Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 22 Nov 2021 15:04:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Background Story of Kikuji Kawada’s The Map Mon, 22 Nov 2021 15:04:06 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Japanese artist Kikuji Kawada‘s book The Map (Chizu in the romanized form of its original title) is widely seen as a landmark photobook. Published in 1965, there exist two recent reissues that both reproduce the original more or less faithfully, as a modestly sized book with a large number of gatefolds. But now, another version has appeared: the Maquette Edition. The book was co-published by MACK and the New York Public Library. With a long interview with the artist himself, and added scholarship by Joshua Chuang (Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Associate Director for Art, Prints, and Photographs and Robert B. Menschel Senior Curator of Photography at the New York Public Library) and Miyuki Hinton (an independent art researcher living in Tokyo), the publication serves to shed a lot of light on an artist who isn’t as well known and understood in the West as the fame of his book might make you think.

Spread from photography annual Sekai Shashin Nenkan ’62: Photography of the World (Tokyo: Heibonsha), showing photographs by Kikuji Kawada on the left and Shōmei Tōmatsu on the right. (Imaging by Yukinobu Kobayashi.)

The Map can only be fully understood when its context is taken into consideration. After all, it is one of a number of Japanese photobooks covering the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1958, Ken Domon published Hiroshima, which largely focused on survivors. Three years later, some of Domon’s photographs were paired with work by Shōmei Tōmatsu in Hiroshima-Nagasaki Document 1961. Five years later, Tōmatsu published Nagasaki <11:02> August 9, 1945. Both Hiroshima and Nagasaki <11:02> would be re-published by their authors in expanded/edited versions later. “I have taken around 12,00 photographs of Nagasaki,” Tōmatsu writes in the epilogue of the 1995 version of his book. “Fourteen years passed between the first two books, and fifteen between the second and the third. When so much time elapses — I grow older, accumulate so much more experience — my selection of photographs is sure to differ. […] it is like the buri (yellowtail), whose name changes as it grows. We call it inada when it is very young; hamachi when it is bigger; and buri when it is mature.” Tōmatsu’s approach might serve to help with the conundrum that the Maquette Edition poses for Westerners expecting just one — the definitive — edition of a book: it doesn’t have to be this way. As much as not any one version of Nagasaki <11:02> is definitive (collectors probably have different ideas), we can approach The Map the same way.

Spread from the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho (3/25/1956) with Kawada’s photographs in a feature titled “Tokyo no Higashi” (East of Tokyo) about a land-fill area in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture. (Imaging by Yukinobu Kobayashi.)

In 1952, Kawada received the top prize for his very first submission to a contest in Camera magazine. As Kōtarō IIzawa outlines in his essay The Evolution of Postwar Photography, which can be found in The History of Japanese Photography (Yale University Press, 2003), Domon had been tasked to be the judge. In his role, Domon not only selected winning photographs, but also wrote detailed critiques of them. Furthermore, he engaged in an exchange with photographer Ihee Kimura on photo-realism, defining it as “strictly a realm in which only the objective truth in the subject motif is pursued, not the subjective image or fantasy of the artist.” As Miyuki Hinton outlines in her essay in the Maquette Edition, Kawada was persuaded by Domon’s modernist beliefs. “The topic of debate was whether photography should be concerned first and foremost with ‘realism,’” Hinton says, “but there was also debate on the definition of ‘realism.’” The discussions themselves are probably a lot less interesting in hindsight than the fact that they happened: they provided a fertile atmosphere for photographers attempting to understand what they were doing.

Spread from volume 2

Originally emerging from a more realist position, like many of other members of his generation Kawada ended up moving towards a very different type of photography. In 1959, he co-founded a short-lived, yet influential group of photographers called VIVO. The group included Shōmei Tōmatsu, Eikoh Hosoe, and others. The Map reflects its maker’s artistic development through both the more straight photographs and the expressionistic abstractions. In the straight part (in the Maquette Edition its own book, featuring a white cover and referred to as volume 2), the influence of both Domon, the mentor, and especially Tōmatsu, a peer, can be felt. In fact, the imagery stretches from Domonesque straight work (such as an abandoned military concrete structure) to Tōmatsuesque pictures that often place the photographer much closer to his subject (such as a crumpled pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes) all the way to abstract imagery that would not feel out of place in the other book (volume 1). Even as the Maquette Edition separates straight and fully abstract pictures into two separate books, which seemingly serves to drive home their differences, there is a strong connection between them. This connection becomes more easily apparent in the one-volume edition. In the Maquette Edition, the contrast between two books amounts to encountering two different worlds: where volume 2 moves in and out of the terror of war and destruction, volume 1 immerses the viewer in a bewildering experience that reminded me of watching Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1960 Jigoku, a movie that includes depictions of hell. Of course, unlike in the movie the terror in Kawada’s work is only abstract. But that doesn’t make it any less terrifying.

Spread from volume 2

The idea of the artistic genius who produces amazing art seemingly out of a vacuum might make for appealing narratives. However, the reality of art making typically is very different, with artistic genius creating a fusion of elements that are in the air, possibly working with and against ideas used by those before her or him.

In the interview in the Maquette Edition, Kawada notes that he spoke with art critic Shūji Takashina because there were no discussions in the world of photography about what interested him. “He is skeptical of discussions about what is real or not in photographic terms,” Hinton tells me, “which is why he seeks out different types of criticism. Takashina provided that in his observation of the images. Kawada says he looked at each as a ‘tableau,’ in other words as a flat image plane that contains an artistic expression and whose formal qualities are put into question. Not some idealism or opinion about what is ‘real’ or what is worth recording with a camera.” Hinton observes that the world of photography had a tendency to become “isolated from the rest of art society, compartmentalized, and over-reliant on the opinions of peers” (which, I’d be happy to argue, it still is, whether in Japan or elsewhere).

Art was not the only environment that provided Kawada with ways to approach his images. “Another area Kawada investigated in the way of criticism is that of the written word,” Hinton says, “as in novels, poetry, and literature in general. Literary circles had a more mature culture of criticism about abstract and expressive forms of art.” It’s possible that these types of references might feel like adding too many details to the work. But if one wants to understand The Map, it is important to see where it was coming from: the book ultimately has a lot more in common with a piece of art than with photography — something that Kawada spoke of very forcefully when I heard him talk about the book in Tokyo a few years ago. Consequently, even as it is a photobook, to judge it only by that medium’s terms will not do it full justice.

Spread from volume 1

Kawada’s earlier connection to his mentor is of importance. There also is “his background in journalism,” Hinton says, “which Domon primed him for.” “I credit him as the reason I made Chizu… We were very close,” Kawada describes his relationship with Domon in the interview in the book, “but I think he mistook our relationship as being one of apprentice and master. I never thought of it that way. I was sometimes referred to as the prodigal apprentice, though I never saw our relationship that way.” There is this: the psychology of relationships. After all, artists are human beings. To have one’s work defined in relation to a well-known other figure’s achievements cannot have been easy. At the same time, there is a form of artistic debt that is being paid off with The Map: Hiroshima had to exist for it to come into being.

Kawada was born in 1933. Speaking of his biography, the late German Chancellor Helmut Kohl spoke of the “mercy of late birth.” Born in 1930, he wasn’t old enough to end up in a combat situation at the end of World War 2. Kohl’s sentiment was (and still is) widely seen as glib, given that it conveniently ignored many other people’s experiences, regardless of whether they were German or not. But there is something interesting about the generation born in the early 1930s. Its members were old enough to grasp the reality of war in ways that children would not. At the same time, they were spared becoming an active part of the war, even as they might have had a passive role. Kawada was a member of that generation. Hinton’s background essay provides a lot of details. Kawada was “raised in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture, where the Japanese Naval Preparatory Flight Training Program (known as “Yokaren”) was established during the war. In the final year of the war, […] several oral-history accounts given by former residents include stories of watching air combat; some recall walking for miles to lay eyes on a fallen plane and its captive pilot.” (p. 25f.)

Spread from volume 2

I was struck by the fact that I had heard similar accounts in my own life time. When I was in high school, one day and completely out of the blue, my Latin teacher (who must have been born in the early 1930s) told us how he witnessed a low-flying fighter plane attack a commuter train that he was traveling on at the end of the war. He saw a number of other passengers fall from the train after being hit by bullets. When I heard the story, I was around the age that my teacher was at that time. Ever since, I have tried to wrap my head around how one would go about processing such events. “Kawada’s own impressions of the time are detached in tone,” Hinton writes, describing an incident where he witnessed a US plane that “glided through the air so close to the ground that young Kawada could see the face of the pilot as its machine guns issued bullets, rapid-fire.” (p. 26) Kawada’s story and my former high-school teacher’s are very similar. I now know that trauma cannot be processed in simple ways. But I was struck by the fact that Kawada “has repeatedly denied any association between Chizu and the trauma of war.” (p. 26) Hinton concludes the paragraph dealing with this aspect by writing that when asked, the artist admitted that he was “unwilling to probe deeper behind those closed doors.”

Spread from volume 1

How could there not be a deep association between the book and his maker’s experiences? I asked Hinton about this, and her answer is worth quoting in full detail: “It seems to me that Kawada feels unable to pretend as though he can speak of the traumas of the war, because he survived the worst. He survived without being in the center of the worst experiences that fell upon so many people. That may be due to several factors. He was fortunate in that he didn’t live in a city that was completely destroyed. And he was a few years younger than the age at which he could have been enlisted or eligible to join the war. At the same time, he was growing up right next to that training center, not differentiating himself from those young men, young boys, who were employed. He believed the propaganda. Everyone believed the propaganda that this was a just war and that Japan was winning. He believed all of the hype up to a certain point. And then the war was over, he survived, and by the time he made the work was able to understand that any political stance is fraught with contradictions. It could be that because he has very strong principles he wouldn’t let himself speak about ‘the trauma of war’ or the ‘trauma of Hiroshima’ having been spared from it, and having moved on, living in a booming postwar world. It’s that proximity to the worst-case scenario that gave him this parallel view about life and about catastrophe. A Jungian Japanese psychologist named Kawai Hayao talks about ‘trans-personal’ experience. By Kawada not acting as first-hand victim or witness of wartime atrocity, he’s able to speak about a trans-personal experience. But once he pretends that he represents that trauma, he feels as though he’s betraying humanity.” The idea of the trans-personal experience can help us understand not only The Map, but also other pieces of art.

Spread from the study guide

Small section of the map of Chizu, comparing the two different versions

The value of the Maquette Edition lies in the combination of presenting the work in a different form than the one that is well known (yet hard to come by — copies tend to be prohibitively expensive for most people). A viewer might want to resist the temptation to decide which of the two versions is the definitive — or better — one (if you have followed my writing over the years, you probably realize that this is not easy for me, either). The writing in the form of the essays by Chuang and Hinton, a detailed artist’s biography, an interview with the artist, plus a large comparison chart that shows both versions side by side provide ample information to understand the artist and his work more deeply. Considerable research went into the making of the book. “I ended up collecting about 250 magazine articles with photographs and writing by Kawada between 1952 and 1966.” Hinton tells me. “This was based on my background in archival methods. I had studied archaeology and anthropology at Keio University as an undergrad and wrote my dissertation on applying archaeological methods to the analysis of vernacular photographs. I then learned, during my mentored internship with Ryuichi Kaneko at the TOP museum, that digging into the back-page margins of photo magazines sometimes yields rich information.”

The mystery of The Map remains. In both editions, the book exerts a strong pull on its viewers, making her or him face the abyss that humans appear to be so attracted to. Being able to place the work into its historical context allows for the making of connections and for an understanding of the man who produced it. Beyond that, meaning radiates out as it touches us in a number of ways. After all, we might note that this isn’t only a book about Japan: the nuclear bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of people didn’t come out of nowhere (I’m writing this article in a country that has so far been unwilling to face up to its past actions). If we want to have hope to step back from the abyss, we still have a lot of work ahead of us.

Kikuji Kawada: Chizu (Maquette Edition); two hardback books, each with a jacket, plus one paperback booklet with leporello fold; housed in a buckram bound hardback slipcase, protected in a printed cardboard mailer; bilingual essays (English, Japanese); 272 pages (total); MACK/New York Public Library; 2021

A Conversation With Jenny Kim Mon, 15 Nov 2021 14:45:45 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Earlier this year, Jenny Kim made it onto the British Journal of Photography‘s list of Ones To Watch. “Endless topics stem from the complexity of womanhood that I continually find fascinating and important to talk about” she says in an article about her work, which focuses on herself as much as on her partner and immediate family. I approached Kim to inquire whether she would talk to me about the work in more detail. In late October, we spoke on Zoom. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jörg Colberg
Your parents came to the US as immigrants, is that right?

Jenny Kim
Right. They came in the early 1970s. They initially immigrated to Hawaii, where my dad’s sister was living with her family. My sister was born in Hawaii. And then they came over to the mainland. They finally settled in Los Angeles, where I was born.

Why did they decide to come to the US?

As far as I know, it was to have a better life. My mom thought everything would be better in America. It was the American dream.

Do you think they were happy with the choice they made? Did they ever talk about this?

They didn’t really say if they were happy or sad. But when I got a little bit older I remember my dad saying how he probably couldn’t live in Korea after having lived in America for so long, even though he didn’t move here until he was in his 30s. I don’t know that I’ve ever asked them if they were happy. I know my mom misses her mother. When my grandfather was still alive, she missed being able to see them both. Her parents are very important to her. I do wonder about that because most of her family is in Korea. She would like to see my grandmother more, because my grandmother is in her 90s.

I think culturally, we didn’t really talk about a lot of stuff like that. Are you happy? No, you just work hard. That’s what you do. You follow the things in life you’re supposed to do: go to college, meet a good person, get married, have children, work hard.

You’re a first generation Korean American then.


Did your family speak Korean at home, or did you grow up speaking English? How did this play out?

My parents spoke Korean. A lot of what I remember as a kid is also from what my sister tells me happened because she’s almost five years older. There was a push for us to learn English. And to do well in school. The older I got, the more my Korean dropped off. When I speak to my mom in Korean or English she almost always responds to me in Korean. My parents still prefer to speak in Korean, especially with me and my sister.

So you speak Korean?

My Korean is not good. I find that some things don’t translate the same, or I can’t find the words in English, so that my mom will understand exactly what I mean. My sister’s is much better. She can really have a conversation. That’s one thing that I didn’t go back to and wish I had, to try to hold on to the language.

To what extent do you feel that you’re in between cultures because you are American, but you also embedded in a Korean family? I could imagine that has shaped a lot of your life, trying to figure out who you are and how are you fit in? And how do you handle opposing or conflicting ways of seeing the world, or family, or whatever else?

I think that there’s really no way around it. A lot of things that I do in life are based on the fact that I’m Korean and a woman. That’s just inherent. In terms of having kids and a family, there are a lot of things that I tried to think about. What is this urgency? What is this push that I always wanted to have kids? There is some kind of urgency inside me. I can’t ignore the fact that it is partially due to how I was raised, with my grandmother telling me my entire life, “you have to get married, you have to have kids.” Even the last time I saw her in 2019 she said, “you have to have kids.” That was the conversation. She means well. Still… You have to have kids. Period. There’s no talking about anything that’s going on. She doesn’t acknowledge my age and how it could be difficult. So there is that aspect of it, growing up in my culture that really emphasized that one of the most important things you can do as a woman is to have children. As far as the IVF goes, that decision was based on me being a woman of a certain age. Turning 40 and being unable to conceive leaves you with very little options as a woman who wants to have a child. Women aren’t afforded the luxury of time that men are when it comes to becoming a parent.

I remember a picture of your family, and you’re all Korean or Korean American and then there’s Ian. Can you talk a little bit about that aspect? Here is this white guy.

My mom is not the most typical Korean mother. There are things that are really hounded into growing up in a Korean family. Grades are extremely important. Your appearance is very important. She never nitpicked on things like that. I think she was too busy working. But the expectation to do well in school and act properly was there. We kept our grades up. We didn’t fall out of line. She always emphasized that meeting a good person and getting married was important. There was a point when she said, “you really have to find someone to be happy with. To love” I only remember her saying it to me once, but it stuck out. I didn’t meet Ian until I was 38. Part of me thinks that they were just so excited that I had met somebody, gotten engaged and that he’s a good guy. With my parents, there wasn’t that thing of “Oh, I wish he was Korean.”

Maybe they’ve realized that they need to give you space. I mean, this is who you are.

I would hope that would be it. But my grandmother said, “you have to have children”. And I’m thinking at the time, I’m 41 now. I’m trying but the likelihood of that happening is very slim. I couldn’t even explain it to her. For her, that was it. And then the conversation went on to something else. There wasn’t a dialogue.

I seem to remember that you weren’t really sure whether you actually wanted to have children. Is that true?

I always imagined my life with kids. I had previously talked to my doctors about having a child by myself. I had decided that that was something I couldn’t handle or that I wanted. I felt this pressure that I had to start trying with Ian, even though we had not been together a full year. I think I was feeling that as a woman, I don’t have a choice. I have to do it right now. We didn’t have time to be like a couple who met when they were 30.

This process has been… I’ve been thinking about it more seriously, biologically, since I was 33. What do I need to do to be prepared to maybe have kids one day? I’ve always had it on my mind. I considered freezing my eggs then. The cost was too much for me. Also, if I ever wanted to have children, doctors told me, I would have to have a myomectomy. I had that surgery when I was 35. It was the pressure of the timeline because everybody said that when you turn 40, it becomes exponentially harder. I was fighting that. I felt that I didn’t have time and had to do it — even if I wanted to or not right in that moment, you know?

That is a difficult situation. But then to decide to make that a part of your photography cannot have been easy.

I had been photographing other women who either did not have children by choice, or had had an abortion or a miscarriage, thinking this was working. But in a crit, everyone was asking, “what are you doing? What’s this really about?.” It took a lot for me to admit that it was about me. I got to the point where I realized that I’m trying to make all these other people do the work for me, when it’s really about me. It was about how I would deal with this void if I didn’t experience motherhood.

I would say that during the last year of school it was actually kind of therapeutic for me to have the photography aspect of it. I think it was an outlet to be able to say that I can have some way to express myself and have photos. That’s something I can see. That’s evidence — instead of me sitting here wondering if this is going to work: Ian and I trying to conceive, it not working, and there being no explanation. It was an outlet. Something positive was coming out of this. I think it really was helpful in that sense. It was difficult, but it was helpful for me at the time.

I find that inspiring because you’re making yourself really vulnerable by sharing all of that with strangers.

Any time I’ve gotten help or advice from somebody, specifically during fertility treatments, it has been because they’ve been vulnerable with me. I feel it’s a good way to talk about it. Until I started the process, I realized I didn’t know so much about it even though I have had friends go through it. I was wondering how that could be. Rightfully, there’s more and more talk about being a new mother, postpartum depression, and how hard it is to deal with all of that: motherhood and parenthood. I’m on the other side of the same coin. There are the same kinds of feelings, except you’re trying to work towards having a child. I’m not even on the other side yet where that difficulty is, we’re just pushing through and trying to get to that point. I’ve had emotions where I thought, “I don’t know what this emotion is,” trying to understand what I’m feeling, because it’s such a wide range of things happening. I think the only way that I could deal with it is to talk about it.

I’m still taking pictures. The bulk of this year has been fertility treatments. That has been the priority. I’m still shooting here and there. But it has been very draining. Emotionally, physically and mentally. I don’t know how people do it. I don’t know how we’re doing it. What has been frustrating for us is that we have what’s called unexplained infertility. There is nothing, quote unquote, wrong. We can’t… I can’t get pregnant. My age is the only factor that is proven to be why it’s difficult for me to get pregnant. It’s frustrating when you work towards something… Grad school was hard, but I worked and worked. Everybody works towards it, and you get to graduate. You have some semblance of a project, you have a book. It’s a very rewarding experience, even when it’s difficult during the process. But this… If you have a kid — that’s what you want out of this process — that’s very rewarding. But those chances are slim. So it’s been difficult to stay focused on the end goal.

That sounds really draining and difficult.

It’s a lot of mixed emotions. One day, I feel lucky. I’m glad that we’re in a position to be able to do it. I have insurance that is covering most of it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t even have had the option. Originally, we had looked into adoption. It turned out that IVF was less expensive because of my insurance. I have friends who can’t do IVF because they can’t afford it. That’s a whole other set of issues. It’s a lot of ups and downs of how I feel about this.

It’s such a big topic that is so important for so many women, and yet it’s so mute. It doesn’t exist in the public consciousness.

There’s a show called Master of None by Aziz Ansari on Netflix. This new season, they shifted the main characters and it deals with a woman doing IVF. When the season got released, on the same day I had multiple people ask me if I had seen it, because they knew I was doing IVF. I hadn’t seen it yet. I tried watching a couple of episodes. It was too difficult because it’s very real. They’re not glossing over anything. I talked to my doctor about it: Have you seen it? People keep telling me about it. She hadn’t seen it but said That’s good, right? It’s getting the word out that this is what it’s about.


You don’t see it much. I don’t know why because I think in Western cultures having children is seen as so important. Any time I’m out with my niece and nephew, people would be essentially congratulating me on how cute or smart they are. They would think I’m their mother. A month ago, I was out with them and Ian. This mom, who was with her daughter, gave me a knowing look and said something like, “you know how it’s like being a mom.” She gave me a big smile. And I thought, “No, I don’t.” I equate it to almost being more of a value to society if you’re a mother. There’s nothing more difficult and rewarding and important than being a mother. When I see mothers out, I think, “Yeah, that’s hard what you’re doing.” But I also think it’s just as fulfilling.

Before the process of fertility treatments, I used to think, “Okay, we get it, it’s a miracle. Having a baby is a miracle. But people have babies every day.” After my first consultation with our fertility doctor, I thought, “Oh, now I really understand why they say it’s a miracle.” My doctor actually broke down how difficult it is to get pregnant, stay pregnant, and have a healthy baby. On top of that, she was explaining the IVF cycle, which was a whole mess of things. I told her “this seems impossible.” She said, “it’s not impossible.” It feels like it though. I can see how I would be that mother… If I had a baby, I would say it’s a miracle. It was a miracle that this happened.

Closed For Renovation Sat, 23 Oct 2021 15:40:57 +0000 Joerg Colberg

This site is closed for renovation. Programming should restart in early to mid November 2021, depending on how quickly an improved editorial mission and structure can be found.

Things Aren’t Always As Mother Reports Mon, 18 Oct 2021 13:58:17 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I imagine that raising teenage boys is difficult — especially these days. Masculinity and its ubiquitous toxic outgrowths rightfully have become a focus point as all those affected by their many consequences have started to raise their voices. As a consequence, there has been a slow re-alignment of the roles and responsibilities of all members of society, with straight cis men being forced to re-evaluate their responsibilities.

I see the rise of neofascism all over the world as a direct consequence of both neoliberalism, with its direct appeal to sheer power and “might makes right”, and of that backlash against unfettered masculinity (whose two main pillars are misogyny and violence).

However ridiculous many of the leaders of neofascists parties look and act, their open support of a (partly imaginary) older order, in which “boys will be boys” and everybody steps back to their place in the back, has deep appeal to large swatches of people (in her new book, Natascha Strobl calls these parties “radicalized conservatives”, and she outlines the way they operate — I hope the book will find an English translation).

You can understand Great Britain’s Brexit slogan “take back control” as an open expression of a struggle over masculinity. England’s ruling class largely consists of a group of people who grew up leading very sheltered and privileged lives and who experienced masculinity mostly as a simulation of what all those other men do who don’t grow up being rich. It is the latter who feel wronged by a changed world, while the former have now found a way to finally experience some form of masculinity.

Whenever I see a picture of, let’s say, Nigel Farage attempting to convey the spirit of “take back control” I see a man who has no understanding of his own masculinity whatsoever and who panders to what he thinks it might mean. This is cartoonish and sad, but people don’t respond to visuals. Instead, they respond to a man airing their shared grievances.

It’s the same mechanism playing out when, say, Donald Trump climbs into the cabin of a truck and for some short moment acts out what he imagines the corresponding masculinity might be. The fact that these people would not drink beer or get into a truck when they’re not acting for the public is largely irrelevant because it misses the real point: however privileged they might be, neofascist politicians feel connected to the grievance they exploit. Resentment is a hell of a drug, especially when it plays out over masculinity.

I imagine that this situation creates a terrible conundrum for parents, especially fathers: how do you raise your teenage boys in such a way that they become decent people, possibly avoiding the shit that you’ve done in your own past, while larger parts of the outside world present the exact opposite of that as the go-to model, where, for example, thoughtfulness and care for others often is derided as “being woke”?

And then if you’re a teenage boy, how would you respond to all of that? I’m not a father, so I don’t have access to this type of perspective. But I was a teenage boy once, albeit one who did not fit into the standard masculine model. I didn’t play or watch sports (because I wasn’t interested), and the competitiveness that comes with standard masculinity struck me as a complete waste of my time and energy.

Had I grown up in the US, I have no doubt that I would have been relentlessly bullied by the “jocks”. But I lucked out and grew up in West Germany. It’s not that there’s no bullying in Germany. But it’s not part of the overall fabric of society in the way it is in the US where bullying essentially is part of the wider culture. When I first came to the US, I was shocked how by the open and completely uncritical depiction of bullying in popular culture, which, of course, is also connected to coarse, violent language being equally accepted (“let’s kick some ass!”).

I remember that being a teenage boy placed me in this strange spot between being a child — with its world of play and make-believe — and being an adult. In my own ways, I’d try to navigate the possibilities, even as I was aware — as teenage boys are — that it is the adult world that is to be emulated. The energy of child play got transferred into anything that was filled with adult possibilities, and inevitably that meant violence and power.

Teenage boys aren’t the greatest judges of their own (or other people’s) responsibilities, and for sure they have terrible impulse control — which, if you think of it, sounds pretty much like the behaviour of the various neofascist leaders that you can find all over the world (an exception might be provided by Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, who pulls the strings in the background).

Paul Cohen depicts the conundrum he’s finding himself in as a father of teenage boys in Things Aren’t Always As Mother Reports (published by Dewi Lewis). If there is a photobook that feels incredibly relevant for that part of the world — England, it’s this one.

The book contains a lot of portraits of his sons, some tender, others filled with the kind of teenage violence that is always just a short step away from actual disaster. In addition, there’s the world these boys grow up in — London. From that environment Cohen extracts traces of things that might reflect his own struggle: trying to be a good father for his own children. There’s neglect in the lived environments, which manifests itself in a number of ways: crumbling buildings or infrastructure, but also traces of the people affected by it.

Consequences of violence are frequent: there’s a picture of a burned out house, a row of what look like police technicians looking to collected evidence of some violent crime (right next to them, a bouquet of flowers is propped up), a small graffito in support of a fascist party on an advertising poster, and more.

Even as the book ends on a hopeful note — one of the sons is shown against a bush of roses, his hands stretched out towards the sky with his eyes closed, it’s not clear whether things will end well. Cohen’s conundrum is shared by other parents: how do you raise your children in a world that is ruled by people filled with disdain for all things that help people be better people? I have no idea.

The book also conveys a sense of possibility. I’m reluctant to use the word “hope”, in part because it has become such a cliche in US journalism and writing that concerns itself with our times. Mind you, in principle hope is good — but it ought to be more than the equivalent of a sentiment on a Hallmark card.

Maybe this is a projection on my part (I know Paul Cohen quite well). But I sense that he knows that things are going to be alright for his boys, because as a father he has done the best job he can.


Things Aren’t Always As Mother Reports; photographs by Paul Cohen; essay by Val Williams; 104 pages; Dewi Lewis; 2021

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.6

More on Consent Mon, 11 Oct 2021 14:56:32 +0000 Joerg Colberg

A little while ago, there was a discussion on Twitter that centered on a photograph someone had taken of a young woman on the New York subway. The woman, a mother of two young children, was wearing a short dress, and she was clearly struggling to deal with her two very active children. According to his own testimony, the male photographer had sat across from the family and taken his picture on the sly. I’m not going to link to the picture in question or show it here. I am a member of the camp who thinks the photograph should not have been taken (for a number of reasons).

There obviously is a topic here that extends beyond this particular case in question. Last year, I wrote an article about consent that focused on what I see as photographers’ obligations. It might be worthwhile, though, to approach the subject matter from the other side: from the vantage point of those find themselves on the other side of the camera.

There was a discussion on Twitter about the photograph in question that resulted in a fairly predictable outcome: proponents of so-called street photography, but also others, pointed out that the First Amendment covered what they do. If, in other words, free speech is guaranteed then there is no way for anyone to prohibit the taking of a photograph (or the particular photograph in question). Second, it was pointed out that in the United States, courts have ruled that there is no expectation of privacy in a public space.

Both of these justifications are legal ones. However, when people speak of consent, they don’t think of that as only a legal entity. There also is an ethical component to it. Just because you have the legal right to do something does not mean that you actually should do it, in particular if it causes offense to other people.

I always feel that people bring up the First Amendment not to have an actual discussion but instead to shut it down. Who, after all, would want to be on the side of people who want to restrict free speech?

However, the legal argument is not as absolute as you might imagine. If you associate the taking of a photograph with the act of speech, then no photograph or no act of taking a photograph could become illegal. But that’s not the case. Possibly the most extreme example is provided by child pornography. According to the US Department of Justice, “Images of child pornography are not protected under First Amendment rights, and are illegal contraband under federal law.” I don’t think anyone would want to start an argument about this.

In a similar fashion, there are other types of photography that are expressly prohibited. For example, for very good reasons a growing number of states in the US (including New York State) and countries all over the world have made so-called upskirting illegal (here‘s a good article about it).

There is a second point concerning laws: courts only apply existing laws. If US laws state that people can have no expectation of privacy in public, that might not reflect how people actually feel about it today. It is possible that in the future legislation will be passed that defines people’s privacy more strictly. This is what happened in Europe, where the EU created the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR; in part as a consequence of what the EU perceived as excessive behaviour by the likes of Facebook).

In the GDPR, data include photography as well — which makes perfect sense, since the vast bulk of photography is digital. As you can imagine, this has created a lot of problems for photographers.

The question of consent might extend beyond the moment when a picture was taken, and it can become tricky as outlined in this article by Erin MacLeod: should you publish photographs of your ex-wife if she does not giver her permission? The obvious answer is: no, but as you can imagine — photoland being photoland — the pictures were published in a book.

But as Aileen Smith, who was married to W. Eugene Smith, has demonstrated, another world is possible. One of the most iconic photographs in the history of photography, a picture of a mother bathing her severely disabled child, has now been essentially withdrawn from further circulation: “Generally, the copyright of a photograph belongs to the person who took it,” Smith is quoted in this article, “but the model [subject] also has rights and I feel that it is important to respect other people’s rights and feelings.” (my emphasis)

In that Twitter discussion I mentioned above, there was a very interesting and telling aspect: last time I checked, every woman who commented on the picture saw it as problematic. All of them immediately sided with the young woman that had been photographed. There also were a lot of men who joined them. In contrast, the defenders of the picture and the practice that led to it were all male.

What I ended up wondering was the following: if you’re engaged in some practice that a growing number of people see as problematic — if, in other words, they don’t want to be photographed without their consent — how can you justify doing it anyway? As we saw above, you can invoke your legal rights. But that only covers your legal base. You’re still left with being on the wrong side of the ethical aspect of it all.

In particular, if you’re some guy with a camera, why would you photograph a young woman who is wearing a short dress and is struggling with her two young children without her knowing it, without her consenting to it? I just don’t get it. That just feels to wrong to me, regardless of the fact that it happened in a public space.

The fact that the space was public doesn’t make this all any less intrusive. The public space, after all, does not mean the same thing for men and women. Here’s the UN: “Sexual harassment and other forms of sexual violence in public spaces, both in urban and rural settings, are an everyday occurrence for women and girls in every country around the world. Women and girls experience and fear different forms of sexual violence in public spaces, from unwelcome sexual remarks and gestures, to rape and femicide. It happens on streets, in and around public transportation, schools, workplaces, public toilets, water and food distribution sites, and parks.”

For you, as a male photographer, it might just be a cool photograph. However, for your subject, the young woman in a short dress, it might just be another one of those small humiliations to live with. You might tell yourself “oh, she didn’t notice because she was busy with her two kids”. But how would you know? As far as I know, parents of toddlers are hyperaware of their surrounding because toddlers tend to be so unpredictable. And even if she didn’t notice — does that make it any better?

One of the common justifications for street photography is its own history. There are all those practitioners in the past who did it (the vast majority of them men). That might be the case. But I personally don’t see how this justifies engaging in it today without any consideration for what people think is acceptable behaviour. If people don’t want to be photographed without their consent, it’s an odd justifications to say “but people didn’t mind in the past,” isn’t it? Societies change over time. Certain things either go out of fashion or usually for very good reasons aren’t acceptable any longer. For example, many parents do not want their children to be photographed by strangers.

We also have to remember that we’re talking about photographs here, photographs done for the purpose of art. We’re not talking about journalism or anything that has a very different function and value. Typically, when I make my case that photographers ought to get consent, the whataboutism of photojournalism pops up (“but what about photojournalists?”). This sounds like a good point, but it actually isn’t.

Even though the world of journalism is different than the world of art, it has its set of parameters for which pictures it considers appropriate. There are certain types of pictures that you won’t find in newspaper or on news websites, typically out of consideration for the dignity of those portrayed and their next of kin (this might include victims of terror attacks, soldiers who died in war, etc.).

There have been frequent arguments over the validity of whether or not certain pictures should be shown in the news.  What I find striking is that such arguments typically contain a lot more nuance and consideration for people’s feelings than when art photographers talk about street photographs. There, the first thing you hear is: First Amendment rights. Invoking one’s the First Amendment rights should be the very last point made — after people’s thoughts and feelings have been taken into careful consideration first.

Furthermore, if as an art photographer there’s a picture you can’t take — for whatever reason — that’s not the end of the world. It’s just a picture. If anything, you’re presented with a challenge. The challenge is not to figure out how to take it anyway. Instead, it’s how to take an equivalent that avoids the underlying problems.

What this all comes down to is the following: photographers (me included) like to go out into the world, to create pictures from what is being presented to them. Those pictures then not only reflect the world but create a dialogue with non-photographers: here is something that can help us come to an enriched understanding of what it means to be a human being.

There’s no way you can and will have this form of dialogue if you go out into the world and ignore how all those other people — your possible future viewers — feel about how you can treat them with your camera.

In the end, it might all come down to one basic thing: respect. Have respect for how other people feel. If as an artist you want to be treated with respect, then you will have to do the same with other people — including those that happen to be in front of your camera.

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Zur Linde Mon, 04 Oct 2021 15:03:41 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Forty years later, I cannot be certain that the restaurant my family went to most often on our yearly summer vacation in the German Harz region was called “Zur Linde.” The internet tells me that there existed such a restaurant a mile or two outside the small town we stayed in for two weeks. It now is closed. Further research yields the image of an old postcard that depicts the establishment. I’d like to confirm that the building looks familiar to me, but I am unable to.

If there’s one thing I remember about the restaurant, it’s that they would always served a Vorsuppe, typically a thin chicken or vegetable stock that was a bit on the salty side and had small assortments of tiny pasta and bits and pieces of root vegetables added. At home, there was no such thing as a Vorsuppe. Who would eat soup before their main dish? And what soup would be this insubstantial? This was very odd to me.

The fact that there was a restaurant with the name “Zur Linde” in approximately the location that I remembered means that I cannot have imagined this completely. The restaurant cannot merely be a figment of my imagination, given the likelihood of me remembering something fictitious that then happens to have an exact equivalent in the real world.

As Michael P. Romstöck‘s Zur Linde tells me, though, there is nothing particularly outlandish about a restaurant named “Zur Linde”, given that such establishments exist all over Germany. A Linde is a tree, which in English is called linden or lime tree (if this Wikipedia page is to be believed, and why wouldn’t it? Who would create fake information about trees on Wikipedia?).

As it turns out, linden trees are not only very common in Germany, they also appear to be as revered as oak trees. I had always thought of the oak tree as the tree Germans  see as “their” tree. In West Germany, the 50 Pfennig coin featured a young woman planting an oak sapling (find the story/ideology behind it here). “In 1936,” an NPR story says, “the German Olympic Committee gave athletes an oak sapling for each gold medal they won.” Apparently, these trees were planted in a number of countries.

Regardless, Romstöck traveled across Germany to document linden trees and references to them. That restaurant I went to as a child would have been one (alas, it’s not included in the book). But there are others. There also are streets named after linden, whether in the form of a Lindenstraße (which coincidentally is the title of one of Germany’s most well known daytime soap operas) or as Berlin’s Unter den Linden boulevard that originates at Brandenburger Tor.

Of course, there are plenty of actual linden trees, some of them very, very old. A number is already gone. Yet they have been memorialized, given the function they served — a function that could have been ideological or practical.

There’s an appendix in the book that lists details of what is on view in the main section of the book (unfortunately, the text is only in German). The texts are pulled from a large number of sources. They cover a wide variety of aspects of linden trees, ranging from description of trees that are said to be 1,000 years old to an outline of an apartment for sale in Haus Linde, which is part of some retirement home.

Zur Linde is a very handsome production that is filled with a lot of very good photographs. But there is one problem: with the exception of the very first and last photographs, the pictures are always paired, which makes the book unnecessarily tight. The metaphor I’ve adopted to describe this phenomenon is stereotypical German techno: the incessant boom boom boom boom boom boom allows none of the photographs to unfold their beauty. There is no space for a viewer to take something in. These photographs need breathing space.

In particular, some of the photographs are simply superfluous. Do I need to see some detail photograph of something that right next  to (or before) it was already shown? I don’t think I do. Instead, as a viewer, I want to feel that I can spend some time with what I’m presented with, having the chance to discover things on my own — instead of being hit over the head with either some detail or the next thing.

After all, Romstöck not only has a keen eye, but he also discovered a number of incredible trees. For example, a number of them have all kinds of often elaborate contraptions built around them, part of which look like providing support, part of which appear to allow for access (in the form of platforms). And there is something uniquely German about the photographs, even if that Germanness is a lot more complex than non-Germans might expect.

I’m obviously no disinterested observer, given that I’m not only German myself, but I’ve made Germany the topic of my own photography. I don’t know how someone with a different background will react to the work. But I’m thinking this book will be of interest for those who want to have a peek at Germany, seen through German eyes that are able to perceive an aspect that’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook.

After all, photography can be incredibly revealing when it focuses on that which is just too visible to warrant a photographer’s attention. There’s nothing exotic about Germany’s linden trees and all their various associations. But it’s exactly that which makes the book so interesting.

Zur Linde; photographs by Michael P. Romstöck; texts by various authors (German language only); 144 pages; Verlag Kettler; 2021

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

i saw the air fly Mon, 27 Sep 2021 14:21:17 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Every once in a while, photography produced outside the narrow confines of photoland manages to find its way inside, resulting in a breath of fresh air in an environment stultified by its own conventions and structures, in particular by its insistence on the model of the “master” photographer crafting precious images.

In many ways, the photographs in i saw the air fly do not conform to this “master” model. They were made by children and adolescents aged 7 to 18 who live in Southeastern Turkey, an area where people from nearby conflict zones have found a new home.

These are their names (and ages), in the order in which they appear in the book: Muhammed (17), Fehet (13), Ahmed (10), Refai (12), Alan (10), Ayshe (9), Omar (11), Renim (10), Bilal (13), Ilava (9), Dilava (13), Naime (11), Sultan (14), Alin (11), Melik (14), Nurma (13), Muhammed (13), Melik (13), Hala (13), Seyid (11), Ibrahim (14), Derya (15), Menal (13), Shakra (16), Resha (10), Reshit (10), Sultan (14), Ceylan (15), Hamrafin (13), Muhammed (10), Sultan (8), Alin (10), Refal (12), Sidra (15), Ilava (10), Eylem (13), Abdullsamet (13), Meryem (13), Zeynap (14), Roksan (9), Rojin (14), Menal (13), Halil (12), Selma (10), Rumeysa (11), Mahabad (18), Reshit (11), Hamoude (11), Halil (10), Baran (14), Abdo (10), Meltem (18), Rumeyse (11), Zeynep (13), Zeynao (13), Dialava (14), Selma (9), Esma (14), Emine (15), Ibrahim (13), Nalin (13), Nisrin (17), Kudbettin (14), Mehmet (14), Shehed (13), Alin (10), Nevaf (13), Dilava (13), Nurma (13), Beyan (14), Hamit (12), Gizem (12), Cane (8), Melek (11), Cemail (13), Lara (13), Ertugrul (12), Ibrahim (12), Haci (17), Alican (11), Menai (14), Yara (13), Sözdar (12). (There are no last names given.)

They were taught how to take, develop, and print photographs by Serbest Salih, a photographer and refugee from Syria who works at Sirkhane DARKROOM. Its idea is to give these children a creative, fun outlet. In 2019, Salih writes in the short afterword of the book, a mobile-darkroom component was added, which allowed access to smaller villages. With the onset of the pandemic the mobile darkroom also help alleviate reduced access to education. This two-minute documentary provides a good introduction to the darkroom.

In the book, we see some of the photographers’ faces as they took pictures of each other or of themselves. We have, of course, seen their faces before. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t their faces but faces of their peers as they appeared in reports of war or migration. Typically, those fleeing war or attempting to reach a safer home (possibly in nearby Europe) aren’t given a name, let alone a voice.

For example, as I’m writing this, a small group of migrants is trapped between Polish and Belarusian soldiers at the two countries’ border. Belarus has been using migrants to try to create a problem for its European neighbours, while Poland is in violation of its own laws and obligations by refusing to give them protection. So far, five migrants have died. News reports typically do not includes names of those who essentially have become hostages in an utterly shameful spectacle created by a dictatorship and an authoritarian regime.

But this is not the same thing as what’s in the book, you might note. And you’re right. At the same time, though, by pointing that out you’d engage in playing the game of relativism and denial that in the end is responsible for the miserable life so many refugees and migrants have to endure. After all, at the beginning of it all sit small considerations of difference that, with laws and rules added, are responsible for wealthy countries refusing to take care of those in need.

This is why i saw the air fly is such an important and overtly political book. It creates a powerful counter narrative to what dominates the news. It shows us the world that Muhammed, Fehet, Ahmed, and all the other children live in through their own eyes. That world is a lot less somber than you might imagine. Child play pervades the photographs — as it should. After all, childhood should be a time of enjoyment and fun, even if overall circumstances are less than ideal.

At the same time, there is a strong sense of self determination in the book, which comes across strongest in the children’s self portraits. Photolandians have become so used to maligning the selfie. I dare anyone to look at the selfies in this book and to dismiss them as superficial exercises in narcissism. Especially in this particular context, such a read would be almost obscene.

Instead, the selfies are an affirmation of the self that one might imagine cannot be had easily, given the circumstances: scarce resources and difficult access to education. But somehow, the children are unaware of all of this and simply take them, looking with big open eyes into their cameras.

In The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen it is a child that points out what is there to see for all: the emperor is wearing no clothes. In a related fashion, in i saw the air fly it’s children who show us how wrong and misguided our ideas of their lives are. They are human beings deserving of a life without hardship just like the comfortable rest of us.

When I looked through the book, I remembered what I had read about it in a number of reviews. In almost all of them I couldn’t help but feel that somehow, these young photographers didn’t conform to what was expected of them. It’s not just that migrants tend to remain nameless, we Westerners also seem to have very clear ideas of their intent and motivations — as communicated by our own media (with its helicoptering photojournalists).

How else can we understand the surprise caused by these photographs: our surprise?

All proceeds from this publication will go to the Her Yerde Sanat-Sirkhane non-profit, the publisher notes.

Highly recommended.

i saw the air fly; photographs by children living in Southeastern Turkey, edited by Liv Constable-Maxwell and Morgan Crowcroft-Brown; 160 pages; Mack; 2021

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Springs and Wells Mon, 20 Sep 2021 14:32:10 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Between 1897 and 1903, James Reuel Smith traversed Manhattan and the Bronx to documents its disappearing springs and wells. His documentation included taking photographs and ample notes, the latter of which often extended beyond mere descriptions of the sources of water. For example, part of an entry from 16 October 1897 reads: “This spring is some four hundred feet south of the slate-colored building that the Volunteer Army maintains as a home for discharged convicts until suitable employment can be obtained for them. There are now thirty of these men in the home, which is rented from Mr. Shay.”

A little over a century later, Stanley Greenberg followed in Smith’s footsteps to photograph the locations he had detailed. Now, with the exception of Central Park and a few other locations, all of Manhattan and the Bronx is covered with concrete, asphalt, and houses, leaving very little if anything of the land’s original state. Unlike Smith Greenberg didn’t take any notes.

It’s tempting to look at Smith’s photographs as reminders of what was, of what, in other words, has been covered up with layers and layers of materials. This approach would make for a grim exercise, given how transparently unattractive Manhattan’s and the Bronx’s lived environment actually is (as documented by Greenberg in his photographs). Of course, one could say the same about any modern city that has grown rapidly over the course of a single century (a little while ago, I watched a documentary about all the now hidden rivers underneath contemporary Tokyo).

After all, the changes in these 100 years are too vast to allow for the kind of comparisons that can be made when locations are re-photographed that retain enough elements to show a world in flux. Here, in Manhattan and the Bronx, the flux has been too fast — the points in time are spaced too far apart. If someone were to look at the book that has now resulted from Greenberg’s endeavour — it’s entitled Springs and Wells (yet again, a very handsome production by FW:Books), they might be tempted to conclude that two completely different locations are being described (which, in a sense, is true, albeit not in a geographical one).

For me, it is Smith’s texts that offer most insight (if that’s even the right word). More often than not, there will be a number of details in them that open up a glimpse of a different time as much as an openness to observe beyond the purely geographic task at hand. The taste of water at a number of springs and wells is described. You’d imagine that in such a small area there would not be any variations but you’re mistaken. Also: yes, water has a taste (of sorts).

Furthermore, there are all those little idiosyncrasies of life that Smith manages to sneak into his text. Names are given even as the people behind them don’t play a role: for example, there’s the Mr. Shay who has rented out his property. All of these descriptions go beyond the photographic, and they hint at photography being seen differently (if not used differently) at the time when Smith compiled his collections of springs and wells. I’m thinking that he bemoaned not only the disappearance of these sources of water but also the increasing inability of those around him to see more of the world than an area to build on.

But there is another aspect of the book, something that I have been thinking about on and off. Photography appears to be particularly attractive for obsessive people, doesn’t it? There’s something about a camera that invites its users to produce not merely a sampling of something. No, it has to be a complete, exhaustive (-ing) collection of material: things, locations, people — whether it’s water towers or gas tanks or other industrial buildings, the German people, gas stations, springs and wells in Manhattan and the Bronx…

What is it with us photo people being these kinds of creatures?

I’m obviously unable to approach this particular subject matter as an outsider. I not only take my own pictures, I also observe other people’s picture making (and the books and exhibitions that result from them) from the inside, from that place known as photoland. Consequently, I don’t know what this might look like from the outside.

I have not compiled evidence that would hold up to scientific scrutiny. So far, conversations with non-photolandians tend to support my observation. In fact, those outside of our own niche seem to view what I outlined with even more suspicion that I do. We are obsessive people, out to collect our visual treasures in such a way that no detail or no example may be omitted — often at the expense of exactly the lightness of touch that makes so much art art.

Maybe this is what had me connect so much with Smith’s texts and those seemingly irrelevant observations around the springs and wells. Strictly speaking, they’re not relevant — why would have to know the name of a man who rents out some property that’s near a well? But what if the name is the actual point — and not so much the water itself?

I’m not sure, yet, where this would leave me. For sure, it would create an opening in the book that would ask me as a viewer and reader to become mindful of all the things that are excluded when something is done in just an exhaustive photographic fashion.

It seems obvious that this particular consideration is besides the point here. Springs and Wells wasn’t made to have people think about the role of photography. To make this clear, I do not intend my considerations as a criticism of the book. Instead, I want to speak of the opportunity provided by any piece of art, namely that it can trigger a discussion that’s expressly outside of its own bounds.

That, after all, is something else that I see as connected with the obsessiveness and quest for completeness that we witness in photoland so often: I perceive a lack of flexibility, an inability or unwillingness to allow for a discussion to go sideways (I wouldn’t want to necessarily imply a moral statement out of this, so feel free to pick whether you see this as an inability or unwillingness), to dig up Mr. Shay and give him a small and completely irrelevant part of the story.

Maybe we can all learn a thing or two from James Reuel Smith and look out for the Mr. Shays — or someone else, regardless of who he or she or they might do.

Springs and Wells, Manhattan and the Bronx; photographs by James Reuel Smith and Stanley Greenberg; text by James Reuel Smith; 496 pages; FW:Books; 2021

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Course of the Empire? Mon, 13 Sep 2021 14:22:35 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“I wanted to show America what an empire in decline looks like.” writes Ken Light in the afterword of his new book Course of the Empire. Let’s unpack this.

To begin with, if you make a photobook you’re not going to reach America. You’re making a book for the tiny sliver of the population that looks at photobooks. Don’t get me wrong, I love photobooks. But not for a second do I believe that the people who look at photobooks (let alone buy them) are in any way representative of the countries or societies they live in.

Furthermore, a hefty coffee-table book is a luxury item. In fact, I’d be happy to argue that most photobooks are luxury items (mine included). Nobody needs a photobook in their life if their basic needs — shelter, general sustenance — aren’t met. In fact, I wager that the majority of people depicted in Course of the Empire wouldn’t be willing or able to buy the book that purports to focus on their lives.

Of course, in an ideal world, photobooks would occupy the same places that other cultural items exist in (novels, movies, etc.). But they don’t. Consequently, I need to focus on the world we have, not the one I want. I don’t necessarily want to get into a discussion of luxury items, given that a discussion might not be as clear cut as you might imagine. But in some ways I like that photobooks are luxury items, and here’s why.

In our world, for many people it’s an investment to buy a photobook. I don’t mean that in the neoliberal way (the way wealthy collectors think about it). Instead, I mean that with limited resources, someone will have to make a decision whether to buy this book or that book. The way I see it, from this fact arises a responsibility for photobook makers: you will have to make something that justifies someone’s investment, that gives the people who buy your book something to chew on.

I suppose you could say: “no, I don’t think people need something to chew on. I think it’s fine to entertain people.” Fair enough. I’ll admit that’s not my line of thinking. But I think it’s obvious from Course of the Empire that it’s not intended to entertain. It’s intended to shake people. I know this because I’ve read the afterword: “Surely we’ve hit bottom,” Light writes, “a nation drunk and stumbling.”

Does the book offer something to chew on, though? In some sense, it does, if  you come from its maker’s place: “THIS IS NOT THE AMERICA I GREW UP IN.” — that’s the title of the afterword (including the all caps). And this brings me back to the quote I started this article with. “I wanted to show America what an empire in decline looks like.” If you start out with your conclusion, how will you be able to arrive at anything other than that, which you already know? What are you going to learn? What are you chewing on?

I’m writing this article on 11 September 2021, the 20th anniversary of the infamous terrorist attacks. You’ll have to believe me that that’s just a coincidence. In fact, had I paid more attention to the calendar instead of merely scheduling my articles by week, I would have done this differently.

I’m also writing this article as someone who was born in another country (I arrived here when I was in my early 30s). If there’s one thing that strikes me about the United States, something that I just don’t see in any other country I know, it is this: the country is completely enthralled with its own rhetoric, a rhetoric that’s hard to reconcile it with actual facts.

For example, NBC Nightly News end each day with a segment entitled Inspiring America. Whatever might happen on a given day, the last thing viewers see is some uplifting piece where you know that in thousands and thousands of households people are reaching for their tissues. Where in Germany the news might end with some report about a dog reunited with its owner, some little story that becomes meaningful because in the larger scheme of things it doesn’t mean anything, here, a little story is used as proof of the ultimate goodness of “the nation”. Everything in the news might have been terrible, but “the nation” still stands tall. That’s agitprop.

But the rhetoric sounds so good, doesn’t it? If you read the declaration of independence, for example, there is a lot of uplifting material in it. It’s written very well. It’s simple to see how one would cling to it as proof of the goodness of the country.

At the time the declaration was written, though, those words actually didn’t apply to many people. If “all men are created equal” how come some of them were slaves? Fast forward to today: former president George W. Bush (responsible for the wars that just ended) decried that “[w]hen it comes to the unity of America, those days seem distant from our own.” Need we dive into the reality of that unity, let alone into how Bush was responsible for undermining it a lot further?

Light’s sentiments are the opposite of Bush’s. His afterword also starts out with some ideal times (in this case, the short Kennedy era). From then on, the narrative goes, it all went downhill. But the general lament is the same. It’s the American lament, that, by the way, really only makes sense for white people. “In comparison with a future we don’t want to inhabit,” Maria Stepanova writes, “what has already happened feels domesticated — practically bearable.”

Here’s the thing: You never live in the country you grew up in. It just doesn’t happen. Heraclitus already noted that you can’t step into the same river twice. Things change, ideally (but not always) for the better. What is more, the actual reality of the beauty of past “unity” that Bush invoked (a sentiment that’s frequently mirrored by the current president) and of Light’s Kennedy era doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

In fact, it’s deeply reactionary to long for some supposedly better in the past (regardless of where you might fall on the political spectrum). If you look at the course of history, that approach has mostly been used by the wrong people, often with disastrous consequences.

What I’m after here is the following: if you set yourself up with a problem or challenge, and you pre-program the desired solution to it, then it’s very unlikely that you’re going to learn something, let alone achieve what you’re after. Instead, you’re guaranteed to chronicle your discontent.

For his book, Light crisscrossed the US, to photograph homeless people in a lot of places, county fairs in the so-called heart land, fashion week and a private club in New York City, futures traders in Chicago, various demonstrations in a number of places, congressional hearings, the US-Mexico border, and much more.

I’m reminded of how US news organisations operate. For example, whenever they want to get some input from “real people”, they seek out some diner in the so-called heart land. Apparently, that’s where you can find “real people”. This approach has become so common that it has now resulted in a small industry of critical articles about it (if you’re curious, here’s one: Drive-by journalism in Trumplandia).

The problem with Course of the Empire isn’t that what it depicts isn’t real. The problem is that it remains self contained. In much the same fashion as the photographer didn’t challenge his own thinking while photographing, the resulting book doesn’t challenge the conversation. It’s a book for people who know they want their ideas confirmed, who want to look at art that tells them what they already know.

This is a reflection of a nation that believes in its own rhetoric instead of challenging itself to live up to it.

Photographers have been documenting, say, the homeless for a long time. For sure, homelessness is a pressing issue. And yet, nothing ever changes. You could retreat now and say “but photographs don’t have the capacity to change”. We’d probably agree on that. But it seems to me that the next immediate step would be to ask: why then continue photographing homeless people if the pictures don’t help them one bit? Maybe there are other ways to help (assuming there is a genuine interest in doing so)? Maybe photographic strategies need to change?

I wish I could stop believing in photography’s power. I wish that photography’s power extended beyond the private. In private settings, photography is enormously powerful — just look at how people use picture on social media to talk about their lives (whether or not those pictures are truthful is another matter and also besides the point). But the moment photographs arrive at the larger societal sphere, the power dissipates.

In part, Course of the Empire demonstrates the reason. That reason is not that dissimilar than, say, media outlets desperately trying to get their Saigon helicopter picture in Kabul. Instead of seeing the world for what it was, to make attempts to understand it later, they wanted to see it a certain way, to not even trying to understand anything later (and that’s exactly what has happened since, a few exceptions notwithstanding — make sure to read this article about Afghan women in the countryside).

Whatever you’re trying to look at with your camera, you want to be prepared for the possibility that the world offers something up to you that you couldn’t have foreseen — even (and especially) if what you encounter challenges you to the core. That, and I would argue: only that, is what defines an artist.

If you don’t do that, the risk is to produce something like Course of the Empire, a really well-made book that is sure to satisfy the people who believe in everything inside before they’ve had a look.

Course of the Empire; photographs and text by Ken Light; 276 pages; Steidl; 2021

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Billable Hours in 6-minute increments Mon, 06 Sep 2021 14:54:03 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The United States isn’t a country governed by laws. It’s a country governed by lawyers. It would seem that this is a nonsensical statement: aren’t lawyers bound by laws? Well, yes, in theory. In practice, things are very different. In the US, it’s not laws that govern the civic space. It’s the lawyers you can afford to hire (or if you’re a politician, the judges you can install so they do your bidding — just look at what just happened at the US Supreme Court when it let Texas’ insane anti-abortion law stand). Consequently, wealthy individuals or large corporations are at an advantage.

Just take an example: Facebook. The company managed to shut down research into its own practices recently: “the researchers ultimately chose to shut down the project, believing they would face legal action from the company if it continued. Reached for comment, a Facebook representative confirmed the meeting, but denied threatening to sue the project, saying the company was open to find privacy-preserving ways to continue the research.” They don’t even have to threaten to sue. But, *wink wink*, of course everybody knows what’s going on.

Unless you’re a lawyer yourself, you probably don’t know much about their dealings. You might know that there are powerful law firms, and maybe you’ve seen ads on TV where local personal-injury lawyers offer their services. Every once in a while, you might receive some weird looking postcard or email where you’re being informed that you can become part of a class-action suit because of something you bought or used in the past.

Robin Dahlberg, a former lawyer who is married to a lawyer, has firsthand knowledge of the world of law firms. As a consequence, she managed to gain access to this world. Other photographers with enough skill and perseverance might have achieved that as well. But access alone doesn’t make for insight, for knowing what’s going on. For that you need the insider knowledge and experiences you gain from having worked in such an environment.

Billable Hours in 6-minute increments had been making the rounds in its artist-book form for a few years. Now, there is a trade edition (published by Daylight Books). The book presents what’s going on in a law firm following a fictionalized day, using a mix of staged and candid photographs (in a number of the pictures, Dahlberg used herself as a model — see an example above).

The viewer is made to enter the building and the day then unfolds in all of its strange glory, the glory being that these people are getting paid a lot of money to talk to other people who do the same thing, and their clients foot the bill (and live with the consequences). The environment looks incredibly corporate and clean, with the exception of huge, messy piles of paper that pop up in places.

It’s also a very white world, and it’s a world dominated by men. Women are shown as having subaltern roles. For the most part they are depicted as following the men’s leads. Two essays at the end of the book make it very clear how much change is still needed in the world of law firms to increase its diversity (you could obviously say the very same thing about photoland).

What makes the book so interesting is the fact that somehow, Dahlberg was able to inject a sense of humour into the work. There are some echoes of Florian van Roekel‘s How Terry Likes His Coffee where the depiction of the most unremarkable office settings creates a sense of absurdist humour. The crucial difference is that while the Dutch artist presents what looks observed, Dahlberg was willing — and able — to shape photographs where needed.

In other words, there is a clear opinion that forces its way out. And that opinion ties in seamlessly with what was observed, leading to a book where it’s not always clear what was found and what was made. It’s a very convincing fiction, albeit one that accurately reflects the reality of a law firm, as seen by Dahlberg.

If you’re not very interested in what’s going on in a law firm, another way to think about Billable Hours in 6-minute increments is to see it as a visual primer that focuses on power and hierarchies. Almost every photograph in the book speaks to that.

One of my favourite pictures shows five lawyers engaged in a conversation. It’s not clear what they’re talking about, and it doesn’t really matter. What becomes very clear is the sense of power that each one of these men has. They each know their spot in the hierarchy in the law firm — and outside. I look at these men, and I’m convinced I know how they’d behave if I encountered them in real life (whether individually or as a group). If you’ve lived long enough and paid enough attention to how the world is run, you know what I mean.

Lastly, given the relative dearth of photographers shining a light on the rich and powerful, Billable Hours in 6-minute increments is a more than overdue and welcome book. As I’ve argued here and elsewhere, the rich and powerful not only bankroll larger parts of photoland (which in very obvious ways mostly shields them from becoming subject matter — what art organization would want to offend the people it stages elaborate fundraising galas for?), they also have the means and power to control whether they are going to be depicted and how.


Billable Hours in 6-minute increments; photographs by Robin Dahlberg; essays by Eleanor Fox and Leigh Gilmore; 96 pages; Daylight Books; 2021

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.6

Butterflies Mon, 30 Aug 2021 15:19:21 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Over the course of the past decade, the idea of the narrative-driven book has become one of the main ideas behind photobook making. With time, it has become such a fad, though, that I now encounter more and more photographers who ask me whether they need a narrative to make a book. My response almost inevitably combines a mix of utter shock and sheer delight: no, you don’t. Most photography does very well without a narrative.

While it’s an art form in itself to create a well-made book with a smart narrative, it’s actually just as difficult to make a book that doesn’t have one, for the cases where a narrative would not be in service of the underlying body of work in question. In fact, I’ve now come to find myself drawn to books without a narrative, given that these days narrative-driven books too often end up being exercises in being clever (often with unnecessarily gratuitous graphic-design gimmicks added on top).

Without a clear narrative, which does the job of guiding a viewer/reader though a book and which often (but not always) serves to keep them glued to what they’re looking at, you have to be able to have your audience understand the basic idea — however clear or fuzzy it might be, while preventing them from jumping ship, from, in other words, putting the book aside halfway through.

This can be particularly difficult when the idea or topic is broad and when the audience will have to bring patience to the book. In the context of an image-centered book it’s easy to not be aware of this fact: books require an investment of time and mental energy by their viewers/readers. That investment can be relatively small, or it can be considerable.

I think one of the biggest challenges for many artists is to embrace the idea that a viewer will have to invest time and energy when they look at a book. This is not any different than making a movie that lasts four hours, is complex, and avoids trite Hollywood conventions. As an artist, you’ll have to have the confidence that there will be people who are willing and able to invest the time and energy. Those people are your audience.

Photographed in Japan, Silvia Pogoda‘s Butterflies is a Stimmungsbild — there is no good English translation for this German word that combines Stimmung (mood) with Bild (image, whether abstract or concrete). Through a large variety of imagery — some black and white, some colour; some abstract, some concrete; some close, some far away — the book conveys the mood of something that is hard to define, yet relatively straightforward to experience when leafing though its pages.

Much like any Stimmungsbild, this one doesn’t reveal itself so easily. As a viewer, you can’t look out for it — instead, you will have to experience it. With every exposure to the book — it’s a book that begs for multiple viewings — the feeling becomes stronger and stronger.

In a nutshell, this is how non-narrative photobooks often work: in each of their pictures, they hint at the larger feeling, a feeling that needs to get built up by a viewer who trusts the book enough to be able to give it their full attention.

Thus, with Butterflies a viewer is thrust into a world that on the surface looks Japanese (in particular through the faces of people depicted in some of the photographs), but that feels familiar to what one might have experienced in one’s own life. There is a mix of joy and sadness caused by the impermanence of things, by the fact that every moment, however mundane or beautiful it might be, is not going to last forever.

The book’s makers themselves appear to struggle with what they have on hand: “It is also a story about beauty and its degradation, and the beauty of degradation.” (quoted from the publisher’s page) Unfortunately, words are made to appear throughout the book, starting with the cover. I don’t feel these words do the book much of a service. For me, they come across like sentiments one might find in a fortune cookie.

There is, of course, that perceived need to add words to a visual book — something for people to grab on to. But this temptation must be resisted where it will lead a viewer astray or where it might cheapen their experience. (Alternatively, add some words that don’t help the viewer at all and make them think about something related, but seemingly completely different.) A Stimmungsbild works because of what it does on its own. Trust your viewers to pick up on it, while demanding from your viewers that they will do the work necessary to get there.

As an object, Butterflies is a handsome production with a modest size and a deft choice of paper: the paper allows for just enough details in the printing, while also contributing to a sense of dreaminess (for a lack of a better word). Its weight and tactile qualities contribute much to the overall experience.

Butterflies; photographs and texts by Silvia Pogoda; Wszyscy Jesteśmy Fotografami; 2021

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 2.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.3

The Enemy Is Us Sat, 21 Aug 2021 20:46:40 +0000 Joerg Colberg

It’s far too early to summarize what exactly went wrong with the war in Afghanistan (assuming that that’s even a good approach to the issue). However, it’s not too early to note that the media played a huge role in the war. In his newsletter, Judd Legum called out what he termed The media’s systemic failure on Afghanistan. You will want to read the piece.

If you’re curious what the US government really knew about the situation on the ground, read What We Need to Learn: Lessons From Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction (links to a pdf). This is the 11th report the agency wrote, and you can understand the events of the past weeks a lot more easily.

It’s not clear, yet, whether the end of the war will trigger discussions about the role photography has played to communicate its course or meaning. These kinds of discussions aren’t new, yet they deserve to be re-visited in light of the past twenty years.

In fact, war photography can look back to a history that’s long enough for it to have spawned its own secondary literature. We have basically known that it doesn’t work for quite some time.

The photographers who go out to photograph wars know that the actual experience of being in a war zone cannot be communicated with pictures. The people who look at photographs of war now know very well that war photography also doesn’t do much for or to them. It’s debatable to what extent war photographs have shaped the public discourse.

Some of the finest photojournalists and photographers went to Afghanistan and risked their lives to take pictures, only for us, as viewers essentially knowing barely more about the country, its people, and the war than 20 years ago. I don’t see this as a photography failure because the pictures these men and women brought home never existed in a vacuum. They became embedded in the media whose corporations commissioned them.

“The single biggest mistake that a photographer can make,” Philip Jones Griffiths once said, “is to believe in the profession, to believe in magazines and newspapers. When that happens, you have already failed. One must work first and foremost to satisfy oneself.” (quoted from: Interview with Philip Jones Griffiths, by Geert van Kesteren, Brigitte Lardinois, and Julian Stallabrass, in Memories of Fire: Images of War and The War of Images, ed. Julian Stallabrass, Photoworks, 2013, p. 68)

The main point I will make in the following boils down to this: while the media have largely failed to provide a meaningful picture of the so-called War on Terror (in part because of their own complicity in it), independent efforts by a number of people (photographers, critics, artists) have resulted in a number of books that managed to achieve two things. First, they each advanced the form of the war photobook a lot further. Second, they each embraced a paradigm shift that centered the voices of those taking (or using) the pictures. The second aspect will become more clear in the following.

In parallel to twenty years of war, another reality has emerged that in the West is slowly, yet steadily being accepted by more and more people: Western photojournalists can only speak with authority about their own countries and cultures — unless they embed themselves with local communities for a long time, picking up the language etc.

Such an approach runs counter the dominant parachute-in approach still used by most photojournalists. What’s more, it can’t be the presumed task of a Western photojournalist to speak about other people’s experiences — when those people are fully capable of doing it themselves (there are, after all, non-Western photojournalists, right?).

This fact aligns with the second of my observations of today’s cutting-edge war photobooks: those who take (or use) the pictures are being centered. This takes on a variety of forms.

Maybe the most pronounced aspect is that photojournalists from countries that waged the wars have put their own countries front and center. To some extent, this already happened during the Vietnam War. But it now has become vastly amplified, as visual propaganda is openly critiqued.

War photobooks now contain pictures taken far away from where the bombs are falling: there are pictures of ordinary citizens going about their business, and, of course, soldiers coming home from the war, often heavily physically and mentally scarred, are being shown in the midst of a society that can’t understand what it did to them (it’s worthwhile to note that the latter is a recent addition in the world of photography; the world of literature is filled with examples that are a lot older).

The change was driven by a small number of people who believed in themselves and their mission, working with the likes of The New York Times where necessary but ultimately shaping their own message: war photography’s real goal is not to pretend that violence happening far away can be objectively displayed. Instead, the goal is to dive deeply into the heart of our own involvement in the mayhem.

Here, I want to single out a few books that I feel have each not only pushed the conversation about the war photobook a lot further, but that also have provided unprecedented insight into the past twenty years. Where I reviewed the books on this site in the past, I will link to the article. I should say that I have not re-read these articles. It’s possible that parts of my thinking might have changed or evolved. But I am pretty certain that my main view of the books’ merit hasn’t changed.

David Shields’ War Is Beautiful is subtitled “The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict” (reviewed here). For the book, Shields selected photographs that had been featured prominently on the front page of the newspaper (that had played a critical role in selling the invasion of Iraq — it later issued an apology of sorts). He then sorted the photographs into a number of categories that were based on larger ideas expressed through them.

In spirit, the book operates along the lines of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. The argument basically is that the photo editors of the newspaper select photographs to conform with specific ideas that center on their underlying US ideology. Even if I would have organized the material differently, the basic idea is very solid, and it provides considerable insight into the uses of photography on the cover of the most prominent US newspaper.

Shields’ book is important because it is intended to trigger a critical dialogue about the uses of pictures and how these uses often reflect an ideology more than what’s actually on view in them (if you’ve read my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism you know I’m using a similar approach there). But it indirectly also makes us gaze into what historically has been an area of contention, namely newspaper editors working with pictures in a way that possibly is in conflict with the photographers’ original ideas.

Geert van Kesteren’s Baghdad Calling unfortunately has now become one of those out-of-print rare books (review here). Much like War Is Beautiful, it attacks the conventions of photojournalism. The book features a very large number of photographs taken by Iraqi citizens that had been forced from the country during the worst of the violence there. In addition, their voices are given: the photographs feature descriptions of what’s on view in the photographs.

The book’s brilliance lies in the fact that it’s Iraqis telling their stories through their own pictures. Van Kesteren added a few of his own photographs, depicting the Iraqi refugees in their temporary homes in neighbouring countries. It’s an incredibly effective book that shows the power of photography, especially when it’s used for purposes that we now see on social media.

Monica Haller‘s Riley and his story operates in essentially the same way as Baghdad Calling. Here, though, it is a large selection of photographs taken by a friend of Haller’s who served as a nurse at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

At nearly 500 pages, the book features an onslaught of photographs and text, exposing the daily life of any one of the many “foot soldiers” caught in the war’s huge meat grinder. The sheer repetitiveness of the imagery is mind numbing: certain scenes just repeat over and over and over again.

Riley asks much of the viewer/reader. But then, if there is any expectation on their part to understand more about war and what it might mean, I think inevitably, a book will have to expect much. Our understanding cannot be had cheaply, on the go.

Much like Haller’s friend, Ben Brody was a soldier in the US army. Unlike Riley, Ben was an army photographer, though, and he later became a photojournalist to go back to the war zones repeatedly (full disclosure: Ben is a former student and now friend of mine). These facts make his work interesting: he has seen the machinery of war first from within and then from without, a type of knowledge that many photojournalist don’t have.

Attention Servicemember dives deep into many aspects of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some of which a viewer might be familiar with from regular photojournalism, but much which had eluded war photobooks until this one came along (reviewed here). Ben’s writing in the book is one of the most effective pieces of text I’ve ever come across in a war photobook — the book is required reading even just for that.

With the book, Ben blows huge holes into the standard narrative of the so-called War on Terror. It always was a farce more than anything, a farce that unfortunately cost way too many lives that shouldn’t have been lost.

Much like Ben Brody, Peter van Agtmael went to document the war as a very young man. But unlike Ben, he stayed on the outside, becoming a photojournalist.

If any photojournalist has produced the photojournalistic photobook about the wars, it’s Van Agtmael. In fact, there are two books, which are equally brilliant. There’s Disco Night Sept 11 (2014; reviewed here — trigger warning: some people might find the article’s main image — part of the book — upsetting), and there’s Sorry For The War (2021; reviewed here).

Both books feature a lot of photographs from the war zones. In both books, Van Agtmael also describes what people used to call “the home front”: scarred veterans are going home, government officials are trying to sell the war, popular culture arranges itself around an increasingly militarized society. Disco Night is closer in spirit to the classic photojournalistic book. With Sorry, the viewer encounters a photographer and citizen who is in deep despair over the ongoing folly.

I’m not going to argue that any one of these books is more essential than all the other ones. Ideally, a full set would be present in every US household so that people could see the reality of the war they paid for with their tax dollars and possibly voted for (let’s remember that in the Congress there was exactly one person, Representative Barbara Lee, who voted against the war in Afghanistan).

Of course, that idea is elusive and unrealistic. My main point here is not that more people should see these books — they should; but it’s their decision. Instead, here I wanted to stress two facts. First, the war photobook has evolved enormously over the past 20 years. This is due to the efforts of people who either were outsiders or who decided to ditch the conventions of their profession (photojournalism), to try to get closer to an understanding of these wars.

Second, in their own ways, they all realized that looking at their own underlying ideology needed to be part of that endeavour. They also realized that by construction, the standard model of photojournalism is incapable of doing what it pretends to be doing, because of its insistence on its own otherness, its own not being/becoming involved.

I suspect that there will be other books coming out about the wars. But it’s pretty amazing that we already have seen so many excellent war photobooks that cover the US-led wars over the past 20 years.

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Speak The Wind Mon, 16 Aug 2021 14:45:55 +0000 Joerg Colberg

In the mid- to late-1960s, Eikoh Hosoe and butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata visited a farming village in northern Japan, located in the area where they both had been born. “One thing I remembered from my days as a kid in that countryside,” the photographer wrote much later, “was a sinking feeling we sometimes had, as though something terrible would happen if we dared to venture outside after dark. The fields seemed to be full of ghosts and demons–some of them romantic, some of them awful.” Kamaitachi was the name given to the demon (yōkai) that was the manifestation of the sharp winds: it would inflict cuts on people. (Hosoe quoted from the 2009 afterword to the re-release of Kamaitachi [unpaginated]).

In their artistic collaboration, Hijikata turned into a kamaitachi for Hosoe’s camera, rushing through the landscape and inflicting himself on the mostly unsuspecting villagers who, with the exception of children, appear genuinely puzzled by what’s going on. “Later on,” Hosoe wrote, “I felt I probably owed an apology to those people, who must have been surprised when these two young men appeared out of nowhere and inserted themselves into their daily lives and rituals, snatching babies from cribs and shouting over their shoulders, ‘Sorry, we’re just borrowing your baby for a few seconds!'” (ibid.)

Even though Hosoe and Hijikata’s Kamaitachi and Hoda Afshar‘s Speak The Wind visually have nothing in common, I immediately connected with the Japanese artists’ work when I looked at this new book. That human beings are connected to the lands they live in through a more complex relationship than merely the extractive one Western thinking has established throughout the centuries is still widely acknowledged, even as this takes different forms in different locales.

In the West, these types of engagement with Nature itself are usually couched in dismissive or at least somewhat belittling terms. “On the islands in the Strait of Hormuz,” the publisher’s text about the book begins, “off the southern coast of Iran, there is a common belief that the winds can possess a person, bringing illness and disease. The existence of similar convictions in some African countries suggests that the cult may have been brought to Iran from southeast Africa through the Arab slave trade.” However irrational such beliefs might seem to Westerners, describing them as a “cult” seems unfortunate to this writer.

Much like in Kamaitachi, locals appear in Speak The Wind. But the Japanese book’s stark black-and-white expressionism is replaced with a style of photography that is more in line with the medium’s documentary tradition. Furthermore, no added shenanigans are inflicted on the locals by an artist personifying the spirit in question. Instead, their own words and drawings become part of the work itself. For sure, these differences reflect the overall change in sensibility that has happened in photography in the roughly 50 years that separate these two books.

But of course, these differences result in a very different engagement with the two books. Kamaitachi is visually very visceral in the sense that Speak The Wind is mostly not. The former is easier to engage with than the latter, which unfolds much more slowly and delicately. While this in part reflects the fact that the very male in-your-faceness of photography is thankfully on its way out (this is the subjective part of this sentence), it also shows how very similar ideas can be approached in very different ways by different artists.

This is where things get interesting, because the two books not only connect two different cultures far apart on the globe, they also both demonstrate how photography can be art: not by looking like art (which has no substance beyond the showrooms of commercial galleries), but by evoking feelings in viewers who might not have much in common with what they’re made to face.

Speak The Wind depicts a land that looks hostile to human life, with its harsh rocky environment in which ochre tones dominate. There is, however, a surprising beauty to the land that Afshar manages to tease out skillfully with her camera. Time and again, photographs of rocks or sand start to simmer with colour, the range of which extends far beyond what one at first perceives as a desert-like monochrome.

There are many photographs of human figures in the book, some of them portraits, others not. How or why I’m making this distinction will become obvious to anyone looking at the book: with a camera, a person can be made to stand for her or himself, or for the rest of us or their community.

There is no story other than the belief that the land and its wind are home to non-human presences. For a book maker, this is a blessing — no need to worry about a beginning and and end, and a curse — all the more worry about a beginning and an end: how do you even allude to something if that’s all you’ve got to do? Afshar does this very skillfully, by building up the idea in such a way that it reveals itself.

Throughout the book, sections of colour photographs alternate with ones in which the pictures are black and white. In the latter sections, variations of the same scene appear. More often than not, these variations do not conform to the page structure, having two pictures appear next to each other in seemingly random locations.

In addition, parts of the black-and-white sections employ pages that were not trimmed at the top, allowing a viewer to peak into a page. There, the viewer finds text: narrations of dreams, and there are drawings of specters and ogres. Here, they are, the demons perceived by the locals, narrated and depicted by their own hands.

Photography’s real strength is to speak of that which is pointed at outside of its own frames. Speak The Wind forcefully drives this idea home, regardless of whether we want to think of the beliefs of the people depicted therein as a cult or as an expression of a different, I’d argue: deeper, connection with the land they live in, a connection that Western thinking has eradicated in many parts of the world. In light of the enormous number of disasters that have been striking this planet just this month — wildfires in many different parts of the world, floods, earthquakes, many of which are the indirect consequence of our own ravaging of this planet’s resources, re-thinking how we deal with the only world available for us to live in sounds like a good idea to me.

Seen that way, if as viewers we allow ourselves to look beyond what separates the people in this book from us, we might pick up more of what the world around us has to tell us.

Here then, the biggest difference between Kamaitachi and Speak The Wind reveals itself. With its very masculine and now dated looking vitality, in the former two artists forced themselves onto the world. With its delicate and accepting grace, in the latter we find an artist listening to the world. For sure, we can use a lot more of that.


Speak The Wind; photographs by Hoda Afhsar; essay by Michael Taussig; 168 pages; MACK; 2021

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

Soft Copy Hard Copy Mon, 09 Aug 2021 14:46:37 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Please note: The author generated this text with the help of GPT-3, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model. Please refer to the notes at the end for more details.

The surfaces of any modern city are a hodge podge of mass-produced materials, set against each other without regard for what sits next to what else. This is done this because it’s cheap. The problem is that it doesn’t look good. People don’t know what to make of it. This is why everything has to be branded. In the same way that the modernists thought that a city could be designed by a vision, the thinking now is that a city can be branded. The idea is to create a city that looks like a designed object, but it’s done in a way that’s controlled by the marketplace. New buildings are a lot like new cities: they look good, but they don’t feel good, resulting in a city that looks good, but feels bad.

The modern city is thus defined by its surfaces, by the accumulation of materials on top of them, and by their erosion. These traces of human activities are ubiquitous, and they are familiar. They are thus easy to miss, easy to overlook. But they are not invisible. They can be analyzed, studied, recorded, and, through the reproduction of their forms, re-imagined.

To describe Stephan Keppel‘s Soft Copy Hard Copy as a re-imagination of Amsterdam is apt. There is very little in the book that will remind a viewer who is familiar with the city of what she or he might remember. There is no great canal, no Anne Frank House, no zoo, not even a canal ring. A book is a fantasy, it can be whatever an artist wants it to be. And Keppel’s Amsterdam is a city of the 1960s, with a touch of the 1970s. It’s all surfaces and materials. It’s a city that looks like it’s made of cheap plastic, cheap wood, cheap stones, all of them grimy.

The images depict a built environment made out of materials, components, platforms, and other things that can be found in a hardware store or on the street. Keppel’s book uses photos of buildings as a vehicle to talk about the city and culture that produced them. Soft Copy Hard Copy is about the creation of buildings, their architecture, and construction. It is about neglect, in particular the kind we don’t think of as such: opting for cheap materials, for layering of materials upon materials, for doing the job and just the job.

After all, the marketplace’s cheapness of the materials has resulted in a cheapness of our own ambitions on the job. This is unfortunate, because the motivation for the cheapness of the materials is the perception that quality isn’t worth it. Ultimately, though, the marketplace is just responding to our demands. So why don’t we demand better materials? It’s because we’re under pressure to be cheap. But this causes a big problem. Cheap building materials don’t last. So they’ll need a lot of maintenance before long. And then they’ll need even more maintenance after that. And so on and so on and so on. It thus becomes a feedback loop of cheapness, cheapness on top of other cheapness. It’s a downward spiral, and it’s why buildings today are increasingly more expensive to maintain.

For an artist, the cheapness becomes a fodder, though. Keppel photographed and accumulated the materials, extracting forms and shapes. One might imagine him expressing his ideas as follows: “I think in all my work, the collage is very important. I like to play with different materials, different shapes and forms. It’s about the materiality of things, that you can create something new with old things. And I like that.” (This sentence isn’t an actual quote by the artist; it’s something the AI created. Given the experimental nature of this article, I decided to keep it, while being transparent about how it arose. — JMC)

Furthermore, depictions of materials and patterns become their own materials, as Keppel scans and photographs instruction manuals, books that showcase samples of materials, and his own photographs of surfaces. Much like in his book about New York City, the result has very little to do with the Amsterdam a visitor or even a local might notice. An index at the end reveals the sources of what to a viewer might come across as a random selection of forms and surfaces.

This is a book the viewer needs to let wash over themselves in order to fully appreciate. It’s a book that rewards patience. It’s a book that will make the viewer want to re-examine the places walked past and the things passed by on a daily basis. It’s a book that will get them thinking about the things they see every day. The book could be described as an “exquisite corpse,” a book in which each page is assembled from images contributed by various artists who are given only a few guidelines and no instruction — except that all of those artists hadn’t been told where and how their “work” would be used.

It’s also a book that is likely to confuse many viewers, leading them to ask themselves “why am I looking at this?” And, yes, what is there to see in these grimy surfaces and materials? Sure, we can see things like the marks left by the someone’s hand, but is this really that interesting? From the perspective of an art critic, the answer is yes. But from the perspective of a lay viewer or someone casually interested in photography, it’s not clear. What seems clear is that many people are going to find the experience of looking at these photographs to be a very unpleasant one. And this might be the key to the experience. The images often are visually unpleasant. They’re full of dirt and grime, of neglect and cheapness: the dirt and grime, the neglect and cheapness of our lived environments.

In part, this work is critical in its attempt to challenge our expectations for how photographs are supposed to look, and it challenges us to look at our world in a different way. But at the same time, there’s not much here that’s political, or even all that provocative. Indeed, this work seems almost apolitical in its refusal to engage with its viewers. And yet if this work isn’t political, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t political. As noted above, one of the central elements of this work is its desire to frustrate and put off its viewers. And this can be seen as political (or at least anti-political) in that it refuses to pander to its audience. It refuses to provide them with easy answers or eye candy. Instead, it provides us with something much more difficult: a deeply frustrating experience that may well leave us feeling like we’ve wasted our time by looking at it.

If we indeed have wasted our time looking at these pictures (which, to make this clear, I don’t think we have), then that means we’re wasting our time looking at our lived environments. Where does this leave us? It is exactly that question that I believe Keppel wants us to deal with. There are no easy answers, but that is the point of the book. If we’re going to be living in these environments, then there needs to be some understanding of what they are. Whether that understanding comes from the designers, the builders, the artists, or the critics is another question. But to not have that question being asked is the problem in the first place. To not have that question being asked is to be ceding the ground to those who will ignore or abuse it.

To finish, I think it’s important to note why I care about this book. I’m a critic and a writer. I care about how people live and how they think about how they live. I’ve been a critic for so long that I’ve had to learn how to be a critic of myself. I care about these things so much that I do them for free. I care about these things so much that I’ve written a book on them and am currently working on another. I care about these things so much that I’ve failed a lot and suffered a lot of rejection as a result. I care about these things so much that even if none of it ever pays off professionally, I’ll keep doing it because it’s important to me and my family and my friends and my colleagues. In short, this book has made me better at what I do and it will continue to do so until it becomes irrelevant or until I’m dead.

Soft Copy Hard Copy; photographs and images by Stephan Keppel; 240 pages with poster; FW:Books; 2021

Production notes: As described in the very beginning, this article was generated in part with GPT-3, OpenAI’s large-scale language-generation model (using the “Da Vinci” engine). “Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 (GPT-3),” notes Wikipedia, “is an autoregressive language model that uses deep learning to produce human-like text.” In a nutshell, the algorithm gets trained with existing text (written by humans), and it then learns how such text operates, to be able to generate it on its own.

Given that GPT-3 essentially creates “copies” (however loose they are) of other materials, I thought it would be perfect for this particular book. That said, as a reader, you will want to keep the experimental nature of this article in mind.

GPT-3 operates on the basis of prompts. You supply it with (a) sentence(s) (or even just a word, which I didn’t do). And it will then generate text based on that (those) sentence(s). For the most part, I did this in an iterative manner. I would first write a sentence and let the machine generate text. My sole criterion for whether to accept or reject the result was based on whether it made sense in the context of the book. For example, whenever the AI started writing about something very different, that text was rejected (at times, the AI would produce what essentially looked like parts of standard press releases by gallerists or museums).

Once there was text that made sense as a continuation of my prompt, I would edit the text to make its style and voice fit my own, cutting out smaller parts that wouldn’t fit (or that were simply repetitive or superfluous), and at times adding little bits. Depending on how much text I ended up with, I would use the longer text as a prompt in its own right and look for further output. In general, a paragraph or a couple of paragraphs are the typical outcome of any such iteration. The AI would move too far from the book/topic afterwards. I those cases, I started a new paragraph with a new prompt.

I rejected all text that I felt would do a disservice to the discussion of the book or artist in question. Even though the AI attempted to insert first-person narration throughout, I removed all such parts (in part because their logic didn’t make any sense), with one exception that is very easy to spot.

In the end, this article effectively is a montage of iteratively constructed parts of AI-generated text, each one of which was initially prompted by me.

Before I started, I made the decision not to mark which parts of the text were written by me and which parts were generated by the AI. The idea of my editing was solely to make the text legible and not confusing (avoiding abrupt changes in narration, where such changes would simply be confusing). In the final text, about 75% of the text are text produced by GPT-3.

The generation of this article resulted in costs of $0.70 (for the use of the AI engine).

I’m deeply indebted to Nelis Franken for introducing me to GPT-3 and for his many attempts to make me understand the logic behind it. All inaccuracies in terms of the descriptions above are solely caused by the limitations of my own understanding of the machine.

Liberia Mon, 02 Aug 2021 15:49:07 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“As a white, Northern European photographer who had spent almost ten years of his active career in the warzones of this world,” Andreas Herzau writes, “I had a tendency to seek out the problems: casualties of war, mass graves, the damage caused by the fighting, and of course poverty. Under the guise of the well-intentioned humanitarian aim to inform and explain, we photographers travel through countries like Liberia reporting mostly on matters which are already well-known.”  These sentences describe one of the main problems of photojournalism. It is heartening to see it expressed not by a critic or writer, or by someone who found themselves in front of a photojournalist’s lens, but by someone behind the camera.

Some of the photographs Herzau took in the country in 1996 during its civil war are included in Liberia (the book; in the following, the italicized word refers to the book, the regular form to the country). About two thirds into the book, there is a section of pages printed on a different paper stock. These pages show parts of contact sheets that feature a mostly grim selection of pictures of violence and mayhem, with added colourful markings from the later editing stages. These markings form a visual form of violence in itself, such as when there is a stark red cross right over what looks like the face of a dead man in a morgue.

“At the beginning of 2020,” Herzau concludes his introduction to the book, “I traveled through Liberia once again, experimenting with looking at this country in a different way.” The photographer summarizes the pictures he took as an “attempt to counteract the cementing effect of the one-sided documentation of victims.” We might immediately note that while this goal for sure is honourable, it is unlikely to have the same reach as the ongoing “one-sided documentation of victims” that Western news media continue to produce. After all, a photobook is unlikely to reach even remotely as many people as, say, slides shows by the likes of the New York Times. If anywhere we’d need desperately need to see such a counteraction, it is there. Still, it has to start somewhere, doesn’t it?

“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title,” Binyavanga Wainaina begins an essay originally published in Granta that accompanies the book. It’s entitled How to Write About Africa, and it includes a long list of stereotypical depictions of a continent that is home to 1.3 billion people living in over 50 countries, states, and territories, yet that in the West mostly exists as this one word: Africa. It tends to make the news only when disaster strikes (much like how, for example, South America typically only makes the Western news when and where someone acts like a dictator).

As a locale, Africa was pillaged by photography more than once. First, photography played an integral part of colonialism. Then, photojournalists descended on the continent to do what Herzau outlined (they still do). Whether or not these two are actually separate developments is debatable. But I’m going to leave it to others to discuss the topic who can write with more authority on this particular subject matter.

Either way, it seems obvious that if one wants to approach a part of the continent with a camera as a professional photographer from the West, then one needs to proceed with care. There is, after all, yet another pitfall, albeit one that also exists in many other places in the world: the dreaded cliché. Wherever you go, it’s hard to avoid photographing the clichés first.

For example, every year, there is a steady trickle of photobooks being published in Germany that reduce the United States to either a home of cowboys or the home of people at the margins. Obviously, there are cowboys in the US, just like there are plenty of people who have to live at the margins. But when the production of photography around these topics basically just serves to cement fairly superficial stereotypes (as is usually the case with these bodies of work), then that becomes a problem.

After all, stereotypes not only simplify, they also serve to disable crossing a divide that makes them arise in the first place. And stereotypes can be produced or re-produced even with the best of intentions. To be able to truly go beyond stereotypes typically requires a lot of work and time. It requires becoming embedded in another country or with another culture, which inevitably entails learning the language. It’s hard work, and whatever payoffs can be had arrive only after a longer period of time.

If you’re a tourist, you won’t get there. As a tourist, you’re a visitor. You’ll be treated well and with care by your hosts. But those hosts won’t let you see behind the scenes any more than you’d do it if someone came to live with you for a week or two. That’s why tourist photographs always look like, well, tourist photographs: you become fascinated with anything that looks different or exciting. Even when you know that photographing certain things shouldn’t really be done, there’s not any more depth to it.

This then brings me to Liberia. While there are a number of really good pictures in the book, after having looked at it a number of times, I’m not an iota closer to knowing more about the country. Instead, I know what Herzau visually responded to. There is plenty of colourful fabric, there is what I would call the African vernacular (aging hand-painted signs, decorations, and images), there are young people playing on the beach. Make no mistake, Liberia is presented as a nice looking place that looks fun to visit. And thankfully, photojournalistic disaster is absent.

But is this enough?

I’m thinking that with Liberia, Andreas Herzau solved a problem, while failing to address the problem. The problem at hand is that none of the many countries in Africa tend to get the deeper, longer-term engagement by Western photographers that is truly necessary to reveal more of their actual essence. Obviously, whether or not a Western outsider will be able to get close to that essence is for another debate. There is much to be said for photographers from the continent to reveal their own view of their home first.

Still, the problem at hand is pretty common in the world of photography: you arrive with your camera, and despite your best efforts to avoid the obvious problems, despite your best intentions you don’t get much further because you can’t or won’t look deeper. In a place like Africa, which has been on the receiving end of so much colonial violence and exploitation, such an approach can only fall short.

Liberia; photographs and text by Andreas Herzau; essay by Binyavanga Wainaina; 128 pages; Nimbus; 2021

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Into the Technological Sublime Mon, 26 Jul 2021 14:41:46 +0000 Joerg Colberg

What happens when you’re trying too hard to be clever, when, in other words, you’re so enthralled by your own wit and ingenuity that the outcome telegraphs those more than anything else? Every time I pick up The Merge by Sara Brincher Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen, and Tobias Selnaes Markussen, my mind is drawn to that question more than to what the photographs in the book might be getting at. In many ways, this makes it difficult to write something about the book. I will try regardless.

The book’s makers aren’t helping themselves with the inclusion of a text that comes a few pages into the book. The idea of the text is to explain to a reader that we might be living in a computer simulation. This is the book’s focus: are we real? Do we exist? (I’m simplifying this a bit but not all that much.) That in itself might be a worthwhile topic to think about. But it’s conveyed rather clumsily and in a fashion that, well… That’s where the “trying too hard to be clever” bit enters.

You see, I have a background in theoretical astrophysics. I met quite a few incredibly intelligent people who believed in pretty mind-blowing stuff. When I use the word “believed” I don’t mean this in the sense of a religion. Theirs was not a faith. No, they could prove to you that what they told you was if not likely to happen then at least a very reasonable theory.

For example, I once met Frank Tipler.  Tipler thinks that “a society in the far future would be able to resurrect the dead by emulating alternative universes” (quoted from the Wikipedia page). He derived this idea in a scientific fashion. But when I heard him speak, I never had the impression that the cleverness of this idea was of any concern to him. It was simply logical (to him anyway).

The problem with such theories is that only those that are deeply embedded in the field can fully understand them. Everybody else inevitably can merely get the gist of it, which might or might not be coming from a book that attempts to popularize the topic for a mass audience (which is a pretty lucrative business by the way). And that’s fine.

For example, I know various aspects of theoretical astrophysics pretty well. I worked on computer simulations of the Universe. Even though this is part of my past, I think if I were to somehow decide to create a photography project on simulations and/or the people who produce them (which, don’t worry, I won’t), it would come out pretty good. But I only have a very surface understanding of, let’s say, mRNA vaccines (I received one, for which I’m intensely grateful). I could probably read up on them. But if I were to decide to produce a project on such vaccines, I’m pretty sure it would result in something that’s rather cartoonish (at least for those people who know more about the subject).

In other words, while I understand the appeal of creating art around advanced scientific ideas, there is a problem with artists doing that. They typically gravitate towards two possible outcomes. They get too drawn in to the point where you can see they think they’re almost a scientist. I once had a very well known German photographer explain astronomical image processing to me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him how wrong parts of his understanding was. Alternatively, they end up being too enamoured by their own cleverness.

In both cases, the outcome isn’t what they set out to do: art. At worst, it’s entertainment that masquerades as art. Art, after all, encompasses the viewer’s imagination, and it does so in a way that’s not prescriptive. Thus, it’s not enough if an artist uses her or his imagination. The viewer also needs to be given the same opportunity. Her or his or their imagination must be allowed to run free — instead of being told “hey, why don’t you think about this and only this?”

There is another aspect of the book that also ties in with something that I have been grappling with for a while. In my book Photography Neoliberal Realism, I use Andreas Gursky as one of the main examples. Gursky’s work is instantly recognizable for its portrayal of ant-like human figures in an enormous, overwhelming world that is governed by forces beyond the control of any of these figures (the fact that most of his pictures are constructed in a computer is irrelevant).

For reasons of space (the book’s intended target length) and time (the deadline), I didn’t dive into an aspect of Gursky’s work that is very important. It’s not just the sublime in its classical form that this artist is playing with. More often than not, it’s the technological sublime, one of the handmaidens of neoliberal capitalism. The technological sublime is a tempting target for photographers, simply because modern technology evokes it quite naturally.

In the past, the technological sublime mostly addressed the physical sense and only if you were actually present at the scene. If you look at, for example, Eugene Smith’s photographs of steel mills, they cannot really convey the heat and noise of those environments. But today, things have shifted. If you see how, let’s say, cars or computers are produced today, you’ll encounter incredibly clean looking environments that are great for photographs. Often, robots play a role in the process (again, great for photographs).

In other words, post-post-modern technology and the places where it is made differ in terms of how we relate to them compared with their modernist predecessors. Whereas it was pretty straightforward to produce deeply critical work around the labour conditions of workers in the modernist era, it has become a lot harder now, given that there is the temptation to essentially produce neoliberal realism around the factories (just look at Edward Burtynsky’s photographs from Chinese hi-tech factories).

Another way to describe the problem would be the following: during the 1920’s someone praising modern factories and someone criticizing them would have produced very different pictures. Today, their pictures would probably look identical.

So when I see a photograph of a man sitting in an oversized somewhat anthropomorphic computer in The Merge (roughly halfway into the unpaginated book), I’m looking at a form of the technological sublime of the early 21st Century, which, as I already noted, plays a huge role in Neoliberal Realism. There are many other photographs in the book that operate in just the same way.

I suppose it’s fine to think about whether we live in a computer simulation or not. I’m personally not all that interested in the idea. I am able to imagine how an artist (or an artist collective) could get me interested in that. However, I don’t think you can do that by producing something that just feels too clever and that also seems blissfully unaware of how large parts of the imagery feed into Neoliberal Realism.

After all, once I see that, I’m wondering why we’re talking about whether we live in a simulation when we could instead talk about the uses of all that technology depicted in the pictures. Even if I’m just some part of a huge simulation, I’ll never be able to escape that fact. So I might as well deal with the other parts of the simulation that effect my life, right?

And if I’m not a part of some huge simulation, it feels like a strange luxury to me to ponder about that while a little over 100 miles from where I’m writing this, a group of engineers build anthropomorphic robots (that we all know will find their first uses through the military to kill people), only to also produce pretty scary videos about what those robots can do, videos that make it clear that these engineers are unaware of the problem: “hey, look at our future killer robot dance!”

I know the inevitable retorts to the above (which I’m cool with): why should artists be only critical? Can’t they just “explore” something? Why would they have to challenge the status quo? These questions have considerable merit. Every single artist should simply be doing what she or he or they feel like doing.

But when the sum of it all — the community — largely fails to respond to all the various challenges to our societies, democracies, and well being, then I’m left to wonder where it all went wrong.

Maybe it’s simply the fact that the world of art has become too enmeshed with the very people who are responsible for the challenges I just mentioned.  Why or how? Simply follow the money.

The Merge; photographs and text by Sara Brincher Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen, and Tobias Selnaes Markussen; 136 pages; RM; 2020

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Odd Time Mon, 19 Jul 2021 14:07:18 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Ten years ago, I spoke with Mirjana Vrbaški about her work after she had been picked as one of the winners of the portfolio competition back then. At the time, my thinking around photography and especially the portrait was more limited than it is now. “I don’t see the portrait as having to do with the individual shown on it,” she said, “but as being a completely new territory, an amalgamation of the model, the photographer and the viewer.” This intrigued me. Over the years I have come to a similar understanding of what to expect from a photograph that shows a person.

The problem with portraits is that everybody seems to have very specific ideas about them, and everybody has their go-to artist. You have the Avedon-In-the-American-West crowd (that loves seeing stylish b/w photographs of underprivileged people), you have the Thomas-Ruff crow (that loves the idea that the portrait doesn’t say anything), you have the August-Sander crowd (that loves seeing a portrait as a very specific reflection of a sitter’s properties)… There might be others.

But rarely do you encounter artists who use the portrait as a way to talk about something completely different: an idea that’s floating somewhere, that’s hard to pin down while being very specific at the same time. A portrait’s specificity makes it very hard to get into this territory. How can the depiction of a person whose face (posture, gender, …) telegraphs a multitude of things not be about that? How can it be about something else, something that exists in the larger public sphere that photographer, sitter, and viewer share?

That’s essentially the area described by this artist’s portraits (Verses of Emptiness). “Described” isn’t a good word, because there is no description. But I like it a lot better than the word “explored”, because I don’t think this photographer explores anything. When you talk to her about her work, she is very, very specific about what she wants from these pictures. They’re about a specific feeling that is difficult to express directly, but that is so straightforward to see especially when one is facing an framed print.

I don’t know whether the photographs that are part of 7/8 would be considered as landscapes. For sure, they show part of a landscape — sunlit trees in what look like forests. But affixing a label to them ultimately would only lead to the same problem that I outlined above: these pictures are not about what they show. While they visually describe parts of forests, their main purpose is to evoke feelings.

That said, in the area of landscape photography (or art in general actually), this idea covers well-known territory. For a long time, writes of all kinds (philosophers, art historians, etc.) have summed up a large part of what a landscape in a painting or photograph can do using the term “the sublime”. 7/8 operates in this general area. In fact, despite the vast differences in subject matter, even in photographic style, there is a strong overlap with feelings evoked by the portraits in Verses of Emptiness. In some ways, this is not particularly surprising, given that most artists work with a very specific sensibility that will lead their work to similar themes (however different it might look at first).

Odd Time, a book that contains both bodies of work, thus only at first glance looks like a mid-career survey (full disclosure: the book was published by Kerber Verlag, which also produced my first photobook, Vaterland). It is that in the technical sense. But in part through its production, it not only makes the connection between the two bodies of work clear, it also amplifies them greatly.

When the book is opened, the viewer encounters two text blocks. They open to their respective sides, allowing the viewer to either look at one at a time or at both together. Given there is no restriction in how the two parts can be looked at, the viewer might pair any portrait with any scene from 7/8. This makes for a mesmerizing effect that greatly enhances the work, bringing out the artist’s sensibility.

What is more, Odd Time is a modest and elegant production. I’m obviously biased, given that for my own book I wanted a relatively small and unassuming production (which serves to create a sense of intimacy with the book, while not telegraphing the importance of its art aspect). Thus, my enjoyment of the size and production don’t come out of nowhere.

Still, this doesn’t mean that I only want to look at relatively small books. A book’s size should be determined by what it is supposed to do. I was surprised when I received the book in the mail. I had assumed it would be a lot larger. I was surprised again when I realized how well the production works to have the viewer encounter what I saw and felt when I was in the presence of prints.

In many obvious ways, we live in what you could call an odd time. Right now, it actually feels like an understatement. But Odd Time, the book, takes it title from a completely different moment. It’s not the moment of unrest, of political decay, of a pandemic. It’s the moment when all of the worldly concerns fall away and when you’re in the presence of just yourself as a creature on this planet. It’s a moment of deep contemplation, a contemplation that is much needed, given it for sure would help us deal with all the disasters we’ve made ourselves face.

Seen that way, Odd Time is the perfect book for this crazy time. It allows us to center ourselves, to bring us back to what really matters. Only when we are able to be with ourselves in peace will we be able to face the perils of this world.


Odd Time; photographs by Mirjana Vrbaški; text by Koen Potgieter; 2 x 32 pages; Kerber Verlag; 2021

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

Zenker Mon, 12 Jul 2021 14:49:47 +0000 Joerg Colberg

There is a photograph of Georg August Zenker in the book whose title bears his last name. On page 26, a “[f]ramed photograph from the lounge room of the Bipindihof” (the caption tells us) shows someone who looks very German staring back at us. There’s a slightly bemused look on his face. Change out his clothes for something very slightly more modern, trim off the beard, add some of those pretend-stylish glasses that middle-aged German men wear, and you might be peeking into the face of one of those men that you ordinarily would expect to see in some mid-level manager position at a provincial savings bank, but that have come to dominate contemporary German politics: sub-mediocre technocrats. The conservative party’s candidate for the chancellorship, Armin Laschet, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, exemplifies this type of man perfectly, with his complete lack of even an awareness that ambition might cover more than the next rung of power and his willingness to give more to those who already have a lot, while keeping all the others down. You wouldn’t want to give these men more power than over an upcoming promotion of low-interest home financing. But now they have to deal (or rather pretend to deal) with climate change or a pandemic. It’s altogether not very surprising that the outcome is a mess (where the next corruption scandal is merely one news cycle away).

Nowadays, these German men deal with their own — unless they somehow feel compelled to decree that “the safety of the Federal Republic of Germany is being defended at the Hindu Kush” (actual quote, translated by me, by the Zenkerite who was defense secretary in 2002). Back at the end of the 19th Century, that safety was being defended in places such as Kamerun, one of the small number of colonies Wilhelminian Germany had acquired. Obviously, Germany’s safety wasn’t going to be defended any more in Afghanistan than in the area that now is mostly part of the modern-day Republic of Cameroon. Instead, German administrators and soldiers were defending their country’s rights to do as it pleased. This, of course, was couched in the name of some greater good that, alas, for the most part eluded those who were at the receiving end of said defense. So it goes, to use Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase.

Imperial Germany had wanted a seat at the table of colonial powers, joining the likes of Great Britain and France, and briefly got it. During World War I, Germany lost all of its colonies (that it was unable to defend). But foreshadowing how the first half of the 20th Century would evolve, they still managed to stage its first genocide in what is now Namibia. Of course, contemporary Germany would rather not have a seat of the table of former colonial powers. But if you re-erect the country’s former imperial palace in the capitol and then move the collection of the Ethnological Museum into it, which is filled with looted artifacts, then they were basically asking for it (not that they would have had a choice anyway). Consequently, a discussion over all of this has broken out in Germany, a discussion that, of course, the savings-bank directors in power would rather not have. (So it goes. — KV)

Georg August Zenker was a botanist and gardener whose career resulted in a position at the farthest inland outpost in the German colony of Kamerun. There are somewhat conflicting accounts of his activities in the area. He was dismissed from his post, yet he returned as a private citizen, and he died and was buried there. There was talk of improper behaviour as a colonial administrator, some of which in retrospect is hard to prove. What is not, however, is the fact that he fathered a number of children with a few women, only one of whom was his wife. Whatever the truth might have been, there exist dozens of descendants who wear his name and who today either live in Cameroon, in Germany, or elsewhere. Portraits of a quite a few of them can be found in the book. In addition, there are longer interviews with three Zenkers, all of whom proudly recall the history of the family and the many achievements of their (great) grandfather.

The very first facts a viewer learns about Zenker come from the man himself, though a selection of letters that he sent back to Germany. The letters are filled with details from different parts of his life. There are short descriptions of daily life. There are numerous descriptions of his process of killing animals and sending them back to Germany, to be used in museums. And there are reflections of the ubiquitous racism and the casual colonial violence that men like Zenker probably didn’t think much of. To what extent the latter connect with reasons given for his dismissal isn’t clear. It might not matter anyway, given that the view Germans had of the country they ruled for the most part stands outside of what we consider civilized discourse today. Where facts or accounts might differ from one administrator to the next, the underlying language is one of casual, yet brutal racism, in which the life of a person who is not white doesn’t matter all that much. To pretend that this was not the case is little more than window dressing.

At the end of the book, there is a long list of specimen prepared by Zenker that are in the possessions of museums in Berlin, the Ethnological one — in the news for the Benin Bronzes it holds — among them. The list is quite extensive, and it sickens me to consider the slaughter of all the animals just so they could be prepared and then sent off to Germany. But its length also serves as a reminder to what extent colonial violence was an important pillar of Europe’s humanities and knowledge industry (lest we forget, photography is part of that).

For the most part, the book focuses on the very location of Zenker’s activities, the village where he built what his descendants refer to as the palais, a massive building that in German probably would be described as a Gutshof (manor) and that is named Bipindihof (Bipindi is the name of the locale, and a Hof in German is a farm of sorts). Given it was built with stones, it has not (yet) fallen into complete disrepair, even though it clear has seen better days. Members of the family are still attempting to take care of it, with neither the Cameroonian government nor the German one (through its embassy there) being very interested in maintaining it. Around the manson, there appear to have been farm-related activities, most of which have been stopped (one of the descendants talks of the government shutting things down in part by building a pipeline through the area).

The artists behind the book, Yana Wernicke and Jonas Feige, conclude their book with a relatively large number of questions, including for example “What entitles us, of all people, to explore the Zenker story?” or “How to reconcile the image of a man who could both despise people because of their skin colour, yet dearly love his own children whose mother was a black woman?” In the end, they conclude, that “we have just as many, if not more, questions today than when we first embarked on this journey.” A few years ago, when I was still a lot more impetuous, I would have thought that this conclusion is merely a cop out: after all, there always are more answers, aren’t there?

But now I know that the presence of more answers merely points at the fact that our lived reality, combined with all the baggage we inherit, prevents us from arriving at simple solutions most of the time (which is one of the reasons why I’m finding social media more and more toxic). An answer provides a solution, a way to end a story, a way to move on. Moving on is good, of course, because it feels good. But the reality is that history does not allow for a moving on most of the time. Whatever solution might exist is less an answer and more an attempt to do justice where actual justice cannot be fully had any longer. The descendants of those who were responsible for gruesome violence in the past (and this obviously includes me as a German citizen) will have to live with their lifelong responsibility to deal with what can never be resolved. For those interested in how one can understand and deal with this, Michael Rothberg‘s The Implicated Subject is a good start.

As implicated subjects, Yana Wernicke and Jonas Feige have done a great job diving into just a small aspect of Germany’s much ignored colonial history, a topic that despite efforts by conservatives to bury it is likely to remain with us for decades to come.


Zenker; photographs by Yana Wernicke and Jonas Feige; texts by a number of authors (German/English); 268 pages; Edition Patrick Frey; 2021

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 4.0, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.3

Issei Suda and Japanese Photography in the West Mon, 05 Jul 2021 14:04:54 +0000 Joerg Colberg

At the occasion of an exhibition of Nobuyoshi Araki’s work in Vienna in 1997, Austrian critic Christian Kravagna wrote an essay entitled Bring on the Little Japanese Girls! Araki in the West. Its premise was a very simple question: “How can someone’s photographic practice so obviously based on the commodification of the sexualised female body be acclaimed in a context that has become highly sensitive to the representation of gender power relations?” (in Autumn 1999, the essay appeared in the journal Third Text 48, now hidden behind a paywall, p. 65). This is a very obvious question, isn’t it? Yet here we are: at the time of this writing, there’s yet another Araki exhibition in Vienna. And it would be unfair to single out Austria, because the photographer is still being widely and pretty much almost completely uncritically celebrated in the West. Now, though, curators will occasionally call him a “controversial photographer”. Controversial is good, of course, because it helps move tickets.

In his essay, Kravagna offered a number of possible explanations for why Western curators and critics were unwilling and/or unable to realize that they had (and still have) a problem at hand. Araki’s work is very obviously caked in misogyny, yet the bulk of Western photoland simply won’t deal with that. How is that even possible? “Doubly fascinated with cultural difference and the unfathomable in female sexuality,” he wrote, “literature on Araki fits into an old pattern that links exoticism with erotism”. In other words, according to Kravagna, we’re dealing with old-fashioned Orientalism: “Not only does the image of women conveyed in the West through Araki’s photographs largely correspond to these fantasies, these fantasies are confirmed when one finds them in quasi-approved form at the level of art.”

In Representation, Distribution, and Formation of Sexuality in the Photography of Araki Nobuyoshi (positions 18, 2010), Hiroko Hagiwara picked up the thread from Kravagna and developed it a lot further. I suspect that if this article weren’t hidden behind a corporate paywall, photoland would look at Araki differently (or maybe not, I’m often too naive). While there is a long discussion about how to discuss the photographer’s male gaze, the Japanese critic also dives into the perception of Araki in the West. Commenting on often expressed remarks that tie Japanese bondage (which Araki obsessively photographed) to the country’s tea ceremony (and other local customs: bonsai, ikebana, etc.), she writes: “Such a touristic facade of ‘traditional’ art will never provide a contemporary photographer with a metaphorical frame to critically express the rigidity of Japanese society.” (p. 243)

Consequently, people who are very aware of the risk of violating cultural differences end up shooting themselves in the foot by unwittingly applying the very kind of thinking that they hope to work against: Japan is just different, so we can’t apply the same standards. Too afraid of violating cultural differences, essentially neo-colonial ideas serve as a fall back (as both Kravagna and Hagiwara point out). However, the reality is that while there are cultural differences between Japan and, let’s say, the United States, misogyny in Japan is not all that much different than misogyny in the US, even if it might manifest itself differently. The same is true for many other aspects of life in Japan and the US. But the idea of Japanese otherness is just too convenient, even in circles that in principle (should) know about the perils of othering.

Obviously, we wouldn’t be in this situation if we had more access to Japan’s cultural world. As it turns out, there currently is a mini-boom of books written by female Japanese novelists published in translation. If you want to learn more about Japan through novels, put aside Haruki Murakami (whose novels are also caked in misogyny) and check out any of the writers mentioned in this article. If you want to learn more about Japan through its visual arts, then… well, you’re a little bit in trouble.

If we stick with photography, what’s being offered in the West is very limited. It’s either yet another exhibition by Araki or by the other famous old man, Daidō Moriyama. Or if you’re lucky, there is a themed exhibition around something that unfortunately makes it hard to see Japan as just an ordinary country. A good example would be an exhibition like In the Wake. There was some incredible work in the exhibition. On the other hand, I wager that if people remember an artist (big if), he or she will now be seen as being well known for her or his tsunami work. I should note that there exist some pockets in photoland that try to work against the representation of Japan as a profoundly other country and that try to present a wider range of names and topics. For example, at SFMOMA Sandra Phillips has been instrumental in bringing a wider view of Japanese photography to the US.

I should note that Japan isn’t the only country that is seen in a very strange light in photoland. Once you start looking into photography made in pretty much any of the countries south of the United States or in Africa — both huge continents with a large variety of cultures and customs, you’ll run into the very same problem. Don’t believe me? Well, then name a Senegalese photographer, and tell me something about their country and work.

The key to moving away from simplistic ideas about other countries and their cultures is to move towards a more varied and inclusive representation of their art. In the context of Japan, this means that we desperately, desperately need less Araki or Moriyama exhibitions (or books) and more by any of the other brilliant photographers — whether they’re of the Araki/Moriyama generation (now either dead or in their late 80s) or the many, many younger artists working there. And exhibitions should not be themed. I know curators love themes because they’re easy to work with. But themes only invite the problems that I discussed in the above.

This brings me to the exhibition of work by Issei Suda at FOMU in Antwerp (Belgium). “Issei Suda (1940-2019) is a famous name in the world of Japanese photography,” the museum writes, “yet he remains relatively unknown in Europe. FOMU wants to change this with a first retrospective of his work outside Japan.” My Japan, a catalogue of the exhibition is available through FW:Books (I will use the catalogue for my discussion).

The bulk of Wikipedia’s page about Suda is taken up by a list of his books. This reflects the photographer’s obscurity in the West as much as the fact that the book was (and still is) the main outlet to present work in Japan. At the same time, however difficult it is to get access to Japanese photobooks, for many artists, they are the only type of access a Western audience has.

The two earliest books listed on Wikipedia, Fūshi kaden (風姿花伝) and Waga-Tōkyō hyaku (わが東京100), demonstrate an artist at the very top of his game (it’s important to know that the dates of Suda’s books do not necessarily reflect when their pictures were actually taken). Photographs from Fūshi kaden and Waga-Tōkyō hyaku feature prominently in My Japan (in the catalogue, Fūshi kaden is written as Fushi Kaden; much like German umlauts, details such as denoting a long vowel — ū instead of u — often get lost when Japanese words or names are transposed into Western script).

For these and a number of other series, Suda worked with a square 6×6 camera, occasionally using flash as well. The photographs often are what we think of as street photography, even though Suda mixes such photographs with a number of other details from his wanderings. There’s an interview conducted by curator Frits Gierstberg at the end of My Japan, in which the photographer reveals his thinking of the work: “I’m afraid I have no respect for those whom I photograph. I always shoot them as a reflex. […] My manner of shooting people without permission might be rude. […] Nobody was suspicious of photographers in the 1970s, the time when I shot Fushi Kaden.” (p. 136)

Whatever you want to make of Suda’s sentiment here, the fact that these series mix a number of approaches lifts them out of what we’ve come to expect from Western street photography. The majority of the photographs in both Fūshi kaden (風姿花伝) and Waga-Tōkyō hyaku (わが東京100) are absolutely incredible, and they deserve to be seen and appreciated much more widely (I’m lucky to own a copy of the 1979 release of Waga-Tōkyō hyaku so I know the full set of pictures).

If you look through My Japan, you’ll encounter a country that feels somewhat familiar to some extent (through those very cultural markers that are so well known: kimonos etc.). But there also are a lot of other aspects that show a country that is not very well known: the ordinary Japan. There are many pictures of ordinary life, unremarkable moments made remarkable through pictures. All of this is seen through the eyes of an incredibly gifted photographer who despite the generation he belonged to (with its very strong sense of machismo) managed to reveal very tender moments as well.

Obviously, Suda’s Japan isn’t Japan any more than Araki’s or Moriyama’s is: it’s the artist’s (hence the title of the catalogue). It is only through the combination of looking at a country through a large number of eyes that its essence might reveal itself. Ideally, there will be a lot more exhibitions like the one currently on view in Antwerp, bringing a lot more Japanese (male and female) artists to the West. That way, our often simplistic view can finally expand beyond Araki’s misogynistic freak show and Moriyama’s by now incredibly stale Beat photography.

One last comment: My Japan is priced at 20,00. That’s a great price to entice someone who might not be too familiar with this photographer’s name and who might be reluctant to spend a lot more money on a book. It’s a small, unassuming book, and as is always the case with FW:Books, it’s produced incredibly well.

Highly recommended.

My Japan; photographs by Issei Suda; interview with Frits Gierstberg; FW:Books/FOMU; 2021

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Thingstätten Mon, 28 Jun 2021 14:28:32 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The sheer monstrosity of the Holocaust and World War 2 have attracted a lot of attention and continue to do so. While Germany’s engagement with this part of its own history is laudable, it comes at a price, though. For example, recently a fierce discussion has broken out over how to deal with the country’s prior genocide in what it now Namibia. Can that genocide seen as related in whatever form to the Holocaust, or is the latter sui generis? If you’re interested in these discussions, Jürgen Zimmerer’s Twitter feed provides a good starting point.

Godwin’s law states that as an online discussion evolves with time, so does the likelihood that someone (some organization) will be compared with Hitler (the Nazis). We’ve all seen this in action more than once. Given the aforementioned monstrosities that then is the (often intended) end of the discussion. But to understand or use Hitler and his rise to power with the vantage point of 1945 unfortunately runs this risk of shutting off possible insight that can be had.

After all, Hitler acquired power in a democratic fashion. Without the support of German conservatives, he would have been unable to form a government in 1933. Whatever you can say about his conduct in power, there are possible lessons to be learned from how democracy imploded at the end of the Weimar Republic, lessons that people might want to look into more seriously these days.

In addition, popular culture unfortunately has created a veil of cartoonishness around Hitler and the other Nazis. While they were thoroughly evil, the cartoonishness prevents a deeper understanding of their ideas and motivations, however deluded, racist, and evil they might have been. Much like the United States’ Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff pointed out when faced with a gotcha question by some Republican representative who intended to smear the Secretary of Defense, attempting to understand ideas and motivations does not mean to condone them (you want to watch that video if you haven’t seen it, yet): “I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist.”

There are many aspects of the Nazis that it is tempting to describe as cartoonish. Many of those aspects are especially visible in the early years of Nazi Germany — way before World War 2 and the Holocaust. That these aspects already coexisted with concentration camps should not prevent us from looking into them.

If you visit Germany, you’ll have a hard time finding major Nazi-era buildings. German cities were heavily bombed during World War 2, so many of them simply were destroyed (and obviously not rebuilt). Well-known example you can still see include Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, the building that now houses Germany’s finance ministry, or Munich’s Haus der Kunst museum — originally built by the Nazis to showcase what they thought of as “German art”.

In Nuremberg, you have the massive Nazi party rally grounds that you’re probably familiar with from pictures. But there also exist a number of other outdoor locations that I had ever heard of until I was sent the book Thingstätten by its editor and main contributor, Katharina Bosse (full disclosure: the book is published by Kerber Verlag, which also published my own book Vaterland).

Up until I saw the book, I didn’t even know that Thingstätten was a German word. “A Thingspiel (plural Thingspiele) was a kind of multi-disciplinary outdoor theatre performance which enjoyed brief popularity in pre-war Nazi Germany during the 1930s.” Wikipedia tells me.

Unfortunately, in the context of art “multi-disciplinary outdoor theatre performance” sounds somewhat interesting. Lest you get excited, Wikipedia clarifies: “The idea of the Thingspiel movement was that the Volk would gather for völkisch meetings and for theatre and propaganda presentations.” The word völkisch here refers to ideas that in the context of contemporary Germany appear around members of the far-right/neo-fascist AfD party. The US equivalent of völkisch would be MAGA.

But there is more, given that the actual idea of Thingspiele is based on an insane hodgepodge of mostly pretend-historical ideas from a larger German history. One of the Nazis’ biggest problems was that they thought they needed to create a form of Germany that was glorious, yet mostly untethered from the actual Germany at hand. For example, they didn’t want to work with the church, so they came up with neo-pagan concepts.

What is more, there clearly was no empirical basis for their ideas of how or why the German people were special (just in case you’re wondering, there is no such basis for any country, however exceptional it might think it is). Consequently, they either made stuff up (which is not that dissimilar to how colonial powers typically justified their deeds) or used somewhat dubious historical sources such as Tacitus’ Germania for their purposes.

Bosse and her collaborators visited three dozen still existing Thingstätten in Germany, Poland, and Russia (the full list of contributors: Katharina Bosse, Rebecca Budde de Cancino, Doug Fitch, Jan Merlin Friedrich, Jakob Ganslmeier, Andrea Grützner, Rebecca Hackemann, Konstantin Karchevskiy, Hendrik Lüders, Daniel Mirer, Felix Nürmberger, Ralph Pache, Abhijit Pal, Philipp Robien, Jewgeni Roppel, Simon Schubert, Kuno Seltmann, Erica Shires, Thomas Wrede; some of these locations can now be found in places that were German before the end of World War 2 but then became parts of other countries).

In addition to photographs of these often very odd looking outdoor amphitheaters, a variety of historical materials are included (lots of Nazi-era postcards). Plus, there is ample text that provides the background of each location.

This makes for interesting material — not just for Germans, because it reveals a government’s attempt to essentially create a parallel Universe that is then taken as the actual one (this might sound familiar to you if you live in a place where there is a strong far-right party, such as, for example, the US, France, Poland, Hungary, India, etc.).

Thingstätten is a great example of what a deeply researched photobook can offer. What is more, the interdisciplinary mix of contributors demonstrates what can be gained by photographers when they collaborate with writers and other artists. Even though such books by definition ask for a larger investment of time, this investment pays off handsomely (my apologies for the neoliberal phraseology here).

Beyond the context of early Nazi Germany, the book speaks of contested state ideologies and the role of wishful thinking and outright delusion rooted in a racist background. It is up to us to learn our lessons from this part of history to be able to identify the same toxic combination in our contemporary midst.

Thingstätten; edicted by Katharina Bosse; photographs and other contributions by Katharina Bosse, Rebecca Budde de Cancino, Doug Fitch, Jan Merlin Friedrich, Jakob Ganslmeier, Andrea Grützner, Rebecca Hackemann, Konstantin Karchevskiy, Hendrik Lüders, Daniel Mirer, Felix Nürmberger, Ralph Pache, Abhijit Pal, Philipp Robien, Jewgeni Roppel, Simon Schubert, Kuno Seltmann, Erica Shires, Thomas Wrede; 256 pages; Kerber Verlag; 2020

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Cai Dongdong’s History of Life Mon, 21 Jun 2021 14:14:39 +0000 Joerg Colberg

When I first came across Cai Dongdong‘s photographs and installations, they felt like a breath of fresh air to me. The works were all based on what looked like archival or vernacular pictures from China, and Dongdong had either Photoshopped them or turned them into three-dimensional objects.

For example, a photograph of some target practice with guns had been enlarged, put into a beautiful wooden frame, and there was an arrow sticking out from it. While the instructor in the original photograph was pointing at the target, the arrow had missed it, instead sticking out from the center of the frame (you can see a photograph of the object here).

Many of the works I saw in a gallery in New York City a few years ago centered on photography itself: the act of aiming your camera, of “shooting”. A little camera might be placed in front of a scene, as if to make this the subject: how our view of the world is shaped by our choices when operating a camera.

But there also were other photographs that, for a lack of a better reference, evoked the spirit of German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann to me. There is a strong sense of pranksterism in a lot of Feldmann’s work, especially in the older one. At some stage, I attended a discussion between him and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Feldmann insisted in interrupting what the Swiss curator had intended to be a serious conversation, to read short advice to camera operators from old photography manuals. Seeing Obrist attempt to grin his way through short bursts of essentially dad jokes was quite something.

Having seen the exhibition, I wondered about Dongdong’s source material. Either there was a huge trove of simply incredible material available in China or the artist must have collected huge numbers of pictures, to extract the few images suitable for his work. I suspected it would be the latter because that’s how it goes with vernacular photography. But I had no conformation until I read the short essay at the end of History of Life, a new photobook published by Imageless. “The photographs in this book were selected from around 600,00 images I collected over the years.” Cai Dongdong writes.

When I first read the description of the book — it has 415 photographs on 500 pages, I was slightly hesitant: That’s a lot of pictures. How can one look at so many pictures? The answer is provided by the book itself: one can. I had worried this would feel like too many pictures, but somehow, that problem never arose for me.

To all those students who ever asked me: yes, you can make a photobook with hundreds of pictures, and yes, that can work very well. But, and this is merely repeating in writing what I’ve been saying for the past decade or so, you will have to edit it very, very well, lest the viewer run out of steam going through the book.

“The selected photographs span nearly one hundred years,” Dongdong writes, and a little further down in the text: “The main narrative thread of this book is the birth and growth of three generations. Their lives spanned three different historical period; each period is represented in this book’s three chapters.” Consequently, as a viewer you don’t have to look at the whole book in one go. However, I strongly suggest to read the chapters in one sitting each, because there is a strong narrative thread in each one of them.

I wasn’t joking when I wrote that one needs to read the work. With its large variety of vernacular material, the connections between neighbouring photographs are extremely important: a viewer who focuses too much on, let’s say, the different aesthetics is likely going to miss what’s going on in the book.

Beyond the sequence (which in itself makes for masterclass material), the many pairings on spreads operate along a number of strategies. Two photographs next to each other can do all kinds of things, depending on whether they connect formally, through content, or both. In the book, it is the variety of approaches used that prevents the viewer from getting tired. Instead, the story propels forward, while variations in themes and ideas, combined with the occasional wit (I suppose Dongdong just couldn’t help himself — I like this so much) keep the viewer engaged.

And so the recent history of China unfolds, a history that features a number of different political regimes, with added periods in the current — Communist — one (let’s not go into how a country that’s as hypercapitalist as capitalism’s spiritual home, the US, is not really Communist). Familiarity with written history itself is not needed — I personally am aware of the basic markers in time, but I don’t know too many details.

History of Life, after all, is not called History of China. It is the history of the country only in the sense that such a history imposes itself on private, personal life (which happened to varying degrees over the past century). Instead, it is a history of three generations as told through the photographic artefacts they left behind.

I suspect that a viewer in China might read the book differently than I do, picking up on a lot of details that I’m missing. But art wouldn’t be art if it didn’t connect us to our shared humanity (if you wanted an answer why conservatives and especially neo-fascists don’t like funding the arts, here it is). It is exactly that idea that allows viewers outside of China access to what is on view.

In some ways, the book reminds me of the late German writer Walter Kempowski‘s Echolot project, in which he re-narrated specific periods of time during World War 2 by assembling testimonies written by a huge variety of people (letters, diary entries, etc.). What shines through isn’t so much the larger history, which unfolds very slowly. Instead, Echolot presents a huge chorus of voices whose combined sound speaks of how far what we think of as history is from daily, lived experience.

For Cai Dongdong to have done something similar with photographs in History of Life is nothing but extraordinary.

Highly recommended.

History of Life; vernacular photography edited by Cai Dongdong; essay by Cai Dongdong; 500 pages; Imageless; 2021

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Angelus Novus Mon, 14 Jun 2021 14:04:20 +0000 Joerg Colberg

After his mother had died, Roland Barthes wrote a book about photography, based on his own coming to terms with his grief (Camera Lucida). In a variety of ways, it’s not really a book that talks about photography per se. Instead, it centres on what we expect from photography, on what we do with photographs, on how we engage with photographs.

There are two aspects of the book that are more widely known. First, there is Barthes’ definition of what he calls studium and punctum. People mostly remember the latter, which is defined in a rather murky fashion in the book: we all know what he means, but I suspect that we’d all struggle to clearly say what it really is. (I’ll get to the second major aspect a little bit later.)

What it is, though, is this: it’s a projection of our expectations onto photographs. How could it be that, you might ask, given that there is an element of surprise built in the concept? Well, that is the expectation: the delivery of the surprise.

A photographs without a punctum simply falls outside of what we would consider, were we to follow Barthes. We all know the pictures that don’t deliver a punctum: they’re boring pictures, pictures we don’t consider, pictures that deliver the expected (even as this is a very different type of expectation — this one is in the picture, the one I mentioned previously is outside of the world of pictures).

Starting in early January, I decided I would take a photograph of the window next to the bed I wake up in the morning, at the earliest moment when I remember to do so. I basically make the same picture every day. Of course, every picture is different because they days are different. That means that the weather and the light are different, as are the folds in the curtains, and sometimes, a cat will jump into the window.

I’m using my phone for these pictures (some HDR app that makes it easier), because in the end, what I’m interested in has nothing to do with the pictures — and everything with myself. I’m interested in challenging my idea of what a good picture looks like and what a picture might mean when it exists alongside a large number of other ones that are almost identical.

You might note that I could just step outside and press the shutter button on my DSLR, to have it take dozens of variations of the same picture. You’re right in some ways. But I don’t want to be quite as flippant about my little assignment. Also, what I’m after is something that I might learn with time — if, that is, there is something to be learned. (I feel there is.)

After all, I know what every picture will look like (even as there are differences in details), and I also know that I’m not particularly interested in any single picture. But it is exactly this aspect of photography that I want to challenge: the insistence on the single picture (which derives from our idea that every moment is unique).

What happens when I make a lot of not-very-interesting pictures that are as identical as they can be, while they’re separate in a way that is unique to me (and only to me)?

In his book, Barthes describes going through photographs of his mother, looking for just the right picture, the one that would show him the way he saw her: a confirmation that the beloved person who is now gone was indeed the person that he remembers. That memory now appears to be under threat by his grief, so a photograph is needed to anchor it.

Writing about a number of pictures (not all of them of his mother), Barthes focuses on the second aspect of Camera Lucida that is frequently brought up. You can find a succinct version of it as a caption of Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of Lewis Payne: “he is dead and he is going to die” (it’s on page 95 in the 2010 Hill and Wang paperback). A few pages earlier, he calls “[a]ll those young photographers who are at work in the world” this: “agents of Death” (I’ve always found the inclusion of the adjective “young”curious, and yes, death with a capital d, on page 92).

If I were to rummage through photographs of a person whose recent death I’d be grieving, I might find myself describing all the various people responsible for those pictures that, too: agents of death (even if they are now dead themselves). Barthes’ idea ties in with how photography is often used, namely to take a picture of something to make sure we have at least a record of it once it’s gone.

But you only need such a record if you think or feel that it’s bad that what existed at some moment in time is now gone. After all, that is the relentless path of the Universe: it shifts forever, with the arrow of time pointing into a future. For each one of us there is that point in time when we will die.

Photography is often seen as a way to counter this fact. We take pictures to hold on to things. The idea to photograph the window after waking up was set up for this as well: to create a special moment out of the many ordinary moments in my life — and to, ideally (we’ll see how this goes), transcend the idea.

Any moment in life can be made at least somewhat special through it being assigned the production of a photograph, even as usually, the picture taking is tied to a moment that already is special.

It’s like the relationship between the food and the bell for Pavlov’s dog. If there is a bell rung (a picture taken) when there is food (a special moment), then the dog (me) is conditioned to expect food (a special moment) when the bell is rung (a picture is taken).

Like most photographers, I am familiar with the feeling of having missed a picture. Talk to any photographer and ask them about it, and they will inevitably tell you the most fantastic story. It is as if the fact that the picture wasn’t taken or couldn’t be taken or simply didn’t come out charges up the moment even more. If only… However, one might suspect that if the picture had come into existence, it might not have delivered its now undeliverable promise, with another unavailable picture taking its place.

Much like there always is another picture of my window (I’m still young enough to make the assumption that I will not die any time soon, even though of course I can’t know), there always is another picture for any given situation. That situation will then be a little bit different, but (again), this it the relentless path of the Universe: what is today will not be any longer tomorrow.

Clinging to photographs doesn’t change this basic fact one bit.

Clinging to photographs as tokens of what is at some point and then later is no more reduces life to its past. This is what Walter Benjamin wrote about when he referred to Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus: “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.”

While we can’t see into the future, our obsession with the past — as exemplified by ossified visual tokens of people and events we hold dear — prevents us from engaging with the present as something that we experience as what it is: not raw material for future mourning, but moments as they are, however precious or mundane they might be.

There is no reason why photographs should only exist in the Angelus Novus form. But it’s upon us to develop an understanding of what photographs are and can do that allows us to access other ways of engagement — with photography, but especially with life itself.

Meanwhile, I will continue to photograph the window every day.

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

Photography and State Violence Mon, 07 Jun 2021 15:08:09 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

Also, there is a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.