every photography is made to work in some form of harmony with its neighbours. This is no mean feat, given the work that must have gone into constructing this sequence of groupings that, in turn, build up through their sequence to a very powerful whole.

I can’t think of another book that employs this method as successfully. After all, one of the possible drawbacks of this type of book building is that there is the risk of things becoming just much too cerebral or too centered on the bookmakers’ cleverness — instead of on the photographs and their overall message. It is possible that these photographs themselves prevent arriving at such a conclusion; but the edit and design team — the photographer along with designer Claudio Barandun — did an incredible job.

Macht Liebe feels like a welcome addition to Hartmann Books‘ usually elegant but also maybe a bit too predictable stable of books. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of their books. But it’s wonderful to see a book break out of the usual a little bit too quiet restraint and throw something wild at you. Macht Liebe is wild — in all the best ways. Its German title is nifty. It translates as either “make love” or “the power of love” into English. As with all great books, it’s the small details that matter.

It’s impossible to know what the rest of the year will bring in terms of photobooks. It’s possible this book is just the first out of many great books this year. Or maybe it will remain that one book that at the end of the year made the biggest impression on me. Whichever it ends up being, Macht Liebe is absolutely brilliant — one of the best contemporary photobooks in a long time.

Highly recommended.

Macht Liebe; photography by Anne Morgenstern; essay by Danaé Panchaud; 192 pages; Hartmann Books; 2022

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

A Conversation with Rob Hornstra Mon, 14 Mar 2022 14:02:39 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Ordinarily, I would have simply introduced my conversation with Rob Hornstra with his history as a photographer, most notably his work with writer Arnold van Bruggen in the Caucasus: The Sochi Project. That work entailed a large number of highly successful self-published photobooks, all of them crowdfunded at a time when such an approach was only beginning to become more widely used. It ended up getting the pair being banned from Russia. There now is a new project, The Europeans, which follows similar ideas in a different setting.

But since 24th February 2022, The Sochi Project has taken on a completely new meaning and relevance, given Putin’s attack on Ukraine has brought the brutish Russian conduct in the Caucasus with its massive human-rights violations and innumerous war crimes right into the heart of Europe (Europeans had conveniently ignored them when Russia bombed hospitals in Syria and reduced entire cities to ashes).

The following conversation was conducted three weeks before the start of the war in Ukraine and for that reason does not include a discussion of it. It has been edited for clarity and length.

After the start of the war, Rob made copies of the book An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus available for sale, with all proceeds going to the Ukrainian Red Cross: “After previously selling 84 books within a week, our stock was exhausted. We donated 3,990 Euros to the Red Cross. Now our publisher Aperture has decided to supply new stock free of charge. Brilliant! The action continues! For every sold book we donate 47.50 euro to the Ukrainian Red Cross.” If you’re interested in a copy follow this link.

Jörg Colberg
The last time we spoke your partner and you had just had your first child, and you were teaching. You had also finished The Sochi Project, a massive project with crowdfunding and a lot of trips. With time passed now, looking back — how do you see that work?

Rob Hornstra
What we achieved — Arnold van Bruggen and I — is more than we expected when we started the project in 2009. Especially around the Olympic Winter Games and the months before, when we got banned from Russia, that’s when we had a tremendous number of articles and media coverage. I think the project truly managed to make an impact by shining a different light on the Olympic propaganda machine of the Russian regime. It was bigger than we ever expected. So the whole project itself… I’m still satisfied.

If you interview athletes before, let’s say, the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing they all say “it doesn’t matter if I win a gold medal, but I need to have the feeling that I did the best race of my life.” I feel that in those five years we did the best race possible. We couldn’t have done more especially when you consider the very limited financial resources we were working with. More exhibitions, more sold books, more articles, more than we expected. I don’t feel that we could have gotten more out of it.

I think at the time, and even now looking back, it was a cutting-edge way to work with photography and also an attempt to engage with an audience in ways that went beyond the usual ideas: here’s a photobook at a book fair that only photographers go to, here’s a gallery show. You tried to reach larger audiences. I want to talk about the photobook and photoland bubbles a little later. But do you think that you had a chance to at least expand that bubble a little bit or even break out of it?

We were mainly exhibiting in photo institutions, at photo festivals, not so much in contemporary art museums. From there, we also reached beyond the bubble with the help of traditional media: magazines, newspapers writing about our work, and then people being interested in looking it up. To give you an example, around the day we got banned from Russia, we had 100,000 unique visitors from Russia on our storytelling website. Alternative online news channels in Russia were reporting about it. So everybody was checking our website. That was definitely beyond art and photography circles.

Another example, Aperture published 4,500 books, and they were all sold before the Olympic Winter Games. Four thousand five hundred is quite a substantial amount of books. Now we have second edition that is running towards the end. We’re not talking about only 250 or 750 books or whatever the numbers might be these days. What helped tremendously was that the region where we worked was closed for journalists six months before the Olympics. So it was no surprise that many editors from major newspapers checked out the book and knocked on our door. When Le Monde or The Guardian publishes an article about it, then you reach far. All these big news channels in different countries were reporting about our project. And very often not in the art section, but in the foreign-affairs pages. There, you reach significantly larger numbers of readers. We always stipulated that there were references to our book or website. That helped tremendously with the visibility of our work.


And then you took a little time out. Or maybe I shouldn’t call it time out, because your old employer might get upset. But you went into teaching.

Especially during the last two trips to Sochi, I didn’t have any energy to once again approach people and have conversations. I was exhausted. So I felt that I needed to take a period off from being an active photographer. When the job offer arrived at my door step — co-head of the BA and MA Photography at the KABK Royal Academy of Art — I just decided to go for it. And it turned out to be a great experience.

Of course, this decision was also related to the fact that I just had had my first child, and the second child was coming up. I wanted to be more at home in those early years of my children’s lives. Having a steady income would be nice too for a while. The job gave me the ability to have a mortgage on a house, which is near to impossible for freelancers in the Netherlands. The moment I had a permanent contract after two years, I immediately bought a house. So there were advantages for a while. However, when I announced this temporary career switch, everybody warned me. From Martin Parr all the way to my mother saying “this is the end of your maker’s career.” I always replied: “No, I can combine it all.” But no. Unfortunately, it turned out to be impossible for me. Officially, I had a three-day job. But it was always double the amount of time and it made it impossible for me to sustain my maker’s career.

Anyway, I felt very privileged, I had a nice job at an ambitious academy with great students. I had permanent contract, a steady income, a mortgage and didn’t have to travel too much. I had a great life that I could continue easily like this for years. But after a couple of years, I told my colleague co-head: “It’s too bad, because being co-head absolutely is the second best job in the world. But for whatever reason I still want to be a photographer.” As a result I took an unpaid six-month leave of absence. Within a month after my return I told her: “This is not going to be half a year, this is going to be forever.” And I quit. That’s now one year ago.

It was a big step for me to find the courage to say: “Hell yeah, I’m burning down everything and I am going back to my insecure maker’s career.” But so far I’m very glad I did. Despite all the uncertainties, I think it’s just incredible to be a photographer and work on self-initiated long-term projects.

You decided to work with Arnold van Bruggen again. And you started the project The Europeans. I think the structure is very similar to The Sochi Project. But I think there are some differences. I don’t know if this is true, but I think you don’t work with galleries any longer. Can you talk about that?

I didn’t feel very comfortable working with galleries in general. You know and I know and every reader of your website knows that art fairs are hardly about content. They are about aesthetics and money. My work is humanistic and often about violations of human rights or poor living conditions. Seeing my work as a sales item at an art fair makes me feel uncomfortable. There also is the fact that the most marketable two or three works are usually displayed. I work in series — that’s why I like books so much, and if you only pull a few works out, the content gets blurred.

My students often asked me: “If you feel uncomfortable, then why are you a part of it?” The answer was very simple. Like every artist, I was hoping to make enough money to sustain independent projects. I did make money, but not so much that I felt that it was going to be the part that’s really sustaining my work. Five years ago, I decided to stay closer to myself and stop working with galleries. I know more photographers struggle with this, but few speak up about it.

Was that a smart decision? Most important, it feels good to no longer be part of this deeply conservative, capitalist art bubble. I’m not against selling work, as I also need to fund my projects, but the setting of an art fair just doesn’t feel good to me. Financially, by the way, it hasn’t turned out badly. I sell more work now than I did during my gallery times, directly to museums as well as to private buyers. Without profit sharing.

I read that, that the people in your pictures get a fraction of the money that you make from a print sale. Is that true?

Yes. What do we think about it? It’s true, but I’m still in doubt. I’ll explain after tell me what you think.

When I read this, I thought it’s actually brilliant. It solves some of the problems that I’ve had for a long time. I have a problem with the fact that a photographer goes out into the world, and often the people that are being photographed are poor people or disadvantaged people. The pictures are then sold to rich people, and the photographer makes a career out of that. That’s fine. But the people in the pictures don’t really get anything. Their pictures maybe hang in a museum, or their faces are well known. But nobody even knows their names. I’ve always wondered why they do not get anything other than an invitation to the exhibition or maybe a small print? So when I heard about your model I thought it was great. In some ways, you share responsibility for what you make. But I don’t know to what extent these thoughts were in your head when you came up with this.

Once I make a portrait of anyone and publish it in a book or in a magazine, I don’t feel uncomfortable. I see it as my calling to document the world. Including people. So making portraits is part of my profession. I honestly explain my work the best I can to everyone. People are free to participate or not, they sign a consent form afterwards. If a portrait is published, in a book, magazine or newspaper, I hardly ever make any money from it.

Once one of those portraits is being sold for a lot of money as an artwork in an edition, I become a bit uncomfortable. On the one hand, such transactions are necessary to generate enough income to continue my projects. On the other hand, I feel that is the time when the person portrayed may also benefit from the sale of work.

I never tell people in advance that they could possibly make some money from the photo. I’m afraid I’ll end up in a grey area, where people agree to cooperate because they hope to make money from it. Or that it affects their behaviour in front of the camera. In my practice, the chances of a portrait being sold as an editioned print are incredibly small, maybe one in every hundred portraits.

Out of the blue, they get a check from you in the mail?

The way this works is that 1/3 of the money goes to the person, 1/3 goes to me, and 1/3 to our project The Europeans. So yes, I contact them. It’s not a lot of money, usually just a couple of hundred euros. But people are surprised. I don’t have a lot of experience yet. The selling of editioned works from The Europeans has only just begun. I am now in the process of finalising the first transactions.

Honestly, I am a bit afraid of possible outcomes. What if this becomes more regular and more photographers are using this system? As a result, people might ask any photographer whether they get money from it. Whereas I believe that making someone’s portrait is not something that you should have to pay for. And of course, in my new system, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m only paying to someone if I sell the picture, based on the idea that sharing is an incredibly beautiful thing.

For every chapter within The Europeans, I’m portraying 300, maybe 400 people. Out of all these portraits, three, maybe four photos are sold as an editioned print. The other people don’t get anything. I don’t want to create a shady field where people are going to ask for money from photographers before they are portrayed. That’s my fear with this system. I don’t want to make it more difficult for photographers than it already is these days. Hence my doubts.

Another point of attention: What if the person in the image is — in my opinion — a really nasty person, let’s say, a Nazi guy? I don’t want to support those activities. That doesn’t feel good. Another thing, in case you portray children, you have to pay the parents. I hope that they put the money aside for later, but you never know. So I started something, and I thought I’d do good. But now I have my doubts about all these kinds of things. Actually, I really have no clue what I’m doing. But that’s always when you start something new, right?

I was just going to say that you did similar things with The Sochi Project already. You tried a lot of things just to see what happens.

Some things completely fail and other ones are successful. Fortunately for me, people generally only look at the success stories. I am seen as the photographer who has introduced new funding models for long-term photography projects and constantly questions the ‘conservative’ art and photography scene by using new forms of presentation, reaching beyond the intellectual elite. I am quite proud of that. But of course, many things I tried failed. That is less in the spotlight.

Here’s one other thing I wanted to talk about: the isolated world of the photobook and photographers staying in that bubble. I had the feeling that you have a lot of opinions about that. How do you see this whole thing?

The short answer is I share your opinion. Actually, I am always a little bit in doubt about how to talk about this. I am passionate about photobooks. I love photobooks, including photobooks that are being made without a real reason to make them. I think those books are sometimes brilliant. So it’s very difficult to be harsh towards this world where things are made with commitment, care, and passion.

But the fact is that not enough photographers think before they publish a book. Delphine Bedel, founder of META/BOOKS once asked: “Is your book worth killing a tree?” That’s a very important question. I think photographers nowadays have the obligation to think about the impact of a book. There are so many photographers producing wonderful and smart photography projects. But once they start thinking about presentation of those projects, it seems that 99% lose their capacity to creatively think. All they think of then is ‘book and exhibition’ without wondering what purpose that serves.

I really admire photographers who have the rare capacity to match the presentation of their work to the core ambition they had in mind. People like Rafał Milach, for example, making newspapers to hand out for free among protesters. To support them, to give them a voice, to make them visible to future history because the media ignores them, even to facilitate posters. Or Zoe Strauss, who presented her work under the I-95 highway to bring together different groups in Philadelphia. You really cannot find these different groups in a museum, no matter how hard they try to bring them in. Or Mark Neville who is sending out 750 complimentary copies of his new book Stop Tanks With Books to ambassadors, members of parliament and other policy makers. The aim is to put pressure on ending the war and withdrawal of Russian forces from occupied territories. These kinds of projects are far ahead of all those narcissistic photographers who would like to see their work reproduced in an expensive and beautifully printed book with their name on the cover. The annoying thing for photographers who explore new forms of presentation and appeal to different audiences is that the art world — which calls itself progressive, but in real is the opposite — often ignores such projects, while rewarding those expensive narcissistic book projects.

With your latest book, you explicitly tried not to make a posh, big book.

It is not really a book, we see it as an interim publication, an ephemeral and raw presentation to continue the local dialogue and elicit responses that are valuable for the continuation of the project.

For The Europeans, we produce work in different heartland regions. That’s where we also first want to present the work. It doesn’t have to be a presentation at an art institution. It can be a shopping mall as well. We try to connect to a broad local audience. And we have devised a strategy on how to achieve this. First of all, we work together with a local newspaper. And we create stories, portraits of local people for this newspaper. That’s working really well. We reach loads of people by publishing in a local newspaper. This is how we manage to connect local people, but increasingly also pan-European. The larger goal of our project is to counteract rising populism. We think that we will increasingly achieve this in heartland regions. Once we are finished in a region, we invite people to join us for a drink at the exhibition opening. So we collect reactions and feedback. There we also have our self-published publication, which is all about them and the region where they live and work. In those heartland regions, hardly anyone will buy a photobook that costs €39.50. So we decided that the accompanying publications cost €9.50. That’s why it’s not big and posh.

It’s not an overwhelming large book. It’s this sort of like unassuming pamphlet, which doesn’t telegraph “I’m so precious.” I think aside from the price, that’s really important.

Of course, these are not hardcover expensive books. Taking financial limitations into account and thanks to our great designers Kummer & Herrman, we think we really produced a nice publication. The selling price is a little below cost price. We solve that problem by wrapping part of the print run with a hard cover, including a print, and selling it for 120 euros. So the buyers of the hardcover edition are helping us target a broad audience with our project. And it works. That’s the nice part of it. When we have an exhibition opening, loads of locals are buying the publication. They bring it home and they really read it. And we receive feedback. It works perfectly.

So reaching a local audience works. Yet at the same time, we also try to anchor the work in the world of art and photography. Because, let’s face it, that is necessary to be able to benefit from funds and to sell work to private and institutional collections. We’re also looking towards The Europeans‘ final work, around 2030, with major exhibitions and a grand reference book that aims to still be on the shelves of libraries a hundred years from now. It is very challenging to reach both audiences — a local audience in heartland regions and a global art and photography audience.

The first problem we encountered with our super-cheap publication was that specialist booksellers were reluctant to sell the book. Simply because there is no money to be made. One famous online bookseller told me that he does not sell books under 25 euros. And frankly, I do understand. The conclusion is that if you make a financially accessible book, it will not be available in bookshops. And as a result, it becomes less accessible. We had not realized this beforehand.

We are now considering how to solve this dilemma. One option is to double the price to €19, but provide a 50% discount during local presentations, so the work still costs €9.50. Perhaps one of the readers of your blog has an idea?

All of that goes back to the original problem, doesn’t it? Of the art community being so removed from the rest of society.

In his essay The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture, Alessandro Baricco wrote about what could be described as a global shift in consciousness regarding high and low culture. The way we still largely experience art today is a relic of the Romantic era, when museums and theatres were built with entrance fees that were only meant for the elite. Within these walls — accessible only to the wealthy — art was displayed. Today, we still behave according to those unwritten rules. It is not for nothing that the vast majority of young artists want an exhibition in a renowned museum. When you have achieved that, you can honestly say that you are a real artist.

In 2006 , Baricco questioned this old-fashioned way of thinking. He argued — and I fully agree — that art will increasingly go beyond the walls of museums. Fortunately, this is already happening on an increasing scale. It was interesting to see the Turner Prize awarded to an architecture collective called Assemble in 2015. They won the UK’s most important art award for their work on the Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool. The project is a collaboration with the residents of a rundown council-housing estate to clean up the neighbourhood, paint empty houses, and establish a local market.

Reviewers and critics were in shock and stated that’s not real art. To those I would like to say: Wake up people! Things are going to change. The art world is in a major shift from the romantic era towards a new era. That’s fantastic. Why is an insanely expensive framed photograph by, say, Andreas Gursky considered more important in the art world than a free newspaper by Rafal Milach?

Buy this book. The entire amount (47.50 per book) will be donated to Red Cross Ukraine.

This is the 2nd edition of our book An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2015). On the cover we used the quote ‘This is the new face of Russia, our Russia’, from a propaganda speech made by the CEO of Sochi 2014, a Putin-supporting clown, during the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The book — released in first printing before the Winter Games — extensively covers the blatant human rights violations under Putin and his regime. We regularly received a frowning look, wondering if we hadn’t exaggerated things. After all, it couldn’t be that bad in Russia, could it? Again and again we explained: The Putin regime violates human rights on a large scale, is corrupt, criminal and dehumanizing. Disguised as a democracy.⁠ Read about it in this book and support the Ukrainian Red Cross at the same time!

Tokuko Ushioda’s Family Photography Mon, 07 Mar 2022 14:28:58 +0000 Joerg Colberg

It might be a sign of a great photobook when many aspects of a viewer’s biography come together to superimpose themselves on the pictures in such a way that the work itself almost becomes secondary. Of course, it never becomes secondary — how could it? But if all art reflects some of the viewer back to her or him, great art does it particularly well. What is reflected back is a combination of the viewer’s biography, the circumstances around her or his socialization, the culture and society s/he grows up in, and an assortment of random other things or events, which under any under circumstances would never come up.

Tokuko Ushioda‘s My Husband immediately made me aware of this process the moment I picked it up to look at it. I had met the photographer and the husband in question, Shinzō Shimao, during one of my trips to Tokyo. Truth be told, even though they had both spoken about their work, it had been Shimao’s image that had stuck with me. After a presentation of his work, he had given a very underwhelming lecture about photography itself. While working on this essay, I found him being described as “a charismatic yet cynical artist”. This felt familiar.

None of that should obviously matter, given that in the end, all I have now is the book. Still, when I see Shimao glare at me in some of the pictures (well, not me, his wife’s camera and maybe, by extension, his wife herself), I see a younger incarnation of the same man who almost four decades later would deliver his thoughts around photography. I’ve tried many times to forget the impressions from that encounter. But the more you try to un-remember something, the more the opposite happens.

Interestingly, while the book (or rather books: there are two — more on this a little later) are entitled My Husband, I’m thinking that this might mislead a viewer. After all, the photographs speak a lot more of Ushioda’s own life at the time when they were made than of only the husband. In fact, Shimao is included in only a relatively small number of them.

There also is their impossibly cute daughter Maho with her big, big eyes. She is referred to as Maho-chan, where “chan” is a Japanese honorific used for people one is close to that has no equivalent in English. Maho-chan also happens to be the title of a book Shimao published in 2004. Lastly, there is the house they lived in, an old Western-style house, the living room of which featured very large windows (ideal photo light).

More often than not, family photography depicts the vibrancy of life in a group of close relatives. Where it does not — think Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home, it’s usually a combination of the tool (the camera) and the underlying conflicts that freezes things into stasis (unfortunately, this sentence would make more sense for a reader who is familiar with the book I’m currently shopping around; I’m hoping that at some future stage, my thoughts on Sultan’s work — as well as Fukase’s, Billingham’s, and Epstein’s — will be accessible for a wider audience).

Here, there is a curious absence of vibrancy. Maho-chan happens to be at an age where children are very active, but somehow she is not — at least not in the pictures. It’s the mother taking the photographs, which offers an immediate explanation: from what I’ve been told, as a photographer and mother, your choice always is to be one of them at any given time, not both. Ushioda’s choice is clear from her work.

This brings me back to the thoughts I started out with. At the end of the (first) book, there are two essays. The first was written by Yuri Mitsuda, an art critic. The author of the second essay is photographer and writer Yurie Nagashima who might be familiar to regular readers of this site. In my interview with her, Nagashima spoke in detail of the struggle of being a photographer and a mother, in particular in a country such as Japan where men traditionally don’t do any housework (it’s obviously not much better in most other countries).


There are too many details to repeat them here. Nagashima’s essay is a masterclass in learning how the background against which both Ushioda and herself had to live as mothers and photographers informs numerous details of the work. For example, the quietude of the pictures simply arises from the aforementioned fact that doing two jobs at the same time is impossible. It was the ends of the days when there was time for photography. If you look carefully, you can actually see this. There are those huge windows that allow in a lot of light. Yet in many of the pictures, available light comes from lamps or candles.

Even the camera choice might have something to say. Nagashima wonders “if her choices about the techniques and cameras she used were informed by her being a woman.” Recounting her own experiences in the 1990s, she writes that “Ushioda-san would perhaps deny this was the case, but as a woman traversing an androcentric world, photographs with a 35mm SLR would seem more likely to be dismissed for no good reason.” (p. 129; “san” is possibly the only Japanese honorific familiar to Westerners, roughly the equivalent of “Mr.” or “Ms.”)

As I already briefly mentioned, there are two books. They are divided into camera formats. The first, more expansive book (a hardcover) showcases square-format photographs taken with a Bronica S2 (source). The second book (a softcover) contains photographs taken with a 35mm SLR. As a set, the books are combined with a belly band (“obi”) that wraps around the first books’ front and second book’s back cover (obis typically advertize the books; they often include a quote by a well-known photographer).

There is considerable overlap between the two books (how could there not be?). In the second book, there are many quiet observations made when there was time, when there was rest. But this camera, the 35mm one, also left the house, and it was used in more fluid, social situations. To me, the stepping out of the zone of quiet contemplation feels somewhat welcome, even as ultimately the strength of the work lies exactly where it remains quiet.

I imagine that this aspect might have posed more than one conundrum for the editors of the book who were given access to prints and negatives that had been stored away for decades: their task was to locate the spirit of the work without having it stray too far from the person they know , Tokuko Ushioda. After all, how do you go about bringing out the artistic strength in a body of work while acknowledging the maker’s vulnerability — without having the scale tip too far into either direction?

As someone who has edited two books of photographs recently that could be situated in exactly this spot, I can only applaud the editors for having done an amazing job. The photographs sit right at that sweet spot that, and this is something we as viewers should try to keep in mind, might not quite be as sweet for the artist herself. We don’t know, and we might as well also acknowledge that we don’t have to know.

My Husband is a revelation in more ways than one. To begin with, it gives exposure to a Japanese photographer who is barely known (if that) in the West (photobook collectors and those who looked at the recent What They Saw carefully might remember the earlier Ice Box book). This is a most welcome fact, given that the Western discourse around Japanese photography is still so centered on the mostly male (and very macho) usual suspects (Rinko Kawauchi being the one notable exception). Every step towards allowing Western audiences wider access to the very rich world of photography from Japan is so important.

Furthermore, as I indicated above, these are family photographs (a rich genre) by a woman artist. But in many ways, while ostensibly centered on the home, the young child, and the husband, the photographs really focus on their maker. To some extent, this observation is a lazy truism — all photographs say at least something about their maker; and yet some photographers allow more of their own lives enter into their work than others. More often than not, a photograph speaks of Ushioda’s desire for quiet respite, especially in the first book.

For sure, I wouldn’t want to overinterpret what I take away from My Husband — I have no children, and I’m also not a woman. But I can’t help but feel that what Yasujirō Ozu centered on in many of his movies can also be found here: the impossibly quiet and fraught drama of family life.

There is something uniquely Japanese about Ozu’s movies, given the height the camera is placed at — it’s right there in that social space near the floor where people’s eyes meet when they sit together. In her own ways, Ushioda achieves a very similar effect with her photographs. Time slows down, and the small idiosyncrasies of family life as seen by a mother/photographer are brought to the fore.

Highly recommended.

My Husband; photographs by Tokuko Ushiuoda; essays by Yuri Mitsuda, Yurie Nagashima; two volumes, book 1: 122 pages, book 2: 76 pages; torch press; 2022

Stand With Ukraine Mon, 28 Feb 2022 14:32:02 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Three weeks ago, I reviewed a book of photographs taken in Eastern Ukraine from 2013 until last year. When I wrote the article, I had a bad feeling about where things might be heading in the country. However, even though I’m generally a pessimist (I’m German), I didn’t think there would actually be a large-scale war such as the one that has now erupted.

My interest in Eastern Europe is limited in scope because of where its origin. I know a quite a bit about some countries, and very little about others. As I’ve looked into the history of the country I was born in, places like Ukraine played a large role. I’d like to think that I now know historical facts relatively well, in part because of a number of books I’ve read. These books include Bloodlands by historian Timothy Snyder, which covers the swatch of land where you can find Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic Republics. Snyder has also covered more recent events in Ukraine on his mailing list.

Last week, I published an article that from what I can tell garnered some attention, with agreement as much as disagreement. As I wrote in that article, the question of photography’s role in the world has been on my mind for a while. Unlike many people, I do not see photographs as separate from people, regardless of whether it’s their photographers or their audiences. I wrote that “something can be more than one thing: a piece of art and a part of a larger societal or cultural or political context.”

The same is true for people. You can be a photographer and artist, yet at the same time, you’re a member of a society, of a cultural context, of a political context. These environments are not necessarily of your choosing (even though they can be, at least in parts). But from these environments results the necessity to figure out what you’ll do with that.

Obviously, what you decide to do depends on yourself and your environment as much as on what you’re facing. Whether it’s the pandemic, global warming, systemic racism, the war in Ukraine (or elsewhere), the onslaught of bad news has been relentless during the past decade. It feels as if all of these topics are much too large for a single person to even engage with.

What is more, neoliberal thinking has managed to put us into a very unpleasant situation. On the one had, we feel compelled to do something. On the other hand, we’re trained to see what we do as essentially futile. And then, when we decide to do something we already know that someone will point out that it’s just futile or an exercise in feeling good. I’m no psychologist, but I’m wondering if the concept of learned helplessness has already been applied to social media (a quick Google search yields a first result — there might be more).

I’m going to be honest: I don’t have a solution for this other than trying to do what feels right and just to me, knowing full well that I will be falling short and, potentially, ignoring other problems that are just as important. It’s an approach that has been fruitful in my own art making as well.

I do not share the wide-spread cynicism that anything you might do on social media is just a feel-food exercise for yourself. I can’t help but think that this criticism (if we want to call it that) is not so far from the kinds of accusations lobbed at people who take selfies. Supposedly, that’s just a vapid feel-good exercise. Until the president of Ukraine publishes selfie videos and stuns the world with their power. If you haven’t seen the first one, yet, have a look.

Whatever misgivings I have about social media, I simply don’t believe that expressions of solidarity are only one of two things: actually felt expressions of one’s feelings or exercises to project a sense of virtue. In all likelihood, they’re both at the same time. Maybe I’m a bit naive about this, but I also think that it’s up to us individually to determine where most of the weight falls.

Coming back to this site, I had a review of a book in mind for this week. Unfortunately, right now I am unable to bring up the mental energy required to do so. Furthermore, I also am unable to justify doing it. At this particular moment in time, for me normal programming doesn’t feel right. If this disappoints you, please check back here next week.

For his mailing list, Timothy Snyder wrote two emails that listed organizations to support in case you want to do something for Ukraine. He wrote “A little money, sent in the right direction, can make a meaningful difference. And it might give you a sense that you have done the right thing, at least in a small way, at the right moment.”

The first email contained a list of charities and organizations that possibly rely only on bank transfers. In the second email, Snyder listed charities and NGOs that accept credit cards. There also are a number of organizations provided in this list put together by NPR. From my own experience, I know that some organizations also accept payment systems such as Paypal (I wouldn’t know about Venmo, given that I’m not using it much).

Like I said, each and every one of the massive crises we’re now facing provides yet another opportunity to think about our place in the world. There’s no good way to approach this other than the one that’s right for each and every one of us individually. Plus, it’s like what they say in those safety messages on an airplane: put your own oxygen mask on first, before you help others.

See you back here next week.