Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 20 Sep 2021 14:32:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very highly recommended — a real landmark publication.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very highly recommended.

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