Conscientious Photography Magazine https://cphmag.com Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 25 May 2020 16:33:23 +0000 en-US hourly 1 4100 Duisburg https://cphmag.com/4100-duisburg/ Mon, 25 May 2020 16:33:23 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2833

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Colby Hutson’s Compassion https://cphmag.com/colby-hutsons-compassion/ Mon, 18 May 2020 14:41:45 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2839

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Event Horizon https://cphmag.com/event-horizon/ Mon, 11 May 2020 22:19:38 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2829

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Seventh Man https://cphmag.com/a-seventh-man/ Mon, 04 May 2020 20:01:28 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2827

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Handbook of the Spontaneous Other https://cphmag.com/handbook-other/ Mon, 27 Apr 2020 19:09:10 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2826

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Walk with Gerry Johansson https://cphmag.com/walk-with-gerry/ Mon, 20 Apr 2020 17:49:52 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2820

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

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A Conversation with Yurie Nagashima https://cphmag.com/conv-yurie-nagashima/ Mon, 13 Apr 2020 15:26:44 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2804

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

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

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

JC: You just picked up a camera?

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

Self-Portrait (Father #13), 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tank Girl, 1993

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torn Blankey, From the series About Home, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

YN: Very recently.

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

Full figured, yet not full-term, 2001

JC: Can you talk about why you did that?

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

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

Untitled, From the book 5 comes after 6, 2008

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

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

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

YN: No.

JC: Not at all?

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

Untitled 2000

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

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

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

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

YN: I think you can say that again.

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

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

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

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

YN: You think?

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

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

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

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

Self-Portrait (Mermaid #01), 1994

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

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

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

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

Myself, 1992

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

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

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

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

Yellow Wild Flower, From the series SWISS, 2007

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

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

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

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

JC: How was she crazy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

YN: Yes, but only it was last year.

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

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

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

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

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


Note:

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

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Stephen Shore’s Small-Camera Footnotes https://cphmag.com/small-camera-footnotes/ Mon, 06 Apr 2020 19:23:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2799

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(not rated)

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Modernism’s Mechanical Tombstones https://cphmag.com/modernisms-mechanical-tombstones/ Mon, 30 Mar 2020 19:06:13 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2798

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rinko Kawauchi’s World of Wonders https://cphmag.com/rinko-kawauchis-world-of-wonders/ Mon, 23 Mar 2020 20:10:13 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2793

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Support Photobook Shops! https://cphmag.com/support-photobook-shops/ Mon, 16 Mar 2020 17:47:12 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2789

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ampersand (Portland)

Andrew Cahan (Akron; second-hand books)

L’Ascenseur Végétal (Bordeaux)

Beyond Words (UK)

Bildband Berlin

Book of Days (Osaka)

Bookoff (Poland)

Dashwood Books (New York)

Datz Press (Seoul)

Kaunas Photography Gallery (Kaunas)

Micamera (Milan)

Kominek Books (Berlin)

Leporello Books (Rome)

Perimeter Books (Melbourne)

Photo Book Store (UK)

Photobook Corner (Lisbon)

Photo-Eye (Sanfa Fe)

PhotoQ Bookshop (Amsterdam)

RRB Photobooks (Bristol)

Tipi Bookshop (Brussels)

Unobtanium (Bandung)

Vacilando Bookshop (Bangkok)

Zen Foto (Tokyo)

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

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Picturing Roland Barthes’ Unseen Photograph https://cphmag.com/barthes-unseen/ Mon, 09 Mar 2020 18:34:08 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2775

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Highly recommended.

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


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

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Glass Strenči https://cphmag.com/glass-strenci/ Mon, 02 Mar 2020 17:46:52 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2769

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very highly recommended.

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

(not rated)

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Photography and Masculinity https://cphmag.com/masculinity/ Mon, 24 Feb 2020 15:27:55 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2762

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Day Sleeper https://cphmag.com/day-sleeper/ Mon, 17 Feb 2020 16:34:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2749

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

(not rated)

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Thoughts on Dora Maar https://cphmag.com/dora-maar/ Mon, 10 Feb 2020 18:47:25 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2743

Up until very recently, there were two things I knew about Dora Maar, namely first, she was Picasso’s muse (ugh!), and second, there is a photograph of hers — entitled Père Ubu — that is a prominent example of surrealist photography.  Here and there, I would see other photographs occasionally that had no visual connection to Père Ubu, making me curious about this particular artist.

The “muse” aspect has always given me the shivers. I personally don’t care what kind of relationship she might have had with Picasso. It’s the “muse” part that has always bothered me. It has bothered me here as much as anywhere else, given its inherent machismo, its reduction of a woman to a status that pretends it elevates her whereas in reality, it does the opposite. I find the word — and the idea as a whole — tainted through its associations with exactly the likes of Picasso.

Once I removed the “muse” part, I was left with that photograph of the baby armadillo. That’s not much. It’s not a photograph that lends itself to imagining something else (assuming one is familiar with surrealist photography). For that reason, I was looking forward to visit an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, the opportunity of which presented itself given a very short trip to the UK.

As I made my way to the museum, I realized that its environs have changed quite a bit since the last time I went (roughly 15 years ago), and not necessarily for the better. Exiting the Southwark subway (“tube”) station, my walk forced me walk past quite a few rather gaudy looking buildings, the tackiest one a glass-clad tower near the river which appeared to house luxury apartments (the rich really have no taste). That put me in a bad mood.

But a bad mood is not a bad state to be in when going to a major art museum: it sharpens the senses, and it revs up one’s bullshit meter (assuming one has one).

What a delight to then come across Kara Walker’s Fons Americanicus in the building’s main hall! Other critics have written about it (example), so there’s no need to do so here. I lingered around it for quite some time, soaking in the fact that contemporary art can be very bitingly political without being clumsy, superficial, or merely didactic (which unfortunately it so often is).

Before seeing the Dora Maar exhibition, I briefly walked through one of the free ones. Setting out to write this piece, I only vaguely remember its premise, so I looked it up: Artist and Society (“artworks from Tate’s collection that respond to their social and political context”). That premise is sufficiently vague for it to contain a variety of material; but all in all, it felt too broad, too dispersed. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with presenting a bunch of artists, each in their own gallery space, and an attentive viewer can make connections; it might just be that I’ve grown tired of this model.

Up one level, there was the Dora Maar exhibition, organized by Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou (Paris), and the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles), with curators from each institution involved. The first thing I noticed was the rather subdued light, which made for a somewhat cavernous atmosphere. Given there were many vintage and thus possibly light-sensitive materials on display, the lack of light made perfect sense, and it really forced a closer engagement with the many objects on display. That said, there was a sense of gloom hovering over larger parts of the exhibition that took away from the lightness and liveliness of many of the photographs.

As most single-artist exhibitions go, the organization was temporal as much as topical, leading the visitor from an introduction to various aspects of Maar’s work. The picture presented was one of an incredibly gifted artist who had engaged in a large variety of work, with Père Ubu being an outlier even within the surrealist section (they had painted this sub-gallery a different colour, not sure why). In a nutshell, Maar worked on all kinds of assignments and types of photography, with a general sense of the wittily absurd often lurking around the corner. I suppose this would in part explain this artist’s engagement with the surrealist movement.

I couldn’t say which parts of her work I most connected with. Most of what was on view showed an artist adept at making strong work regardless of where it would have to be filed. The street photography was just as good as the surrealist collages which were just as good as the social documentary work etc. Many (most?) of her male contemporaries excelled in one, but not in so many different approaches to photography.

The limitations placed on Maar because of the fact that she was a woman seemed pretty obvious to me. There were prints signed “Kéfer-Dora Maar”, which, the wall text (reproduced in a little booklet I took) explained, for the most part were Maar’s products — there was a shared-studio set up with Pierre Kéfer.

Another little nugget I picked up on (which, alas, I didn’t have the foresight to photograph so the details unfortunately escape me) was a caption underneath a portrait that Maar had taken of a female painter. The painter, I was told, had been put off by surrealist poet André Breton’s homophobia and sexism.

And then Maar ran into Picasso, who apparently encouraged Maar to return to painting. In a variety of ways, artists such as Picasso are like black holes, from whose pull nobody can escape. This was as much true for Maar as it was for the curators, because there was a whole room dedicated to the man and his work, with Maar having become a minor object orbiting the black hole. She had, one was told, documented Picasso’s making of Guernica, and she had been made the subject of The Weeping Woman.

As a visitor, I found this part of the exhibition jarring, but not in a good way. I had not come to see Picasso. And given that the two galleries after were rather weak, I ended up feeling that maybe one would take away less from this exhibition that one might have, had there not been such a focus on Picasso, the grandmacho of modern art.

Tellingly, in that space, there was a small negative of Maar’s, a portrait she had taken of Picasso, which she had partly scratched. (There were a few backlit negatives on display through the exhibition.) Make of that what you will — I certainly did.

Who am I to tell anyone what to do, but I think the exhibition should have been a lot more feminist than it was. After all, what it did make abundantly clear is that Dora Maar is a very underappreciated artist, whose contributions to photography should be a lot more widely known — beyond Père Ubu. For example, her surrealist work included some very strong collage examples. Her street photography included plenty of what possibly would be considered classics — had they been taken by any one of the famous male photographers from the era.

I suppose it’s easy for me to demand not to put so much emphasis on Picasso — after all, most people will show up for exhibitions not because of what or whom they don’t know but what or whom they know. Still, it left me feeling disheartened to see that even in her own retrospective exhibition, Dora Maar ultimately was yet again reduced to being Picasso’s “muse” — despite the fact that it had been made clear what an incredibly gifted and accomplished artist in her own right she had been.

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Time Atlas https://cphmag.com/time-atlas/ Mon, 03 Feb 2020 15:41:06 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2742

“No new photographs,” Joachim Schmid at some stage decreed, “until the old ones have been used up!” Even though he has since retracted the statement, I always enjoyed the general idea (and the fact that Schmid was — obviously very unsuccessfully — adopting the role of photoland’s stern parent). At some stage, I had an app on my phone that would do this: if I took a picture, it would browse a library of already existing photographs and then present me with one that it had determined to come closest to what I had just photographed (I don’t remember the app’s name, it lasted maybe a month on my phone).

Given that work with already existing (found/vernacular/archival) photographs has spun into its own firmly established part of contemporary photography, Schmid’s idea doesn’t sound so radical any longer. Many photographers have come to embellish their projects with archival images (often when their own somehow can’t do the lifting), and there is a larger number of people working with archival photography.

I maybe like the principle of working with archival photographs more than many actual applications, the reason being that there’s the risk that things either get too cerebral or too clever (or, even worse, both). I like clever, but only if it doesn’t draw attention to itself, which, I think, a lot of this work does. In a nutshell, I’m interested in an artist’s wit, in her or his ability to work with archival photographs without her or him showing off. The use of archival photographs shouldn’t become its own attraction. Your mileage might vary — whatever it might be, I think it’s good to think about one’s ideas when approaching such work.

The general principle that I like about working with archival photographs is that I don’t subscribe to the idea that photographs have fixed meanings. I also don’t believe photographs say anything about the intentions or ideas that went into their making. Elsewhere, I have described photographs as being sticky: not only will a photograph attach itself to something in the viewer’s mind, it might also attach itself in often surprising ways to other photographs.

Niina Vatanen‘s Time Atlas is the latest addition of a book working with archival imagery in my library. There are many different sources for the images, and the artist isn’t concerned at all with them. Instead, she creates connections between pictures based on formal qualities, on content, or on both. A pairing of pictures might show a circle as the dominant visual element in both (formal pairing); a pairing of pictures might show a hummingbird in one and a group of flowers in the other (content pairing); a group of photographs might show tilted houses along Pisa’s Leaning Tower (formal and content pairing) — you get the idea.

What makes these combinations of images interesting is that they don’t follow a simple formula, and some are more obvious than others. This is always a good mix for such a book, because if the combinations are always simple that just ends up being predictable and boring. But if they’re always complicated very few people will end up looking through the whole book. Many of the combinations are witty, and by that I mean they are clever and surprising, establishing connections between images that ordinarily wouldn’t exist.

The book’s description states that the book centers “especially on questions concerning time and our perception of it, and exploring how visual memory, personal experience, and history intertwine.” Ignoring the fact that this sentence is so generic that it easily applies to many other books (as an aside, that’s one of my main grievances with a lot of PR material produced these days, whether by artists or by publishers), so it’s not particularly helpful. I personally didn’t necessarily think about my perception of time or any of the other stuff when I looked through the book (this despite the fact that the first and last image show the same hourglass).

My own perceptions and ideas might drive my reaction more than anything, but I enjoyed that the book contains quite a few elements that I didn’t feel I needed to understand. In photoland (get ready for another pet peeve!), things tend to be too resolved. Everything always has to make sense — and when it doesn’t make an obvious, spelled-out sense, the only thing people can think of is poetry. I find that really boring (I’m also not into poetry, which probably is not helping).

Why does everything always have to make sense? Why can’t there be the enjoyment that can arise from things being unresolved in a larger sense, while being resolved at a purely photographic level?

This is exactly what’s going on in parts of this book, where there is a logic presented to me that I can understand — I see how it works, yet I have no idea how it will connect to my own internal logic. In other words, I’m being left puzzled — and amused, because I know there is a sense of play at hand. This is something I’d like to see a lot more. It demonstrates that while photography is a technical medium, made by machines/computers and by typically rather serious people, it has the potential to end up being surrealist or Dada — subverting its own background.

This is a lot harder to do with one’s own photographs — which is why photography has so much in common with rock ‘n roll: there’s just very little humour on it. Thinking about it, most of the funny artists I can think of work with archival material.

So Time Atlas is hugely enjoyable as a strange compendium of visual materials that were assembled to make sense, but maybe not quite the sense you’d be expecting. It’s witty and clever, without relying too much on its own cleverness. And it’s a book about photography, about what can be done with those sticky pictures that just crave to create meanings for you.

Time Atlas; images compiled by Niina Vatanen; 288 pages; Kehrer; 2019

(not rated)

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A Part of Marianne Müller’s Life https://cphmag.com/marianne-mullers-life/ Mon, 27 Jan 2020 16:48:19 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2735

This article is the first in a new series entitled “In Hindsight”. In a nutshell, I am going to be discussing photobooks. But unlike in the case of the photobook reviews I will here focus on older books. There really is nothing wrong with the reviews, but I frankly have grown a little bit tired of only discussing/reviewing new books. With many books, their true value and merit reveal themselves only with time; and a lot of books that should get some attention (or that maybe should get re-evaluated) simply don’t (or never have), given the flood of new books and circumstances that in retrospect might not even be that clear.

The idea here is not to create some sort of Parr-Badger effect, where a bunch of old books are being turned into collectors items. However, if I manage to lift a book from an obscurity that I feel is completely undeserved then I am not going to be too worried about it (and I will have to live with its possible Parr-Badger effect).

Lastly, I am planning to add some new features (types of articles) to this site (or revive older ones). I also just started a Mailing List, hoping that with time, it will allow me to ditch social-media use completely. You can sign up here, where you can also see some already existing material (which includes my motivation for doing so).

It’s a Mailing List, not a Newsletter (there will hardly be any news). And while the site I’m using allows me to evaluate statistics, I am not going to do that. In other words, I’m not going to look at who clicked on what or how many people read this or that… I find that a bit creepy. If you have any comments or recommendations or requests for the Mailing List, feel free to each out via email!


My basic expectation is that when I look at a book that is 20 years old I will see its age. I will see that its sensibility is one that has become a bit dated, whether as a whole or in part. My expectation might simply be based on having experienced this process many times in my lifetime. Most jarring examples are probably provided by re-encountering something that I appreciated quite a bit when I was younger, or something that I simply didn’t notice all that much in the past but that now strikes me as dated.

Much to my surprise, when I first received Marianne Müller‘s A Part of My Life in the mail, some time in late summer 2019, the book looked as if it had been published that year — and not in 1998. To begin with, despite its very low price ($4.77 on US Amazon), the book arrived in pristine condition in its original shrink wrapping. Really the only thing that would betray its original publication date was the treatment of the typography. But the photographs themselves appeared to have been taken for the moment we are now experiencing (or, possibly, re-experiencing — it would take an art historian specializing in feminist art to dive more deeply into this).

I had discovered the book in Walter Keller — Beruf: Verleger (reviewed here). Leafing through the pages of spreads of book published by Keller’s Scalo publishing house, there were four pictures from the book that made me look into their origin. I quickly found that the book could be had for less than $5 easily, so I ordered a copy, not really knowing what to expect. But I didn’t order the book based on its price — something about those four pictures intrigued me.

The bulk of the book consists of self portraits, in which the artist scrutinized her own body. There are a number of photographic approaches (and cameras), ranging from pictures made at arm’s length to pictures taken with a tripod, some in black and white, but most in colour.

I’m obviously looking at the book against the background of the selfie craze (which, for the record, unlike many of my colleagues I have absolutely no problem with), so there is a sense of familiarity for me in these photographs. Still, the book is radiant with a sense of exuberant self discovery that I can’t easily recall seeing elsewhere.

Having seen Talia Chetrit’s work a little earlier, there also was that reference; but while I appreciate some of that artist’s photographs quite a bit, in the end I’m left feeling that what I am made to look at is a cerebral exercise first and an artistic project second (for me, quite a bit of contemporary photography falls into this category).

Müller’s photographs, in contrast, never made me feel that way. Another major difference is provided by the fact that the Swiss photographer weaves in what you could call still lifes. There is, for example, a photograph of a maroon dress on a hanger — turn the page and you see the same dress on the artist’s body. Now, this description might hint at this sequencing being cerebral or, even worse, didactic, but in the book it’s neither. It works.

And then there are what we could call the travel photographs, which appear to have been taking with any one of those 35mm film cameras that would produce a time stamp in the frame — a device that at the time was very popular (this is the only aspect that betrays the book’s time of origin, even though it is not as intrusive as one might imagine). These pictures arrive out of the blue, and much like everything else in the book, they blend in seamlessly. I found myself surprised by how well this works as well.

There also is the presence of another person, a man, who remains faceless. There are bits and pieces of his body — a hairy leg here, part of his torso there. The book culminates in a section that is openly sexual in a way that all the others are not. A close-quarter examination of the artist’s body leads up to a spread in which they’re seen fucking.

I’m finding myself at a loss how to properly attach words to what’s on view. They make love, but what they do is more carnal than that. (English is my second language, and I’ve always found that phrase clunky.) They fuck, but there is the harshness implied by that word’s rough consonants, clustered around the short vowel, that somehow seems too harsh, too carnal. In the book, the act’s very harshness, the it being animalistic, does not deny the sheer pleasure and delight and shared agency — and it is exactly this aspect that had me startled.

I can think of an endless number of books, where a male photographer photographs his consort, his — ugh! — muse (oh, how I hate that word!), while being engaged in sex, and almost inevitably, the submission is all-encompassing. The woman submits herself to these acts, being a passive receptacle of male dominance and power (think Araki, think d’Agata, … — it’s so infuriating to witness how many examples there are and how celebrated these brutal photo machos still are).

To see a female artist produce a book that not only openly asserts her own agency, an agency denied to the macho’s “muses”, but that also embraces all that is pleasurable between two equal partners — that shows that another world is indeed possible, a world that even 20 years after the book was first published still only exists at the margins or in very narrow circles of photoland.

A recent survey book of photobooks by female photographers is entitled How We See. I’ve always thought that that’s such an apt title. It’s particularly apt to describe A Part of My Life as well: this is how a young woman sees her body, her life; this is how this seeing has translated into photographs — in John Berger’s phrase a way of seeing; and not it’s up to us to engage with it.

Ironically, large parts of the book will never be seen online since the photographs run counter those Puritan “community guidelines” established and maintained by American social-media companies. Those guidelines censor female bodies much more than male ones, and they largely cement a patriarchal, male-gaze centered engagement with the world — where scantily clad so-called influencers are fine, but other women celebrating their bodies and sexuality are not. So if you’re interested in the work, buy the book.

A Part of My Life; photographs by Marianne Müller; 127 pages; Scalo; 1998

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The Second Shift https://cphmag.com/second-shift/ Mon, 20 Jan 2020 18:35:54 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2725

“The Second Shift is the term given to the hidden shift of housework and childcare primarily carried out by women on top of their paid employment.” This is the first sentence of a short text right at the beginning of Clare Gallagher‘s The Second Shift. The text continues: “It is physical, mental and emotional labour which demands effort, skill and time but is unpaid, unaccounted for, unequally distributed and largely unrecognised.” Here, there’s a pivot towards photography, with an implication of what an attentive viewer might pick up on: a deep injustice, a feeling of what it might feel like to be at the receiving end of this deep injustice.

More photography in the next paragraph: “Hidden in plain sight and veiled from familiarity and insignificance, the second shift is largely absent from photographs of home and family.” With many of the famous and all-too-often discussed examples of family photography made by men, this might not come as a surprise (my take here is US-centric, given I’ve been teaching entirely in this context so far; realistically, I do not expect the situation elsewhere to be much better, if better at all). And then there’s the sentence: the project “is a call for resistance to the capitalist, patriarchal and aesthetic systems” that ignore this type of work.

This is a timely book.

You cannot photograph an injustice, you can only make photographs and convey the sense of injustice. The same basic fact is true for any other abstract concept such as, say, love — anything really that exists in our minds and is communicated using words for which there are no physical embodiments.

It’s a coincidence that I’m writing these words on Martin Luther King Jr Day, a day that like no other in theory should serve as a reminder of what can be gained from personal and political integrity and a sense of justice, more abstract concepts that these times make a mockery of: in Anglo-Saxon politics, integrity is in very, very short supply, as is justice.

Again: this is a timely book.

Looking through The Second Shift, I was struck by its somber tone. I hadn’t expected to run into it, and I’m sure my reaction was based on having seen a lot of other family photography before. Family, after all, is something joyful even when it is not: it’s supposed to be presented as such, and even the most celebrated examples obey that rule. There might be conflicts, but they are presented within strictly defined and, we might add, previously agreed-upon parameters so that a viewer might feel somewhat uncomfortable — but not too much. Even seemingly harsh work such as Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh follows conventions: we know how and where to file the pictures (alcoholic father? check! poverty? check!).

It is this get-out-of-jail card for the viewer that’s missing here, this way of allowing her or him to ultimately disassociate from what is on view. I don’t know if as a viewer you’re going to remember individual pictures as much as the overall experience of looking through the book (which is, after all, what a good photobook should do). You might remember piles of things depicted here or there, whether books or laundry, there’s plenty of detritus lying around, waiting to be picked up by someone (now who might that be?). And there are pictures of children, but even when they’re depicted at their most playful, that feeling comes with ther one of dread: oh boy, there will be some more mess that has to be sorted out (now who might do that?).

Interestingly, the photographs all strike me as tender. One could have gone about this idea using a flash, but then we’d be in an entirely different visual universe. Instead, these pictures here are observed (but not necessarily elaborately made, which, yet again, would have resulted in a different visual universe). I’d like to think that I can tell how their maker cares as much about what was in front of her camera’s lens (in particular the children) as she dreaded all the inevitable, mind-numbing work associated with it, with all of it. (Full disclosure: I don’t have any children, so I have no first-hand knowledge of any that.)

Smart design and production choices help transport the book’s overall feeling. Many of the photographs are reproduced full bleed (without any borders around them), making the overall experience very immersive for the viewer. At times, a photograph might be shown with a border; in that case, it’s relatively small on the page, which results in it feeling precious (even when what’s on display is merely a stil life of vegetable shavings). With the exception of the colophon, all text is reproduced on smaller pages (there also are a few pictures on such pages), which makes for neat breaks for the viewer. What’s more, what the text might be talking about always ends up peeking in: a viewer can always see fragments of pictures along with the text.

Now, whether or not the book will indeed do what it set out to do — that’s ultimately up to its viewers. Do we want to treat it like Martin Luther King Jr Day, where, let’s face it, most of us merely pay lip service to the ideas Dr King stood for? Or do we want something better? And if we want something better, what could that better look like? Given that the book focuses on home and on the second shift, a viewer might as well start there. After all, larger change will only arrive if it first occurs at a personal level.

The Second Shift; photographs by Clare Gallagher; poem by Leontia Flynn; 64 pages; self published; 2019

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4.5 – Overall 3.6

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The Form of the Photobook (Revisited) https://cphmag.com/form-photobook-revisited/ Mon, 13 Jan 2020 21:50:21 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2718

Of all the books in my library, the one with seemingly the most intriguing title is The Form of the Book Book. A look inside will make it very clear how and why there is absolutely nothing peculiar about the title at all: a number of essays by well-known designers explores the form and function of books working with photographs. Yet somehow, its mint-green cover also has it stand out among the other books around it as well, making me look at the spine regularly. Ah, yes, the form of the book. It’s a useful reminder that it matters, that, in other words, as a photobook maker, you will want to consider the overal form of your book, in other words the design along with the choices of materials.

Given there are so many Tupperware photobooks — books where the photographs were dumped into a generic looking and feeling container, I find well-considered books rewarding. Especially in the US, there is strong resistance to producing anything other than a glorified Tupperware photobook: after all, shouldn’t a photobook be concerned with the pictures?

This attitude is grounded as much in the fact that the world of US photography is overall very conservative (for many practitioners, contemporary photography means the likes of Garry Winogrand), that the role of design and production usually is not very well understood at all, and that many photographers don’t trust in the power of their pictures. After all, if you know you have good pictures, you’re unlikely to be worried that design might somehow overshadow them, right?

So let’s look at a number of recent photobooks using this particular angle.

When I received Stijn van der Linden’s Essay on the Concave City Corner in the mail, I was bewildered. The mailman made me sign for a very long package, and I didn’t remember having ordered anything long. Having received a great many photobooks in the mail, I knew their boxes or envelopes would typically be wide, tall, and more or less flat (as an aside: if you ever publish a photobook, do yourself a favour and never send it in merely an envelope). But no, it was a book that clearly required the unusual dimensions of its packaging (it’s 13 x 36.5 cm). There was, however, no information on the cover or spine — other than cryptic numbers (if you ever publish a photobook, do yourself a favour and print the title and your name somewhere on the cover and spine).

Looking inside, I found photographs of a large number of corners in some city that each come with a little diagram plus some more cryptic numbers underneath, making it the kind of conceptual photobook that does not need to rely on anything other than competent pictures. The former scientist in me found that potentially interesting, and the few science corners in my brain that are still in operation started attempting to figure out the meaning behind all of it. At times, there are gatefolds in the book that are constructed in such a fashion that parts of separate corners will combine to form a new one until the viewer unfolds the paper. Neat.

After the sections containing the photographs, there is a lengthy essay about the project, which I have to admit I never finished reading. I tried a couple of times, but it’s just too tedious (that’s obviously on me, not on the writer). I did, however, read the end (this writer knows some of the tricks), to arrive at “this research on concave city corners might be criticized for failing to answer a meaningful question. This could be extended to a critique of the scientific process as a whole, nowadays above all incentivising scientists and academics to publish or perish” (with a footnote pointing to some article on VOX). Hmmm, OK, this is cute, but this former scientist would be tempted to think that — as you say in German — der Schuß geht nach hinten los (which in English rather prosaically means it backfires).

After all, if anything I’d see the book as one of those many attempts by an artist to mimic the scientific approach (honestly, how many projects are there where some photographer is “exploring” something?); to then take the whole thing, to apply it to the sciences, and to say “hey, look, I’m just going to show you how meaningless so much of science is” — that doesn’t quite cut it for me.

In fact, it’s the criticism approach that bothers me. Had this all been done in a completely deadpan fashion, as, in other words, an attempt to come to conclusions about cities based on their corners, then I would have been happy. There could be, after all, a scientist engaged in what to laypeople might be similarly meaningless research.

Especially in this day and age where, to give the possibly most important example, a tiny minority of freak scientists and pseudoscientists is used by the fossile-fuel industry and right-wing governments all over the world to question climate science — in such a day and age, this questioning of the scientific method and its process contributes to undermining the very sciences we need to take more — and not less — seriously.

That aside, ignoring the fact that the book makes it so hard to find the name of its author and title (there’s no title page, either), the form of the book is about as good as it gets. It employs all the right tools and tricks to present its information, and it literally stands out. It is a book that you will remember (even though you might never find it in your library again, given there’s no information on its spine).

Essay on the Concave City Corner; photographs by Stijn van der Linden; essay by Stijn van der Linden and Katrien Vanherck; 144 pages; photobook week arhus; 2019

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 3.8

As far as I can tell, there’s no shortage of photobooks about guys who decide to build and/or live in cabins in the woods. A future critical history of photography should contain a little chapter about this particular topic (which, I’d argue, is tied to many photographer’s focus on depicting the lives of underprivileged bearded strangers living off the grid or roaming the lands). How refreshing then to find the following in the larger text piece of Karianne Bueno‘s Doug’s Cabin: “I shoot a full film on the graveyard and car wreck, despite knowing they’ll be too cliché to use. Regardless: I feel great. Like a conqueror. I, the city dweller, found a hidden piece of history in this faraway fairy-tale forest.”

Much like all books I’ve seen by Breda based The Eriskay Connection, text plays a vital role in this book. Bueno’s first-person account describes what the photographer saw as much as more general aspects of the process, in particular her being out of place in her chosen location. That, I’d argue, is one good approach to solve the conundrum of some “city dweller” photographing this kind of situation.

In addition to being very smart about the inclusion and use of text, The Eriskay Connection also excel at working with design and materials. Bueno’s photographs of landscapes are often presented full bleed, which especially in the very beginning very aptly sets the tone of the book and which makes for an immersive experience for the viewer. Of course, archival materials are being used, and those are printed on a different paper, on newsprint actually, and those sections are untrimmed at the bottom (with trim marks provided for the viewer).

I was writing “of course” because archival materials appear to be a prerequisite these days for photographers attempting to portray strangers living in the woods. The more often I see this, the less I like it. To be honest, to me the use of archival materials has begun to look and feel like an unnecessary trope (obviously, your mileage might vary). Instead, I would have preferred to see some actual people here: some faces (c.f. my earlier piece You Haven’t Seen Their Faces).

Near the end of her text, Bueno writes “I admire Doug for his way of life. Untamed nature, solitude, and confrontation with one’s own insignificance within the planet’s bigger picture, has always deeply haunted me. I admire his fearlessness.” As much as there is a lot to unpack here, I appreciate the photographer’s honesty. Might she not be describing the sentiments of all those venturing out to photograph, say, bearded strangers in the American West?

I don’t think the honesty absolves the photographer of the possible problems that come with such a portrayal. That future critical history of photography might venture into that (somebody commission me already!). But this is a good first step for larger parts of photoland to examine their motivations for putting certain types of people — more often than not quite a bit worse off — in front of their expensive cameras.

Doug’s Cabin; photographs and text by Karianne Bueno; 180 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2019

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.4

When you first look at Grid Corrections by Gerco de Ruijter, open the book at page 157, and marvel at the following 143 pages. This, essentially, is visual communication in book form at its best. It’s incredibly elegant and actually somewhat understated. But the combination of very smart design and production choices makes for a thrilling experience for the reader/viewer. Perhaps not surprisingly, the book was designed by famed Irma Boom Office (who is Irma Boom? you might wonder — watch this video to find out).

At the core of the book lies the fact that in order to organize land, grids have been the go-to solution in the post-Enlightenment West. You can see such grids in an abundance of example culled from Google Street View before and after the book’s central section. Looking at these screenshots, I am reminded of modernist ideas of grid-based graphic design. The grid is obvious and easy because it tessellates very well — unlike the irregular, rounded shapes used to organize medieval European cities (or farmers’ plots), say. As is well known from the game Tetris, the grid works best if squares or rectangles are used, ideally all of the same size.

So there’s the idea of the book. That’s it. That’s all you need. Simple ideas are often the best, in part because simple is not the same as simplistic. Still, De Ruijter’s idea could have resulted in a dreadfully boring book, had there not been the smart and elegant design and production. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to elevate a book out of the pit of boredom (that all those Tupperware books exist in).

Now, I can imagine the Tupperware crowd to argue that the pictures aren’t that interesting, and they’re right. They’re not. But that’s just missing the overall point here. This is a not a book filled with jewel-like pictures. Instead, it’s a photobook that conveys an idea very well and that makes for an incredibly engaging experience. And there really is no need for any more description or commentary other than if you have the chance at all, you certainly want to look at this book to see what can be done with smart design and production choices.

Grid Corrections; images by Gerco de Ruijter; text by Peter Delpeut; 304 pages; Nai010 Publishers; 2019

(not rated)

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After Social Media https://cphmag.com/after-social-media/ Mon, 06 Jan 2020 15:04:29 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2716

In regular intervals, a certain type of Twitter post goes viral. Typically, the post will contain a fragment of a sentence, and readers are encouraged to add their own words to it once they “re-tweet” it. Twitter being Twitter, more often than not the overall idea is to say something that might or might not be popular, thus potentially triggering the kinds of exchanges the platform appears to attract: people arguing with each other in an increasingly angry fashion until someone is compared to Hitler.

I’m really only on Twitter out of a sense of obligation. Ever since RSS was made to die, I have felt obliged to somehow telegraph the articles that I write (RSS isn’t really dead, but much like, say, mechanical typewriters it’s a technology that is of very little actual use). I’m not on Facebook, so Twitter is the one social network I use to that effect.

Years ago, I was on Facebook, but I quickly left because I saw too many problems with it, including the company’s atrocious attitude towards its users’ privacy. I have been told many times by a number of people who clearly meant well that being on Facebook would help me to spread the word of what I’m doing, but that’s simply not something I want to or will do, given the company’s overall behaviour.

I’m really only on Instagram out of a sense of obligation as well. It’s a great way to see how people use photography, and I feel that as someone writing about photography I have to experience it. But it comes at a fairly steep price: neither Twitter nor Instagram are good for my own mental well being (research appears to be increasingly showing that social media in general are not good for anyone’s mental well being). Oh, and it’s owned by Facebook, so they’re able to syphon parts of my privacy. Great. On top of that, Instagram’s “community guidelines” are deeply discriminatory for all kinds of reasons (see my piece on censorship on that platform).

The reality is that I would have easily and happily quit both Twitter and Instagram already if I had been able to find suitable replacements. Over the course of the past few weeks, a few events conspired to have me think about this again. For example, Lewis Bush used one of those aforementioned add-your-own-words Twitter posts to suggest: “Lets [sic!] all get off Twitter.” This sounded like a good idea to me.

If you’ve grown up with social media or if your experience of the internet has been mostly shaped by them, you might not be aware of the world of photography online before them. I realize I’m going to sound exactly like one of those old people who are telling the young how everything was so much better in the past. While that’s the last thing I want to do — there’s nothing more annoying than having to listen to some often misguided nostalgia, I’m very happy to argue that the world of blogging as it existed around 2007 or 2008 was a lot more vibrant than whatever we’re witnessing now.

Mind you, I’m not talking about what people were or are writing. In fact, there is as much — if not more — high-quality writing online now as then. However, the sense of community and excitement that existed back in the day is completely gone. In a nutshell, social media have essentially atomized a vibrant community, to turn them into a group of loners that might engage politely with each other but that each just take care of their own domain. And that’s it.

The reason I see for this development is simple: on social media, users operate on the company’s terms, not on their own. In contrast, during the time of blogging, there were no companies dictating the terms. It was a bit of a pain to set up a blog, but with a little work (and possibly a little help by some tech savvy person) you’d be ready to go. It would be you defining the terms of what was going on. And people would read what you produced simply because they could subscribe to your feed (that’s what RSS did). There were no algorithms that would restrict things or suggest things or filter things.

As a consequence, there was a general sense of excitement, of producing something new, something that would bring value to the world of photography. That’s all completely gone.

It will be impossible to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. I also know that many readers will react to what I just wrote just how I tend to react to old people telling me about the good old days. The thing is, though, that I’m noticing a growing chorus of people uttering the very same sentiments.

Like I said, social media’s mental toxicity is becoming an increasing concern for a lot of people. One doesn’t have to be overly pessimistic to predict that given the US presidential election, in 2020 Twitter is going to become an even more toxic cesspool than it already is (I think the platform is going to implode once Trump is out of office, whenever that might be).

But maybe there is a way to squeeze some of the toothpaste back after all. For a while now, I have been thinking about re-creating the one-to-one relationship I used to have with readers in the past. I’m old enough to remember that way back in the day, emails formed the basis for what would become blogs later. Message groups were not without any of the problems that, vastly inflated, we now see on social media. But as a reader, you’d simply sign up (or off).

Due to a lack of time, I haven’t had the opportunity to set up a mailing list as a way to distribute my work and to possibly add back many of the things that over the past few years have fallen by the wayside on this site. But it’s something I want to, in fact need to do this year — to ultimately phase out my use of Twitter. Alec Soth just set up one — you can sign up here. A bit earlier, Bryan Formhals set up his (sign up here), as did Noah Kalina (sign up here) or Fette Sans (sign up here).

I’ll announce mine once it’s ready.

I don’t know if such things are going to bring back the sense of online community that has now been reduced to an algorithmic segment on Facebook etc. But I’ve seen enough platforms come and go that I’m hopeful that social media have crested.

Realistically speaking, photoland is too small a niche to be able to influence what else might come. After all, photoland blogging was a tiny part of the overall blogging landscape. But if enough people within photoland attempt to circumvent social media and to re-build more meaningful one-to-one relationships between its members, then something might actually arise that could rival the richness those of us experienced who were around during and/or participated in the world of blogging more than ten years ago.

 

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Were it not for the nightmares. https://cphmag.com/nightmares/ Mon, 30 Dec 2019 21:25:26 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2701

The simplest way I could describe Michael Ashkin‘s Were It Not For is to compare it to the music by British post-punk group The Fall, in particular the one produced from roughly 1979 until early 1983. Mostly devoid of actual melodies, the songs all begin and end, without much happening in between: a short phrase or even just a single note is repeated seemingly endlessly, with a cantankerous man (who might or might not have suffered from some form of mental disorder) spewing out cryptic words — an assorted variety of non sequiturs — on top of it all. Most music, of course, lives from repetition, but The Fall would drive the concept to its logical conclusion. Consequently, one of their earliest songs is entitled Repetition.

Their longest songs from that period, whether Winter or Tempo House or The NWRA or Hip Priest, drove home the actual point strongest, and they are the ones I revisit first whenever I decide to give the group another listen (if you want to try only one of them make it The NWRA). Much like in all good art, there is a world created, a world that is shockingly bleak and grim, a brutal world. If you’re in search of consolation, The Fall is probably not your cup of tea.

Were It Not For lives in this kind of territory. The book is easy to describe: a large number of photographs are paired up with phrases that all begin with the words (you guessed it) “were it not for.” Occasionally, such a phrase might be displayed on its own; in addition, there are longer lists of phrases on the book’s cover and before and after the section that contains the image. The photographs are all black and white, and they look like they were taken somewhere in California in an area that is bleak and grim.

Much like in the case of The Fall, to fully appreciate the book you will have to cast aside your expectations of what a photobook will do. This might be my personal read, but the idea of the memorable photograph is completely irrelevant here. None of the photographs are memorable, and many don’t offer much, if anything, to study. Just to be clear, I don’t intend this to read as a form of negative criticism — quite the opposite actually. Looking through the book, I found myself preferring some photographs over others, only to realize that that approach was completely besides the point: much like one doesn’t listen to The Fall for lovely melodies (there aren’t any), you don’t want to look at this book expecting precious pictures (ditto).

(Obviously, your mileage might vary, and you might consider these pictures as precious. OK, well, this won’t change any of the conclusions I’ll be coming to.)

Much as I could dive into the history of photography and dig out some references (for the photographs), I don’t think this would be very enlightening. In the end, the book is the book, and if anything one would need to refer to other books that achieve a similar effect. I can’t think of any. Leafing through the book, the viewer/reader is faced with a large number of photographs and short phrases that are all very similar and that build up to a portrayal of a place that has reached its nadir, without there being any way out in sight.

Wherever you look, whatever you hear, it’s all the same hopeless mess: a lived environment that more often than not looks like a garbage dump, with soulless anonymous architecture everywhere, and a cultural/societal environment filled with endless violence, dread, and despair.

Of course, that place is the United States of America.

Were it not for the nightmares.

I have been wondering when there would be a photobook about the Age of Trump. Here it is. As grim as it is, it is nothing but brilliant.

Along with Alan Huck’s I Walk Toward the Sun Which Is Always Going Down, Were It Not For provides a model forward for what can be done in/with photobooks. In both cases, text plays a very strong role; but it does it in a way that short circuits the kinds of anxieties that has most photographers stay clear of using words. In both cases, the text does not compete with the pictures (and it also is not used in a supporting role).

My hope is that more photographers will realize what can in fact be done with text. At the same time, these two books demonstrate that the form of the photobook is not exhausted at all. There still is ample room for a step in a direction not explored, yet. As someone who has been looking at photobooks for quite a while now, it is enormously heartening to see such experimentation and to see it done so successfully.

Highly recommended.

Were It Not For; photographs and text by Michael Ashkin; 256 pages; FW:Books; 2019

my rating system doesn’t take text into account (yet) so: not rated

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You Haven’t Seen Their Faces: Contemporary Photography’s Stylish Muteness https://cphmag.com/stylish-muteness/ Mon, 23 Dec 2019 17:00:54 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2699

The other day, I received a photobook by an up-and-coming photographer in the mail. Produced by one of those smart new publishers, it featured elegant, yet understated design in an altogether very charming and contemporary package. The inside, the pictures, could be described in just the same manner. The topic was one that a few years ago no photographer would have thought of or bothered photographing, and the pictures betrayed the photographer’s education at one of those cutting-edge European masters programs, with abundant colours everywhere and very stylish (and, of course, somewhat ironic) still lifes featured prominently throughout the book.

And yet! And yet!

Turns out it was just another book that I would put aside somewhat grouchily in the end. Something was missing. Something very specific was missing, yet again.

You see, ordinarily I’m no grouch. I’m merely employing the term because there is no equivalent of “hangry” for this case. (OK, OK, one is a noun and the other one an adjective. I know. But this is a blog, and you’re reading this for free. So you’ll have to excuse some stylistic freedom or sloppiness [your pick] here.) Or rather I would use the word “hangry” only for occasions when one is in fact in need of actual food. (I’m no grouch, but you don’t want to meet me when I’m hangry.)

But the sentiment I’m after is the same: In the book that explored its topic over pages and pages of stylish pictures there wasn’t a single human face to be seen, despite the fact that it actually dealt with a very human subject matter. And with time, having seen dozens and dozens of photographers venture out to make work and to then produce these kinds of books that lack a human presence (bar maybe someone’s hand in some ironic still life) I have simply become hangry: I’m (metaphorically) hungry for the depiction of human faces when human subject matters are being photographed, and I’m, well, exasperated by the fact that so many artists think that’s not necessary. It’s just baffling!

There were two reasons why I didn’t provide details of which book I received above. To begin with, I’m usually hesitant to be too critical of up-and-coming photographers, especially when it’s their first book (if the book ends up on some well known list the gloves will come off, though). And second, singling out one photographer would have been unfair — there are all the peers who’re guilty of the very same sin.

Those in the know will recognize the title of a 1937 photobook by Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Bourke-White in this article’s header: You Have Seen Their Faces. I just snuck in a “not” for contemporary photography; I did the same in my admittedly somewhat sloppy Photoshop job — the picture above does not show the actual cover of the book. If you were to remove all the photographs of people from the book — or maybe all the pictures showing a face — you’d be left with precious little, a picture of a dilapidated shack here, some grimy soil there.

Right at the beginning, there’s a very interesting disclaimer that (in part) reads “No person, place, or episode in this book is fictitious, but names and places have been changed to avoid unnecessary individualization […] The legends under the pictures are intended to express the authors’ own conceptions of the sentiments of the individuals portrayed; they do not pretend to reproduce the actual sentiments of these persons.” In a nutshell, this is how larger parts of contemporary photography operate.

Someone might be photographed not to stand for him or herself as this or that specific person, but rather to be one of the many individuals that find themselves in some specific situation. This approach isn’t acceptable in documentary photography any longer, but for sure it’s very common in the larger world of art photography. And it’s a very good approach because if we, as human beings, connect with anything, it’s first and foremost the human face.

All of this makes the absence of human faces in so many contemporary photobooks all the more puzzling. Having taught photography for about a decade, I’m familiar with the kinds of explanations that might be offered. But, no, frankly none of those are going to cut it. The reality is that the absence of human faces in all those stylish books only makes for a grating effect: it is as if that absence was designed to demonstrate how mute even the most stylish photographs can be when an artist is not willing or able to do the final step.

Honestly, just put your camera in front of some faces (having obtained consent first), deal with the discomfort that might entail, make some good pictures, and then let us, the audience, see these faces in your quest to dive into whatever very human topic it is that in your newsletter you will probably describe as being “explored”!

You don’t even need to have that many faces in your body of work. But having them makes all the difference. Take the case of one of the finest photobooks produced over the past decade, Gábor Arion KudászHuman. The book could have easily become one of the many books that triggered this piece, but it didn’t.

Concerned with how the built environment reflects some very basic aspects of human anatomy, the artist included a few photographs of human beings. He presents not just their hands or limbs against the types of bricks they deal with, human figures are also shown for scale and, crucially, as the very human beings they are. The book thus easily isn’t some cerebral photographic exercise around the idea of human scales, it instead dives deeply into our shared desire for a home.

This is not to say that every photography project about human topics necessarily needs a human presence. As an artist, you might be able to convince yourself that yours doesn’t. But at some stage during the process you might want to confront yourself and question your thinking critically: do you really not need any pictures of human beings, or are you merely buying your own bullshit?

The thing is that the presence of human beings in your pictures that focus on a human topic might make all the difference. And btw, photographing people but not showing their faces — I have plenty of such books, too, where everybody is always conveniently turned away — just amplifies the problem.

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Mari Katayama’s Gift https://cphmag.com/mari-katayamas-gift/ Sun, 08 Dec 2019 21:10:28 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2698

Mari Katayama‘s art cannot be easily separated from her biography, specifically the fact that she was born with tibial hemimelia, which resulted in her decision to have her lower legs amputated at age nine. As much of the work is about the artist’s body, thinking about it as originating from there strikes me as a fruitful approach. After all, in the strictest sense, most of the photographs are not of a documentary nature (even though some are); and the center of the work is not the artist’s body but, rather, what we all share, regardless of what our bodies look like: aspirations and dreams.

A recent survey entitled Gift now makes this work more widely available, and it allows for a deeper engagement with an artist whose most well known photographs cover only some aspects of her larger concerns. To begin with, Katayama is not just a photographer. She also produces a variety of objects that are either used as props in her own tableaux, as objects to displayed alongside the photographs, or as objects for use in her own daily life.

If most artists’ work can be understood as emanating from the inside of their studios to the outside world, here the beginning is originally the inverse of that approach. For example, the elaborate ornamentation of prostheses was made for daily life, and only later did it become a focal point to be displayed in photographs.

I often yearn for photography to be more than merely pictures on a wall and this provides one of the reasons why this book (and obviously work) is one of the most impressive bodies of work I have seen in a long time. Often enough, however, photographers’ attempts to supplement their picture with something else, be it film or sculpture or whatever else, ends up being clumsy and bit sad. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but most photographers know only about their medium — they are trained in it and only it.

In contrast, photography is a tool for Katayama much like sewing is. This artist produces photographs not to be a photographer but rather to create something that will express an idea just as much as a hand-made sewn artificial body or body part might (which, in turn, might show up in a photograph). What one might think of as props are anything but, and this is what separates the Japanese artist from, let’s say, Cindy Sherman who also places herself into her picture and who does work with props: Sherman embodies someone else, expressing their desires; Katayama embodies herself, expressing her own desires.

Another difference is the scope of the work. In many of the works, the Japanese brings together a variety of threads, including, of course, a preoccupation with the body and its possible limitations, but also ideas of femininity and of societal expectations of how both the body and femininity ought to be presented. Given the artist is female, these expectations obviously overlap very much.

Another aspect that I personally can only vaguely understand is the artist’s place in her home country, Japan, which — as far as I understand it — places very restrictive rules concerning conformity upon its people and especially on women. Japan is not a country known for its high level of gender equality. This fact makes Katayama’s work more political than it might seem.

Gift presents all of these aspects through a survey of Katayama’s work that — thankfully — is not organized chronologically. Instead, after a brief introductory section (that includes an essay by Simon Baker), the first colour images mostly focus on objects — painted prostheses and the various handmade objects that play a role for the artist. I feel that this is a deft and good choice.

After all, in light of the preceding it might be clear that the tableaux photographs — in all likelihood the pictures a viewer might know this artist for — are important, but they need to be seen in their wider context. Those photographs are attention grabbing and good for this day and age of viral imagery. But they are so seductive that they might tempt a viewer to ignore some of the details at the expense of others.

Ultimately, Mari Katayama’s work centers on what it means to be alive, to be a human being in this world where few people can easily be who they want to be, and the rest of us have to work with what we got and assert ourselves. Given both her home land and the biological aspects of her biography, the artist’s task obviously is a lot harder than most other people’s.

I’m tempted to think that the breadth of Katayama’s approach in part derives from the larger media environment available now. After all, social media are filled with people who are shaping their own self through the presentation of images. However vapid many of those attempts on social media might be (the celebrity aspect for sure appears to be the most prominent one), Katayama makes it clear that there is more to the idea than just celebrities or influencers. Seen that way, these photographs are not merely an expression of her self, they also are an assertion of it.

“The world is a big place,” Katayama writes in her essay, “and we can do anything in it, but it is all mapped out, and we are all going to die one day. So here I am, spending another day between endlessness and limitations, against a backdrop that never changes.”

If I had to pick one photobook as my favourite this year, it would be this one — for all the reasons outlined above and all the other ones I still cannot put into words.

Highly recommended.

Gift; photographs by Mari Katayama; essays by Mari Katayama and Simon Baker; 136 pages; United Vagabonds; 2019

(not rated)

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Making Pictures With Migrants https://cphmag.com/pictures-with-migrants/ Mon, 02 Dec 2019 16:02:25 +0000 Joerg Colberg https://cphmag.com/?p=2693

In the world of photography, those portrayed are almost never given much (if any) agency, regardless however much is at stake for them. This basic fact constitutes a well-known problem that usually is ignored. Why, after all, should those in front of the camera be given a voice if the general idea of the photographer as genius artist/maker (or truth teller) is so predominant?

Photographers know what to do with their cameras, and they — plus their assorted hangers-on (editors, curators, critics, …) — define what a good picture is. That works for a large variety of contexts, but as has become obvious for many people — more often than not originating from groups that previously were at the receiving end of what can be done with a camera — it’s lacking in so many ways.

If we consider the ongoing migrant crisis playing out in large parts of the world, the aforementioned situation is directly comparable to how migrant issues are being discussed in countries that attract them: discussions focus on migrants, while mostly not giving them a voice at all — as if they had nothing to say whatsoever.

Somewhat related, this week I read a longer essay in a respected German liberal weekly in which an author professed her problems with what she described as political correctness. Again, those at the receiving end of derogatory language (minorities, migrants, etc.) were almost completely absent from the essay. The wronged ones, it was argued, were those using said language (whether out of ignorance or indifference) who’d then be sanctioned. That’s a crazy approach to the whole topic, and seeing it prominently featured in a liberal weekly made it all the more depressing.

In all of these cases, the absence of those that are being talked about — those for whom is most at stake — can only have a chilling effect on the resulting impoverished debate, for the most part enabling and benefiting those arguing for repression or rather: more repression, given how repressive migrants’ incredibly wealthy target countries already are when it comes to accepting those most in need of help and support.

Breaking away from the one-way-model of photography inevitably will mean breaking away from established modes of thinking about and evaluating images. As photoland’s ongoing agonizing engagement with pictures on social media demonstrates, old habits die hard. It’s a lot easier to decry the (supposed) lack of visual sophistication of those millions of people uploading their selfies, cat photographs, etc. than to try to understand the meaning and actual merit of those images in the first place. In a nutshell, what a good picture looks like is very different outside of the incredibly narrow confines of photoland than inside, as is the question how or why this matters.

Interestingly, there already exist other modes of engagement with photography by artists such as, for example, Wendy Ewald or Jim Goldberg. A recent example that directly deals with Europe’s migrant crisis is provided by Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez‘s Here, Waiting. The duo spent an extended amount of time in a Belgian asylum seekers’ center, the kind of administrative limbo that is so common all over Europe (well, in those countries accepting asylum seekers; various countries have been refusing to fulfill their legal and moral obligations out of sheer xenophobia, if not outright racism).

In the center, Prignot and Alvarez not only became acquainted with the center’s inhabitants, to document them and their living conditions, they also produced a series of workshops. The workshops were image centric. Photographs were made and printed to then be drawn on or modified by the subjects. A xerox machine, still a frequent bureaucratic tool, was used to make images like a scanner. Photographs were xeroxed and then drawn on. You get the idea. Whatever you want to say about photography having become a digital medium, the possible tangible nature of the medium played one of the most important roles in the process.

Here, Waiting is a compilation of some of the resulting images, in effect a mix of how the photographers came to see their subjects and how the subjects saw themselves — or maybe more accurately: wanted to be represented visually.

There are two dominant and very distinct strands of imagery that stand out. First, there are the many images of and by children that were drawn or drawn on and that at least right now provide possibly the only way for migrants to reach audiences in their target countries. While their collective plight has been amply pictured, typically only pictures of children make a (temporary) dent in the West’s callousness, whether it’s Alan Kurdi’s dead body, Yanela Sanchez crying at the border, or others. The second major group of images centers on young men, who are often depicted playing sports or being in the gym.

It’s doubtful that the book will change anything in Belgium or beyond. Those famous pictures of the children barely did. But to demand so much from photographs (or books) really is only an extension of the thinking that sees photographers as genius makers or truth tellers — after all, with such geniuses or truth tellers behind pictures isn’t it logical to consequently expect big changes as an outcome?

An alternative — I would argue much better — approach is the one that acknowledges that photographers’ subjects can be given an active role and that moves away from determining the validity and/or value solely based on the actually rather narrow ideas that are predominant given the established history of photography. Photographs can be precious in all kinds of ways — not just the ones that derive from photoland.

It is exactly that preciousness, plus the actual engagement Prignot and Alvarez brought directly to those trapped in Belgium’s bureaucratic limbo, that alludes to photography’s power. Photography is a way to recognize someone, especially if there is a deeper engagement, an engagement not merely based on passive consent but on active collaboration. In a very obvious way, the workshops provided a creative outlet for its participants. Beyond that, though, there was a direct exchange between two groups of people held apart by the state.

Even where the cruelty is not the point (such as when migrant children are separated from their parents and then held in cages), the bureaucratic procedures set up by modern nation states to “process” asylum seekers ultimately are inherently cruel. The mere depiction of fences and those fenced in will not change anything; but a direct interaction between the two sides of the fence will, whether it’s these workshops (or similar workshops held elsewhere such as in Warsaw), migrants and locals preparing meals together, or whatever else.

To stick to photography, it’s not the pictures that change the world, it’s the joint making of pictures that does.

Here, Waiting; images by Maroussia Prignot, Valerio Alvarez, and unnamed collaborators; essays by Julián Barón and Nicolas Prignot; 144 pages; Art Paper Editions; 2019

(not rated)

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