Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 25 Sep 2023 13:28:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Neoliberal Photo Museum Is Not Your Friend Mon, 25 Sep 2023 13:28:07 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The main problem with the neoliberal photography museum — such as Fotografiska — is not that it doesn’t treat photography or photographers properly. To insist on such proper treatment is to miss the place’s mission entirely: what is on view is not photography. Instead, it is neoliberal capitalism itself as it manifests itself through a combination of consumption and of a proper mindset. The photographs on view are merely ornaments.

I should note that we’re stuck with a bad term — museum — that has us evaluate one locale against another. The are many glaring problems at a number of museums. The Whitney Museum board included a producer of tear gas, MoMA has ties to fossil fuel, the British Museum (and many others) is filled with looted goods.

So the fact that Fotografiska isn’t a museum in some ways (the way it is dealing with photography) but very much a museum in other ways (the unseemly control wealthy people control what is on view) tells us that to focus on the what a place might have to do to be called a museum is a grave mistake.

To begin with, though, the idea that you can’t have a museum without a collection is ludicrous. It only serves to preserve the power of existing museums. It’s also self-defeating, since many museums don’t have the purchasing power to operate in the contemporary art market.

In the end, what matters is the quality of exhibitions put on display. This includes not only curating in the narrow sense of assembling something under a theme (“Nudes made by female artists”) but also creating a solid framework around it that intends to enrich the audience’s understanding with wall text or multimedia presentations or simply old-fashioned catalogues.

In 1971, Hans Haacke was supposed to have an exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York City. Haacke wanted to include a piece about real estate: “The works contain no evaluative comment. One set of holdings are mainly slum-located properties owned by a group of people related by family and business ties. The other system is the extensive real estate interests, largely in commercial properties, held by two partners.” It was not to be. The show was cancelled, the curator in charge was fired. (You can find Haacke’s words in the article.)

The 1971 Haacke incident obviously has nothing to do with Fotografiska Berlin. But it actually has everything to do with it. To understand this better we need to understand that the neoliberal museum serves more than one function. A minor and relatively unimportant part of the functions is to showcase photography (regardless of whether the staff are actually aware of this or not).

The main function is something different: it’s commercial. Fotografiska Berlin is part of a real-estate development in Berlin that is geared towards the very wealthy. The museum’s role is to serve as an ornament, as a token. It provides a veneer of culture in an environment that otherwise is devoid of it. Not every neoliberal museum is attached to an effort to zhuzh up real estate, though. But you want to always see whether there might not be some other purpose when another one of these places opens somewhere.

Neoliberal capitalism will happily appropriate anything and use it for its own goals (well, almost anything, I’ll get to that). And art in general provides a brilliant opportunity to kill a number of birds with a single stone: you can invest in art (satisfying your financial needs). But through that investment you can also buy cultural and societal cachet, and you can showcase how much you care or pretend to care about larger societal themes (such as diversity or feminism or whatever else).

If you think about it, that’s brilliant. What else can you buy that delivers such a broad return on investment? If you look at things from this angle, traditional museums are not necessarily exempt from the criticism I’m leveling here. As I already noted, the boards of many museums are filled with people who view their presence as a commercial investment and who will use their influence accordingly.

We need to be talking about all of these institutions in general — even as some might be a lot worse — or maybe blatant would be the right word — than others.

By the way, none of the above or of what is still to follow is intended as a criticism of the photographers who for some reason or other agree to have their work shown at these places. Theirs is the world of precarity that the people behind these institutions exploit. Specifically, the Berlin based artists exhibiting at the local Fotografiska are part of the many Berliners who have trouble finding or keeping affordable living spaces. In addition, they might struggle having or finding affordable studio spaces.

Fotografiska isn’t any more dedicated to photography than Pier 24 was. Founded by a wealthy venture capitalist, for a while Pier 24 upended the United States’ photography scene in general and San Francisco’s in particular, establishing itself as a locale where photography was going to be celebrated (never mind the insanely elitist way photographs were supposed to be viewed). This went well until the city stepped in and demanded a fair rental contract for the prime location in question. It was at that stage that it was announced that the collection was going to be auctioned off, with Pier 24 closing down.

Given that previously, the site’s focus and dedication to photography had been talked about so much, the obvious question is how much dedication there had been in the first place. I know that its staff very much care for photography (I’ve spoken with a number of them, and I admire their dedication to the medium). The photographs could have gone to local museums, or some other locale could have probably been found. But for its owner, Pier 24 might just have never really been about photography in the first place.

The interior of the Berlin Fotografiska, based in Berlin’s Mitte district, a completely gentrified hellhole of shallow consumption, features graffiti made by squatters who occupied the building until they were evicted. Given that the graffiti is legally protected (as noted by Berlin based newspaper taz), removing it would not have been an option. But gentrifiers love graffiti because it confers a sense of edgy credibility.

A lot of appropriation is obscene, but this one is particularly so. Visitors pay good money so that the new owners of an old building show them how adornments made by people hoping for a more just and equal society now serve to demonstrate how the state (city) conspired with capital to defeat what both saw as a threat to their dominance.

There’s a telling quote in a recent New York Times article about Berlin’s Fotografiska. “What’s happening in Berlin is, we had a great time drinking out of plastic cups,” Yoram Roth, the person behind the place, is quoted as saying, “But we have an audience now that wants a nice glass of wine, a sensible meal, and to be part of the cultural landscape.” That “we” in the first part — that’s the revealing bit. That “we” includes Roth and his peers: wealthy individuals, property developers, bankers, people who inherited money — the Mitte district crowd. And that “we” has now decided that it would rather swap out those who can’t be too picky about their drinking receptacles of choice for those who can. So it goes.

It’s the old story of gentrification: artists occupy run-down spaces, create a cool — if edgy — atmosphere, and rich vultures buy them all up and transform them into a “cool” shopping centers. And finally the well-off can finally enjoy “a nice glass of wine” and “a sensible meal” without having to worry about the creative underclass and their uncouth ways of living any — even as, of course, they keep their adornments for show.

Of course, it would really not be the New York Times if the article did not include gems such as the following: “Although their models might be different, there is some overlap between the Tacheles’s objectives and those of Fotografiska Berlin”. Someone from Fotografiska gets to explain why that is (I guess cribbing from the place’s PR notes would have been too obvious?). The article’s final line gives away whose perspective you’re reading: “In the meantime, maybe Berlin will finally offer a decent martini.” The New York Times writes for the “we” crowd.

I already noted that the neoliberal photography museum is not interested in photography. It is also not particularly interested in photographers. If there is support for photographers, that support is merely a side effect of the larger endeavour. Of course, at this stage the world of art photography is so starved of meaningful financial support that the moment someone steps in to offer anything, that will be seen as an incredible improvement.

However, I maintain that any initiative that does not address the systemically starved support system of photography is not interested in helping photographers — even if selected individuals might indeed rake in some money. Any initiative that does not engage and cooperate with already existing local photography institutions or museums is not interested in furthering photography in the particular city it appears.

What makes this all more complicated is the fact that the people behind Fotografiska are diverse. This should be the lowest of all bars but, alas, in Germany certainly isn’t. For example, over the past few years the main exhibitions at C/O Berlin have been dominated by very old (mostly white) men, many of them from the US. That’s just really, really bad.

However, even as the neoliberal museum and its patrons will indeed express a keen interest in societal issues, maybe even embracing intersectionality (the fact that individual topics should not be seen in isolation from each other), such intersectionality always excludes money and class. In 1971, the Guggenheim did not want to talk about money and class. Today’s neoliberal museums don’t want to discuss these, and neither do the denizens of Berlin’s Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg districts. This mirrors larger parts of the art world that has made itself dependent on capital.

We might note that historically, the arts have always been closely enmeshed with powerful wealthy people who threw artists some crumbs to further their own interests. I suppose for me it’s fascinating that I am able to observe in real time what I previously read about in history books, with contemporary Andrew Carnegie types throwing around a little money to whitewash their name while furthering their businesses.

What ended up driving me to write this article was not the emergence of yet another Fotografiska, the one in Berlin. Instead, it was the way Pier 24 folded after it was unable to extend its lease with the city. Deciding to close it all down and to sell off the collections — that struck me as such a temper tantrum. Who does that? Who builds up a pretty amazing collection of photography, talking about their love for photography — only to then just dump it?

And then I realized the type of person behind it: someone who has interests other than photography in mind. It’s pure neoliberal capitalism: if something doesn’t work, destroy it and move on to the next thing (regardless of who or what falls by the wayside). If something needs a little whitewashing — let’s say the gruesome gentrification of Berlin’s Mitte district into a neoliberal Disneyland — then let’s add on a little museum that ticks a few important boxes.

In 2020, Art in American described Fotografiska as one of the “virtue-signaling institutions”, and that seems about right. That is neoliberal capitalism as well: exploiting the planet and then sipping the wine (mind you, out of real glasses!) in front of art that, you see, is critical.

The difference between, say, MoMA and Fotografiska Berlin might come down to the following. The former is a museum that comes with a gift shop. The latter is a gift shop that comes with a museum. Both are controlled by wealthy people with very specific interests that are defined not by what is included in its spaces but what is excluded. Whether one is really so much better than the other is absolutely not clear to me.

Where this leaves photographers also is not clear to me. In a nutshell, as photographers we are in desperate need of a much larger and much more robust support system. We’re not going to get it from politicians, and for sure we’re not going to get it from the people who fund neoliberal museums.

So how can you go about what you want to do?

Obviously, individual photographers will have to make decisions for themselves. Like I said, I don’t have a problem with photographers working with neoliberal museums. If it makes you money or gets your work in front of an audience you think you want, that’s great. Just don’t forget about the larger picture.

What it comes down to, though, might be something a friend told me the other day. Museums might simply be comparable to malls: relics of the past that are failing. The question is what might replace them.

Given that many photographers share the same struggles, cooperatives or similar structures might provide a good way to create mutual support systems. Creating and working in a shared exhibition space also might be much easier if you can share resources and skills.

Given the troubled real-estate situation in places like Berlin, such spaces might simply be temporary. But temporary spaces might be able to re-produce some of the exciting and creative atmosphere that neither traditional nor neoliberal museums can offer.

For this to work, artists will have to consider their own needs much more than they do when they make themselves dependent on the trickle-down support offered by the wealthy.

They also need to reconsider who their audience actually is — or whether they really want to make art only for other artists, for curators, and for the occasional rich person who waltzes in to pick up another investment.


Socorro! Mon, 18 Sep 2023 14:34:52 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I don’t want to know how Lucy Raven’s Socorro! shadowgrams came about. I have my reasons. To begin with, knowing about the details of the underlying process collapses the images’ possible meanings and their impact.

For better or mostly worse, the world of photography’s insistence on overemphasizing the details of process often reduces such images to less than what they could be. Photography is a visual medium, and we ought to be able to engage with its imagery at that level — instead of jumping to explanations for why things look the way they do.

If photography really aspires to be a form of art, then photographers and anyone else involved in the field will have to learn to engage with photographs accordingly. This means to stop asking for explanations of craft/process (or, for photographers, to stop providing them) and to talk about the pictures on a purely aesthetic level. Not: why does this look the way it looks? Instead: what is this doing with me? What am I seeing, what am I feeling? And what might these two mean for me?

There also is the fact that I studied physics, and I am familiar with imagery that is similar. This is where my own life experience might differ from many other people’s: I am able to read many images that arise from a physics background because I was trained to do so. But I don’t work in that field any longer, and I do not want to read these images in a scientific fashion, regardless of their possible scientific background.

Socorro! is a relatively large book (27.9 x 36.3cm or 11″ x 14.3″). I’m immediately thinking that the images in the book are facsimiles of the originals, and I find that interesting. While a photobook’s viewer always is only able to see a translation of its source images, typically photobook makers intend to make that translation as accurate as possible. By “translation” I here mean that you try to get images that were printed using ink to look like images that arose from traditional photographic materials (silver-gelatin paper).

When I was much younger, I went to a concert where the band sold t-shirts that stated “The songs sound all the same”. On the one hand, that obviously wasn’t true. On the other hand, it kind of was (which created part of the appeal The Wedding Present). I suspect that a casual viewer will react to the images in the book in the same fashion: the images look all the same. It’s true, kind of; but it absolutely isn’t.

I find that interesting, too, and it is this fact that had me want to write about the work. Not so long ago, I started to appreciate music that is quite abstract and that broadly speaking falls into the genre of ambient music. It might not surprise you that when I listened to The Wedding Present, I would have considered such music boring. But it’s not really boring at all — quite on the contrary. Given that I don’t write about music but about photography,  Socorro! seemed like a perfect opportunity to understand and write about images that — and this is a terribly superficial comparison — are the equivalent of Martyna Basta’s music (I’m thinking in particular of Making Eye Contact With Solitude).

If you wanted to describe the images in Socorro! you might be tempted to reach for visual comparisons. Some of the images look like sections of a stained concrete wall whose material has deteriorated with age. Others resemble what out-of-focus X-ray images might look like (even though I have never seen one).

There are images that feature cones with objects at their apices, or rather their shadows. Here, I can’t help but think of images of a jet breaking the sound barrier, producing a shock wave around it. But I am also compelled to think of the imagery produced by a US newspaper that tried to visualize the effect of bullets from military-grade weapons tearing through the human body. And then there is a photograph by Shomei Tomatsu that I can’t help but think of as well.

Some images are pitch black and feature only a few dust specks sprinkled on them. There’s the occasional Gerhard-Richter-is-squeegeeing-a-canvase effect, and some images remind me of what happened when Idris Khan took a large number of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers or gas tanks and layered them on top of each other.

The less detail you have, the more you’re able to associate with the small amount of information given to you. I find this interesting. It points at something Siegfried Kracauer wrote: “If […] one has the patience, the sort of patience specific to legitimate boredom, then one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly.” I suspect I shouldn’t use the word “boredom” in a review. But I might as well point out the richness of experiences discussed in Documents of Contemporary Art: Boredom. I feel that the richness of those experiences is mostly underappreciated in the world of photography; this book brings me close to them.

Maybe you have experience with meditation, and you’re able to connect with these images in such a fashion. This is not to say that the images in Socorro! are meditative (they’re also not boring in case that wasn’t clear from the preceding). That’s such a terrible word to use to describe a piece of visual art (much like “poetic”). The images are not meditative. But you could engage with them in such a fashion that your experience might bring up aspects of meditation.

I remember that Ludwig Wittgenstein once said something to the effect of that when he went to a museum, he preferred to just look at just one painting. Unfortunately, I am unable to locate the actual quote online. But let’s pretend that he said that. I think that approach would be very good for the book. In fact, that’s how I engaged with it ever since I got it in the mail. I open it at some random location, and then I spend time with one of its images, however long I feel is right at that moment. Sometimes, it’s a short moment. Sometimes, it’s quite a bit of time.

I think that this approach might help those who struggle with the images. Unless you’re already attuned to this kind of ambient imagery, leafing through the book might tempt you to compare and contrast. You don’t want to compare and contrast these images any more than you want to come to any conclusions. You just want these images to be, and you want your thoughts and feelings about them to be. That’s enough.

It is a gorgeous book. Like I said, it’s rather large, and as is often the case with this publisher it’s very attractive. There are two sections that contain essays; these are printed on a bright yellow paper (a very different stock than the rest). I can’t say anything about the essays. I will read them once I feel that reading them will not spoil my ability to engage with the images.

Maybe I still can’t write anything coherently about these images. But I’m not sure that is a problem. If you’re an artist, you know about the importance of moving out of your comfort zone. As a viewer, you want to be able to do the same.

I know that I now see a little differently, and I experience photography a little bit differently. Not being able to write about it perfectly has me think that I’m still in the spot where the engagement is freshest. I know it will not last; for now I will cherish these moments.


Socorro!; photograms by Lucy Raven; essays by Pamela M. Lee and David Levi Strauss; 120 pages; MACK; 2023

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Confusion and Hostility Mon, 11 Sep 2023 15:11:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“Today,” Sean Tatol writes, “the mere suggestion that some things are better than others, particularly in the arts, is met with confusion and hostility.” Tatol’s is a long piece that — almost inevitably — mixes real insight with what you might find questionable. Where in particular these two separate out — again almost inevitably — might differ from reader to reader. If anything, for me that’s the beauty of engaging with art: where else are you going to clash with someone else’s subjectivity in such an elaborate fashion?

For a critic, writing about criticism of course involves a large amount of naval gazing. This is inevitable. However, if you engage with it to confront your own contradictions, which I believe is Tatol’s goal, then there is insight to be gained not just for your readers but also, and this is the most important part, for yourself. After all, as a critic you periodically want to evaluate what you do and how you do that: Criticism can always only be imperfect, and it’s from that imperfection that its true value is to be gained.

I like reading about criticism, and I like thinking about how I approach my own. It’s not that I need to do it every day or every week or even every month. I just need to do it somewhat regularly. It’s finding pieces like Tatol’s that usually has me engage with it again.

What drives me doing this — meaning this site — is the goal that I will be growing both as a writer/critic but also as a photographer and a person. The hope is that some of that growth might be shared in some fashion with readers, however indirect that might be.

Rarely, if ever, do I go back to my old writing. It’s not that I dislike it. I think many writers cringe reading their old work, realizing that this or that aspect could or maybe should have been better. There’s that. But there also is the fact that the person who wrote some piece five years ago is not the same any longer as the one who reads it now.

Furthermore, I am frequently baffled by people telling me about something I wrote in the past, especially if that past is removed quite a few  years. I might hear that (this is just some random example) six years ago, I made a comment about a photographer in the context of talking about another photographer. But now, in a recent piece about the first photographer, I somehow did not address that comment. How come? Well, to begin with, I actually do not remember everything I’ve ever written or said. That aside, though, in those six years I’ve changed. There is no simple connection between past and present words even as there is the temptation to believe otherwise.

“The value of the arts,” Tatol writes further into his piece, “is the capacity to teach intelligence by learning to perceive intelligence, which is itself the content of art; the expression of perceptivity in whatever form.” I think that’s a really good way to express part of what makes art art. Obviously, there is more to intelligence that the intellectual kind. As long as you also accept emotional intelligence, you might find yourself in agreement with Tatol.

A number of ideas expressed in the piece come down to differences in taste, education/biography, or simply in style. As I said, I disagree with quite a bit; but none of that matters much for the larger point.

My main problem with Tatol’s piece is his treatment of what he calls bad art. “The disappointment of bad art is its inability to be anything more than what was expected,” he says. While that is true for some bad art (public art is maybe the best example), there is a lot of art that I think is bad for very different reasons.

Possibly my biggest disagreement focuses on the following: “Most contemporary art writing uses interpretation as a way of sidestepping the problem of quality, but interpretations are impossible to take seriously if the art itself is bad.” I’m going to ignore the aspect of quality that Tatol insists on throughout his piece. It is the latter — “interpretations are impossible to take seriously if the art itself is bad” — that I object to most strongly. I’d argue the complete opposite: interpretations are most interesting and important if the art itself is bad.

As a critic, you have to work so much harder if the art you want to write about is bad. Or rather if you think it is bad, because on its own a piece of art is simply a piece of art. The hard work involves writing a piece that a lot of people don’t want to read (especially not the artist in question and certainly not her or his publisher and/or gallery).

It also involves writing a piece that many other people want to read because a bad review is so rare; the spectacle that can (and usually will) be created from it plus snide social-media comments will almost inevitably mar the impact the piece could have if people didn’t freak out so much.

The hard work involves making yourself write about something that you don’t necessarily want to write about. Who wants to deal with bad art? The hardest part of that hard work is to somehow arrive at a piece that makes its case in an intelligent fashion. Often, you’ll find that your judgment is based on misguided ideas. At other times, it takes a lot of research and thinking to figure out why the art really is bad. It’s usually a lot of hard work. But it’s very rewarding.

In a two-part essay, Ben Davis uses a different approach to respond to Sean Tatol’s essay. There’s much in those pieces as well. I’ll just pick out one that especially resonated with me: “To Tatol’s three horsemen of the Critical Apocalypse—greed, indifference, and literal-minded sloganeering—I would add a fourth, slightly less voluntaristic: “degeneration of the media environment.””

If you look at the photography ecosystem, you might find yourself in agreement with Davis: “In some ways, more culture writing circulates than ever before, but with fewer resources invested in any individual piece of writing. What you get is a great sense of redundancy and thinness.” (I would like to think that you don’t find the latter on this site, but as always your mileage might vary.)

I still believe that this site should exist, and I still believe that there is value to it. It’s reading about and responding to pieces that center on criticism that re-ignite part of the passion that inevitably gets depleted when I’m writing into what often feels like a vacuum.

That said, if the ecosystem in which real criticism exists continues to get depleted even further, instead of talking about criticism we might as well be asking whether the descent of vast parts of photography into providing a feel-good adornment for glorified shopping/life-style centers for the well-off isn’t what we really need to be discussing.

APP: Three Years Later Mon, 04 Sep 2023 13:32:18 +0000 Joerg Colberg

It was roughly halfway through a conversation with Polish photographer Rafał Milach when I realised that my original premise for this piece was misguided. But let’s start at the very beginning.

Poland’s ruling neofascist party, PiS, understands that for it to destroy the country’s democracy and cement its power it needs to undermine the judiciary. Finding majorities for its far-right agenda is sometimes difficult, especially since the courts might stand in the way of implementing measures that violate the constitution. Thus, a few years ago PiS set out to “reform” the courts. “Reform” here means stuffing them with lawyers who aren’t interested in the law but who instead do what they’re supposed to do (this might sound very familiar to Americans).

A huge fight erupted with the European Union (EU). The rule of the law is the main basis of the EU, and the EU would have none of PiS’ judicial manoeuvres in Poland. But the EU was powerless to prevent Poland’s “reformed” highest court from declaring that abortion was illegal (again, this might sound very familiar to Americans). In late 2020, Polish women thus became second-class citizens.

All over the country, huge demonstrations erupted. There had already been large demonstrations against the judicial “reforms”. But the abortion ruling triggered the largest wave of demonstrations since the fall of Communism. A large group of photographers joined in and took pictures of what was happening in their communities. This is where the situations in Poland and the US diverge.

The Polish photographers decided that their separate work needed to come together and live in a shared space: the Archive of Public Protests (APP). In addition, the work would be shared not only online but also in physical form, as a mass-produced newsprint publication that was going to be handed out at demonstrations: the Strike newspaper was born.

There quickly was a succession of these publications as the political situation in Poland spiralled out of control while a number of other crises popped up. There were additional Strike issues about climate protests and the migrant crisis at the border with Belarus. After the war in Ukraine started and a huge wave of refugees arrived in Poland, there was a newspaper about that as well.

As you might remember from a number of articles on this site, I have been extremely interested in APP and the Strike newspaper. I don’t believe in the idea that photographers should set themselves apart from the societies they live in. I also don’t think that it’s a good idea that photographers are only making work for their peers and a small select group of curators (typically trained in art history or curatorial studies, whatever the latter might be) and wealthy collectors.

Karolina Gembara handing out Strike newspapers in Warsaw

The Strike newspapers made these Polish photographers active participants in the protests. Not only did they share their photographs for free, they also incorporated slogans from the protests. Someone picking up a newspaper might use it at a protest or maybe hang it in their window for other people to see.

Now that about three years had passed, I was curious about how things had evolved. I decided to approach two of the members of APP that I know well, Rafał Milach and Karolina Gembara (I spoke with them separately).

Specifically, I thought, it would be great to learn about the impact of these newspapers. And that’s where I had it all wrong. Or rather I realised that while seemingly rejecting standard photoland thinking — where the impact of something is measured by how many copies it sells and by how much of a commotion it triggered, I had internalised that very thinking after all.

“We never had a plan,” Rafał tells me, “we were aiming for one edition of the first issue. I was receiving so many good images. I knew that they’re going to disappear, even if we put them in the Archive. It’s possible to find them, but it’s difficult. So when you have this tight edit of very strong images, that can bring you back to this time and energy around the protests.”

I suppose the lack of a plan cuts both ways. On the one hand, you’re driven by your energy, and you push things a lot faster than if you were to proceed more cautiously. And how could you be cautious if there’s a civic emergency right outside of your kitchen window?

On the other hand, once you roll the boulder down the hill (to use a rather imperfect metaphor), the hill — not you — will decide where it will go. “Recently,” Karolina says, “I participated in a workshop for activists with a focus on the theory of change. This is a theory where you sit down with your colleagues and discuss the change you want to make. There are certain steps and one of them is to establish the goal: what would be the outcome of our activity? And how do you measure it? How do you know that we achieved the goal? I realised that we applied none of this to our work at A-P-P.”

A simple way to measure impact would be to look at the numbers of newspapers produced. Rafał: “It’s certainly above 30,000 [newspaper copies so far]. Maybe more. It’s a lot when we think about the photobook world. It’s even a lot when you think about mainstream print media. Print runs are dropping because everyone is cutting costs. In the Polish market, weekly magazines that used to have 300,000 copies now operate at the level of 50 or 60,000 printed copies. Of course, we have a total of 30000. And I’m not saying that we compete with mainstream media outlets. It’s a relatively small, but relevant number of printed newspapers that can be used in the Polish context.”

“I would say that the newspapers contributed to the visuality of the protests in Poland,” Karolina says, “we see them in windows, in people’s houses, in cars. A lot of people send us pictures of these displays. They use them as a way to communicate — to their neighbours, to the streets, to pedestrians — what they stand for.”

It’s exactly here where my original idea for this piece stopped making sense. Looking at numbers of newspapers, thinking about a direct, measurable impact — this thinking reduces the whole idea to only a narrow utilitarian aspect.

Both Karolina and Rafał were a little stumped when I asked them about the impact their work has had. “The best feedback that we can possibly get,” Rafał tells me, “is that people are sharing images of the newspaper on social media. And we see how the newspapers are used in different locations, how they are reused. Very often, it’s in the background of mainstream TV broadcasts.”

The larger impact is hard to assess, though, as Karolina explains: “Sometimes we would send 100, 200, or 300 copies to a place that requested those newspapers, such as a university or a photography festival. We trust the people, we trust the kinds of events that the newspapers were used for. But their impact is hard to measure. Maybe newspapers got stuck in someone’s basement? Having said that I wish we had more resources, both in terms of people and money, to send it to more places.”

I suppose what this all comes down to is that if your work becomes a part of a civic engagement that explicitly rejects some of the mechanisms from the bubble you operate in, that engagement follows its own, larger societal rules. You drop the big stone into the pond and you allow for the ripples to move outwards — without expecting too much back in return. After all, real civic engagement lives exactly off of that: actions that are the means to an end that exists in a different sphere altogether.

Both Rafał and Karolina made it clear that there were a number of other aspects that in part were unforeseen (possibly in part because they might have been unforeseeable). “Photography has a handicap as a medium when it comes to communication,” Rafał says, “text is so much stronger. All the electricity is about the text, about the language, about the slogans, about something that is very much verbal and non-visual. I’m not saying that the visual representation [of the protests] is not important. But the most electrifying things are connected with the language and with the text. That is something I learned from these publications.”

I think in the world of photography we often think that our pictures will do more than they actually do, in part because we overestimate what they can do. Can a photograph compete with the symbol of the red lightning that’s part of the women’s rights movement in Poland? It would seem that the answer is no.

And there were other insights. “To me making a newspaper is a way of coping mentally with the problem it raises,” Karolina notes, “when the war in Ukraine stared I responded to almost every request: finding transportation, accommodations, hosting, or simply making sandwiches for people arriving at the train station in Warsaw. I was really terrified and exhausted as there was no end to the needs. Then we started making the newspaper, and although it felt less practical, I knew this tool and I knew it worked. Some people are simply far more effective when it comes to psychologically taking care of others.”

Maybe this is the big lesson from the APP newspapers: What matters is that they were made and brought out into the world. Whatever ripple effects might be produced is something difficult to predict — unless, as Karolina noted earlier, you adopt the tools and methodologies of activists.

But there is another aspect: locale. I had long been wondering why the idea of the free newspapers had not been adopted by people outside of Poland. After all, there are plenty of problems in many countries.

As it turns out, for a number of reasons, things might not be as simple as that. “My personal experience with the newspaper devoted to the humanitarian crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border in Berlin was quite upsetting,” Karolina tells me, “I went to some protests because we had published that particular issue also in German. People didn’t want to take it from me. There was an argument around the paper. They didn’t want the waste. But I also felt that there was no trust in what it is: maybe a propaganda? I was trying to explain what the newspaper is about but a very few people actually took one from me.” As a consequence, she says, “it is maybe fair to notice that in Poland the newspapers are known, requested and used. But abroad they get more attention in the institutional context.”

This might also explain why we haven’t seen similar initiatives outside of Poland. The US protests against the abortion ban were much briefer, and there was no equivalent of the Strike newspapers.

I will admit that I had some naive hopes that APP and their newspapers would trigger similar initiatives elsewhere. But this does not appear to have happened, which might say more about different civic cultures and societal differences than about photoland itself. Given that the newspapers are now finding their ways to Western cultural institutions and festivals, there always is the chance that their spark might light a local fire after all.

The Problem with Helmut Newton Mon, 28 Aug 2023 13:18:34 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Right at Berlin’s Zoologischer Garten train station, you can find the Helmut Newton Foundation. If memory serves me right, its exhibition spaces occupy two floors of a rather grandiose building. The third floor houses the (separate) Museum of Photography. A visitor who wants to see an exhibition at the latter will have to walk past some of Helmut Newton’s most well known photographs, in particular very large prints of a number of nude women.

I have always been bothered by the fact that this particular photographer has been given such a prominent spot in Berlin, given that I think that his work is hugely problematic. I have always found Newton’s photographs to be extremely sexist and misogynistic. But it has taken me some time to figure out what exactly it is that makes them that. Given that large parts of Newton’s work arose from a fashion context (which frankly I have no interest at all in), you might be able to apply aspects of the following there as well.

So what’s going on in Newton’s photographs? I’m not going to show any of them here simply because I find them repulsive. If you want, you can look up examples; they’re not very hard to find. But you probably know what a Helmut Newton photograph looks like anyway.

Newton’s photographs usually feature men and women, and these men and women are depicted in very specific ways. This description is very broad, and it applies to almost all photographers. Insight will be gained from looking at the very specific ways in detail.

As is typically the case in the world of fashion, none of the men are particularly remarkable. Their identities and to some extent even their physical shapes matter a lot less than how they behave and what they represent. They’re always in charge. They’re powerful men that have a sense of success associated with them. That success might be tied to their physique or to something else (money — Newton’s world is one-dimensionally crass). It doesn’t really matter where that success is coming from or, for that matter, whether it’s earned or not. It only matters that it’s present. Newton’s men are successful, they exude power, and they’re dominant.

Discussions around Newton’s photographs inevitably centre on his portrayal of women. While there is a lot to be talked about (I will get to that), I need to point out first that omitting the men is a crucial mistake. It is the men that provide the setting for the world the women are depicted in. This is also the case for the photographs in which men are absent.

In a most obvious fashion, Newton’s world is entirely heterosexual. Anyone who is not heterosexual is excluded from it. That’s clearly a huge problem for many reasons that I probably don’t have to get into. Newton’s world is also filled with people who conform to very a very specific body type. Anyone not ticking that box is also excluded. If your body has a different shape or form or colour, there is no place for you in Newton’s world.

You could argue that what I described in the preceding paragraph is bad enough for it to disqualify the man’s photography. I would certainly agree. But Newton’s photography actually is a lot worse for additional reasons that I’m hoping to make clear in the following.

If you read articles about Helmut Newton, almost inevitably you will find the women in his photographs described in a very specific fashion. A recent article in Berlin’s Tagesspiegel newspaper described them as “completely naked, unashamedly confident and yet objects of desire” (my translation). We might start by noting that obviously, women are not objects. They’re human beings. To me, it feels completely wrong to describe women as objects in 2023.

But the word choice is telling, in particular the contrast between the objectification of women in the photographs and the women being “unashamedly confident”. It is the latter that provides the get-out-of-jail card for those defending Newton’s work. How can his photographs be sexist and misogynistic if the women are “unashamedly confident”? There are obvious answers to that question. First of all, it’s the women who are reduced to their basic physical characteristics: their usually naked bodies. I could think of Boomer arguments why that fact is not sexist and misogynistic. But those arguments themselves are, well, sexist and misogynistic. So they needn’t concern us here.

Furthermore, the sexism and misogyny on display is also exemplified by the fact that only physically fit and conventionally attractive women are subjected to Newton’s photographic treatment. Anyone else, it is implied, need not bother offering their body to be ogled at.

But it doesn’t end there. To find another aspect you need to pull back, and you have to consider the men. The women who are described as “unashamedly confident” in Newton’s photographs behave like the men. They’re engaged in displays of power. You might imagine that that’s the strength of Newton’s work, but it actually isn’t. Besides the fact that anyone who is not conforming to its particular sexuality or body type is already automatically excluded, the interaction between the heterosexual men and women in Newton’s photographs plays out on a territory that’s demarcated by a narrow definition of what masculinity means. It’s the territory of power and domination. Therein, you have two options available to you: you can surrender, or you can fight. Any other choices would, I suppose, make you something like a loser in the eyes of those who are or want to be part of that world.

The interaction between the heterosexual men and women in Newton’s photographs plays out on a territory that’s demarcated by a narrow definition of what masculinity means. It’s the territory of power and domination. Therein, you have two options available to you: you can surrender, or you can fight.

Seen that way, Newton’s world is even more exclusionary than I mentioned earlier. It excludes anyone who is not heterosexual. It excludes anyone whose body type does not conform to something very specific (with some minor leeway for men). And it excludes all those hetereosexual men and women who conceivably would get accepted in Newton’s world but who would rather opt out.

After all, the depiction of heterosexuality in Helmut Newton’s work is very reductive. Newton’s photographs only deal with a form of sexuality that understands a sexual being as one involved in acts of domination, acts of exercising power. That’s all there is. If there are equals, they’re not equal because they’re accepting of each other as they are. They are only equal because they’re frozen in an equilibrium of exercised power. While this does represent a part of human sexuality, it is extremely limiting because it excludes many other possibly mentally more healthy ways of expressing one’s sexuality.

Furthermore, we might also note that Newton’s photographs are only in service of the dominant mode of straight Western sexuality where men dominate women and where men must not display any even minute form of affection — physical or otherwise — towards other men. In its most extreme incarnation, for this form of sexuality rape culture is not something that is separate, it’s something that’s directly connected. You can see aspects of it in Newton’s photographs.

It’s extremely important to realise that if you are heterosexual person, you do not have to make the parameters of that world your own. Someone who is driven by loving kindness, say, might simply reject operating in a world. For what it’s worth, none of the people in Newton’s photographs strikes me as kind and, to be honest, neither does the photographer.

The unashamed confidence the writer of the Tagesspiegel writer spoke of can manifest itself in any number of ways. If your body type does not conform to the standards used by professional models or if you’re not wealthy, you can still be extremely confident in who you are as a person. That confidence can then manifest itself in any number of ways. In fact, if you are aware of this, domination as a form of expression for your confidence might strike you as ludicrous or not as acceptable at all.

In Newton’s pictures, all of these different ways of thinking, feeling, and acting as a heterosexual person are entirely absent. In the photographs, strength and power are the only aspects that matter. In other words, the women who are widely described as “unashamedly confident” are confident in a very narrowly defined fashion, a fashion that is entirely based on how traditional heterosexual masculinity sees itself. We might note that this very type of masculinity now sees itself under threat, which in part is responsible for the rise of neofascism.

Helmut Newton did not live to see the days when neoliberal policies turned formerly social-democratic nations into dog-eat-dog settings where ever more money is being funnelled towards those at the top (usually in the name of “austerity”). If you wanted to, you could view his photographs as neoliberal realism even though most of them were made before the excesses we’re now made to witness.

You could summarize all of this as follows. Helmut Newton’s photography is not sexist and misogynistic if you use criteria for its evaluation that themselves are sexist and misogynistic: your inability to see what’s on full display betrays your inability to recognize the sexist and misogynistic societal structure you’re embedded in. Newton’s photographs are not problematic if you have internalized the mechanisms of the male gaze, according to which the world is to be seen through the eyes of heterosexual men in power.

Helmut Newton’s photography is not sexist and misogynistic if you use criteria for its evaluation that themselves are sexist and misogynistic: your inability to see what’s on full display betrays your inability to recognize the sexist and misogynistic societal structure you’re embedded in.

I recently saw Hani Hape, a German artist, exchange the women in Newton’s photographs with men. While the resulting images subvert some of the core message of Newton’s work, the underlying and possibly more noxious mechanism remains mostly untouched: the naked display of power and domination.

Furthermore, you do not get a female gaze if in a male-gaze setting you swap out women for men (whether in front of or behind a camera). To invert the male gaze you first have to invert the basic rules according to which it operates. And those rules rely on power and domination.

Having written all this, I am not even sure any longer that the sexism and misogyny in Helmut Newton’s work is its worst aspect. As bad as these are, they are merely parts of a much larger problem. Newton depicts a world that has no mercy, no kindness, no love, no feeling, a world that deems a lot of people as weak or not worthy, a world that excludes a lot of people based on their sexual orientation, their gender, their body type or shape, the colour of their skin… It’s a world that — and this might not surprise you — I reject.

Is that world something that should be uncritically celebrated with and in a museum in a very prominent location in the German capital? I don’t think so. In light of how political the issue ultimately is — at the time of this writing, the German government is working on a new law dealing with registering or changing gender identification, which, of course, is hotly contested — smart programming around Newton’s photography would appear of the order.

Apart from removing all of the photographer’s personal items on display, which frankly make for a partly weird, partly creepy, and partly embarrassing experience for all those who don’t buy into the personality cult, Newton’s pictures should be set against photographs by other artists that show expressions of the body, of sexuality, and of people being with each other in ways that are absent from (and thus negated by) the fashion photographer’s work. Then, you would be in business: You would allow people to see for themselves — and to come to their own conclusions (whatever those conclusions might be).

Ábel Szalontai’s Repetitive Sublime Mon, 21 Aug 2023 13:47:12 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Ever since Marcel Duchamp presented a urinal as a piece of art in 1917, the question what art is has become meaningless. If a urinal can be art, anything can be art, including (obviously) photography. The discussions around whether photography is art are interesting not because they tell us something about the medium. Instead, they speak of what the people involved in such discussions consider art.

Unfortunately, photographers have been pretty bad at playing the game. Instead of happily embracing their medium and its many possibilities, more often than not they instead accepted other artists’ criteria for what their photographs had to look like for them to be considered as art. This gave us abominations such as Pictorialism, a form of visual shlock that because of its sheer triteness is almost interesting. Almost.

We might as well ask the following instead. What exactly can photography do that other art forms can’t (or what they might be bad at or at an advantage at)? After all, we celebrate painting for what it can do, we celebrate sculpture for what it can do — why don’t we do the same with photography?

Well, you might note, what about the people that I so callously refer to as the Neoliberal Realists (Andreas Gursky et al.)? Montaging photographs from constituent parts and then presenting them as if they were paintings — even as I happily accept these photographs as photographs, I don’t think borrowing so many techniques from other art forms is necessarily an expression of confidence in one’s own medium.

What I’m after here is something altogether more simple, something that is so obvious that I don’t think many people realize what a radical gesture is associated with it. It seems to me that if photography brings anything to art, it’s the ability to employ repetition to great effect. In fact, if used well, the end result of repetition can result in one of art’s most important themes, the sublime. I call this the repetitive sublime, the effect of which is achieved through sheer repetition and variation.

“Badacsony,” Wikipedia tells me, “is the name of a region on the north shore of Lake Balaton in western Hungary, a mountain top and a town in that region.” It’s also the name of a book by Ábel Szalontai.

The Wikipedia page comes with a photograph that shows an expanse of water — the lake, with a prominent mountain that features an oddly flat top behind it. There appear to be buildings near the mountain. On Google Maps, there is a settlement on the other side of the lake (Fonyód) that’s closest to the mountain. I check a number of random places using the “Street View” option and find the mountain across the lake in the background of the pictures.

If you grew up by the sea (as I have), you know of its magic. The sea is always the same — a field of water; and yet it is always different. There is something about larger bodies of water than enhances the senses and that even if you’re not a photographer makes you notice everything, especially the quality of light.

Faced with a vast body of water — an ocean — you’re likely to experience the sublime in its most well-known incarnation, especially if there is a storm brewing on the horizon. There is something incredibly vulgar about how uncaring the water is for your own concerns (or safety).

In Badacsony, you encounter the very same view towards that flat-topped mountain many times. There is the same stretch of the Lake. Each view is exactly the same, and each view is completely different as the time of day and weather change. I’m imagining that this might be the view from some building, and I’m imagining being the person whose view I am presented with.

It is their combination that creates its effect, reminding me of the fact that like every other human being I am merely a temporary visitor on this planet. Each moment that passes brings me closer to my own demise. Each moment that I spend on, for example, pressing down combinations of letters on my keyboard amounts to time deducted from an unknowable total.

This is the repetitive sublime that photography can deliver: through sheer repetition, by presenting the same picture in any number of variations, photography can make us face the insignificance of our existence.

I wrote earlier that other forms of art are unable to do it. That’s not fully correct. A completely different medium, music, can achieve the same effect. I’m thinking of, for example, France, a three-person band (you might be able to guess where they’re from) whose performances are a single drone. As the drums and bass lay down the rhythm, an amplified hurdy-gurdy produces an initially bewildering and ultimately mesmerizing sound that doesn’t appear to end. You can only understand it if you experience it in its entirety — this 71 minute track is the best I have found so far.

Of course, France‘s music is not the same as what photography does with its repetitive sublime. Listening to France will put you into a meditative trance in which the minutest variations in the sounds take on vast importance and in which a single medieval instrument somehow transforms into an occasionally terrifying orchestra. This will make you forget about time and have you face your innermost fears.

Given the fact that as viewers, we control the speed with which we’re looking at the pictures, photography does not throw you into a cauldron that is being stirred by outside forces. Instead, it layers picture upon picture upon picture, to achieve a similar effect: while as a viewer you’re the one who is doing the stirring, you will still have to face the fact that for this world of mountains and seas and plains and all of their creatures you are nothing. What you encounter in front of you is infinitely more complex than anything you’d ever be able to understand.

Why would you look at this, though? Or why would you listen to 71 minutes of France? There’s a simple answer: doing so is awe inducing in the most basic sense.

As for the book, I could have done without the selected parts of Laura Iancu’s poem alongside the pictures. But the words are easy to ignore when looking (you can later read the full poem in the back).


Badacsony; photographs by Ábel Szalontai; essays by Krisztina Somogyi, J.A. Tillmann, Laura Iancu; 182 pages; Self-published; 2023

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Céline van Balen 1965-2023 Mon, 14 Aug 2023 13:15:04 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“Most people are nothing,” Fran Lebowitz told Helen Molesworth in a short clip on Instagram that I came across today, “by which I mean they’re of no consequence to anyone but themselves.” If you wanted to, you could see these words as the impetus behind making art: to create something that is of consequence to other people, even if you might not know who these people will be or, for that matter, whether there actually will be such people.

But the above also is the viewpoint of those who can have such conversations in a million-dollar art space or those, like me, who have some sort of relationship with them, however imagined and/or tenuous and certainly inconsequential it might be.

There is another viewpoint, expressed by Remco Campert in the foreword of Céline van Balen, a book that accompanied a large exhibition of the photographer’s work in 2002. “We go unnoticed,” he wrote, “because that is better for everyone. We are of no further use. The rest of the world has pushed us aside, untouchable. By not seeing us, they mean to deny us. But we live on.” (You can read the full text on the publisher’s website.)

Campert wrote these words about the people in Van Balen’s portraits. Just a little bit later, the photographer would join them. “She retired from photography in 2004,” Kees Keijer wrote in an article published on 28 July this year, “after finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the pressures of producing, exhibiting and performing. Her mind was ill-tempered with the success and the vague promises and high expectations that accompanied it. She struggled with a drug addiction that slowly crumbled her social life.”

(Please note that wherever the text is in English but a link goes to a Dutch language text I’m relying on machine translation. I corrected minor translation errors where needed.)

Céline van Balen died of cancer on April 1,” we also learn, “and was cremated on April 8 at De Nieuwe Ooster. The fact that the news has only now become known is indicative of the way in which Van Balen had turned her back on the art world.”

“The city asks nothing of us,” Campert wrote, “the city is indifferent. The city is our best enemy.”

The art world asks nothing of us. The art world is indifferent. The art world is our best enemy.

If you have ever seen the photographs made by Van Balen, you will probably find it hard to believe that they’re not more well known outside of the Netherlands. Then again, if you know anything about the art world that the photographer decided to leave, you will not find it hard to understand why that is not the case.

After I heard of her death, I did a quick Google search and found an assortment of links to auction houses — money is still being made with her work, money she would never see because of the way the art world operates. There was one link that shows one of Van Balen’s iconic photographs with a short, yet insightful text about the work. If there are others, I didn’t see them.

Most people are nothing, we might add to Lebowitz’s words, not because they create “no consequences to anyone but themselves”. It’s because it takes two for those consequences to arise, in particular the people who decide to pay attention.

This is not merely an art-world problem (even though in an obvious sense, it is very pronounced there). Collectively, we have decided to treat large numbers of people as nothings, whether they’re not well-off people or migrants or refugees or chronically sick people… The list goes on and on.

As Van Balen demonstrated, it doesn’t take much to break that mechanism. In her photographs, she consistently placed people in front of her camera that art-world denizens would probably view as nothings.

How the art world is incapable of seeing its own massive contradiction — being an insular society of mostly wealthy people that betray a shocking disregard for those less fortunate, while ogling photographs of the very people considered as nothings — escapes me.

The art world loves nothing more than looking at photographs of underprivileged people, ideally male drifters with long beards or middle-aged women whose faces document the many hardships they have already gone through. Scores of photographers have built their careers on this. It’s not even that poverty is picturesque. It’s simply that poverty creates the preconditions for good pictures for them.

But less fortunate circumstances can also produce photographs that ennoble — rather than expose. Céline van Balen is filled with such photographs. I suspect that even the fans of Richard Avedon’s poverty porn from the American West might admire Van Balen’s tender portraits.

In the end, the reason why these photographs are different than Avedon’s mighty simply be because Van Balen cared for the people in front of her camera — and Avedon did not. We can’t know that for a fact; but we can see it in the pictures. “When you’re taking photos,”  Kazuo Kitai recalled advice he received from Ihei Kimura, “put yourself in the position of the weakest.” Van Balen would’ve understood. Avedon? Not so much.

What the exact reasons might have been for Van Balen’s retirement from photography (if we want to call it that) I have no way of knowing. I’m thinking, and this is just a wild guess, that the photographer also saw through the way photographs — and by extension those in them — were and are treated and considered in the world of art. I’d like to think that she was going to have none of that.

What’s left is the book, and there are photographs in some collections. Part of the photographer’s archive has gone to the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam, where it will be in very good hands.

“The work goes on,” Ted Kennedy ended a speech from a completely context (but I might as well use his words here), “the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die” — the dream that we’ll stop thinking of people as nothings. Whether or not the art world will come along, though… Let’s not get our hopes up on that.

RIP Céline van Balen

Kazumichi, Hiromichi: Daidō Mon, 07 Aug 2023 13:02:18 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“My older brother’s name was Kazumichi (一道),” Daidō Moriyama wrote in April 1982 in an essay published in Asahi Camera. “He left this world when he was only one year old. Obviously, I have no memories of him. We were twins. If we consider my brother a copy of the Moriyama family, then I am a copy of a copy. The ideogram for his name “一” (kazu, “one”) was superimposed with the ideogram for “person” (人) to form my name (大道), and I ended up surviving.” Originally, 大道 was read as Hiromichi, but the photographer later changed it to Daidō, the now well known name (Japanese ideograms can be typically read in more than one way).

The quote sits at the very beginning of the first essay included in Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective, a catalogue that accompanies a retrospective organized by Thyago Nogueira in São Paulo, a city that itself has a very large Japanese community (at the time of this writing, the exhibition is now on view at C/O Berlin). As Nogueira makes clear in his own long and well researched essay, 1982 was a pivotal year for Moriyama. Ten years earlier, he had published 写真よさようなら or Bye Bye Photography as it became known in the West.

With that book the artist had reached the logical end point of a development that included membership in the fabled collective Provoke. Bye Bye Photography destroyed the conventions of photography and set a counterpoint to what photographs were supposed to look like — according to the generation of photographers that came right before Moriyama. Where do you go, though, when you’ve done that? The book triggered a huge artistic and personal crisis for Moriyama. It would take him a decade to get out of it.

In part, dealing with his own biography in a photographic fashion provided a way out for the artist. Because of the father’s job, the family had moved countless times. Moriyama went to visit the many locations. At the same time, he drastically scaled down the many experimentations that had been prominent up until Bye Bye Photography. From now on, he would focus mainly on what he is widely known for, a form of street photography presented in his signature high-contrast black and white.

Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective makes it very clear that the artist was considerably more complex in his early incarnation than in the one he is now widely known for. Surrounded by and friends with avant-garde artists such as Tadanori Yokoo, Moriyama had explored a large number of ideas, many of which were inspired by Western (mostly American) artists, among them William Klein and Andy Warhol. At the same time, being embedded in the Japanese avant-garde art scene meant exposure to some of its outputs, such as in theater.

And there was the connection to the previous generation (generation here in an artistic sense); both Shōmei Tōmatsu and Eikoh Hosoe were important influences. Moriyama worked with Hosoe when Hosoe was producing his elaborately staged photographs of Yukio Mishima, work that became known as Ordeal by Roses.

As was the case for many photographers at the time, Moriyama worked on a large number of magazine assignments. These provided him with the opportunity to pursue artistic ideas with an almost immediate outlet — magazine spreads — available. In 1967, Tōmatsu assembled a number of previously unconnected magazine work into his book Nippon. The following year, Moriyama did the same to produce his very first book, Japan — A Photo Theater.

Moriyama’s book is generally not seen as a portrait of the country so much as an investigation of photography. I think that’s too simplistic a read. If you ignore the photography aspect, Japan — A Photo Theater lays open the many conflicts over what the country might be or what it might mean to be Japanese. It’s brilliant work, in part because of the fact that the different photographic approaches drive home the point in a visual fashion.

I am very familiar with Japan — A Photo Theater. I own copies of the 1995 and 2011 re-releases, both of which differ in form and printing from the original. In an interview published in Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s and ’70s, Moriyama made it clear that he was interested in what photographs might look like when printed in different ways. “When I first started taking photographs,” he said, “I felt strongly that my photographs come into being via rotary press [like those high-speed printing machines used for printing newspapers]. It is for that reason that I dislike having an exhibition that is made up of photographic prints. […] An actual photographic print creates one type of world that is totally different from the world that comes about from printed matter.”

In a physical sense, this type of thinking extends the idea of the copy of the copy that he spoke of in 1982. A photograph is a copy of the world. Copies of the world are thus out in the world;  they have become part of it. As the copy of a copy of the Moriyama family that he said he was, inspired by Warhol he photographed magazines or posters to create his own copies.

Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective is filled with lavish reproductions of the artist’s most famous work. Having encountered many of the photographs in the context of his books before, seeing them in isolated fashion in the catalogue was an interesting experience for me. I suspect that the hefty black-and-white printing in the catalogue is what many of his admirers would expect to see. For sure, it works very well, making for a visceral experience.

That said, I wouldn’t necessarily want to say that I prefer it over, say, the manga-style printing used in the Kodansha versions of Moriyama’s famous books. If there’s something Moriyama has attempted to teach us, it’s that not all copies have to look exactly alike for them to be interesting. It’s the spirit of the work that matters.

A crucial aspect of the catalogue is provided by a visual index of Moriyama’s magazine work. With Thyago Nogueira’s essay providing the context and background, this index adds an invaluable element to the book. It helps understanding an artist that is (or at least was) considerably more complex than the street photographer he now is. Masako Toda’s essay sheds further light on the photographer.

Those who are interested in a lot more details about Moriyama’s very early, most fruitful period, might want to seek out Philip Charrier’s masterly The Making of a Hunter: Moriyama Daidō 1966–1972. Unfortunately, much like his long essay on Fukase (that explodes many of photoland’s beloved myths about that photographer), it’s hidden behind an academic paywall. It’s Charrier’s essay that had me first look deeper into Moriyama.

In some ways, Moriyama might be compared to the German band Kraftwerk. In a few short years, Kraftwerk produced some of the most important and influential electronic pop music, only to then get completely derailed by digital technology making its entrance. After years of silence, Kraftwerk basically became their own cover band, producing ever more overproduced spectacles of the same songs whose charm previously had been the fact that they didn’t need any spectacle.

If you’re only familiar with the work Daidō Moriyama has done since 1982, you probably have no idea of the richness and breadth of his earlier photography, vast parts of which emerged from a dialogue with a number of incredibly gifted other artists.  Japan — A Photo Theater is as incredible as Bye Bye Photography, even though they’re very different books. The later work pales in comparison to the earlier one, a fact that becomes very clear in Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective. The later work is repetitive, re-producing its own themes and thus turning them into clichés. Daidō Moriyama has become his own cover band, a copy of his own copy.

I’m convinced that Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective is an absolutely essential book, regardless of whether you’re interested in this artist or not. If you’re not, after having looked at it you probably will be interested. At the very least, you will have acquired a vastly expanded appreciation of Moriyama and especially the context of the Japanese photography scene in the 1960s. If you’re already a fan, it’s likely that you will have your thinking around the artist expanded.

Highly recommended.

Daido Moriyama: A Retrospective; ed. Thyago Nogueira; texts by Daidō Moriyama, Thyago Nogueira, Yuri Mitsuda, Masako Toda, Masashi Kohara, Yutaka Kambayashi, Satoshi Machiguchi, Kazuya Kimura; 288 pages; Prestel; 2023

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A Certain Idea of a Natural History Mon, 31 Jul 2023 14:16:32 +0000 Joerg Colberg

In the Western tradition, human beings first placed themselves outside of the realm of the natural world, equating themselves with lesser versions of the gods they believed in, to then proceed to study what they were surrounded with. If everything had remained at the level of studying, things would not have evolved the way they did: the studying went alongside a process of exploitation and extraction.

In fact, these processes were (and still are) so intertwined that it is not clear why they could be discussed separately. Much like technological progress has been tied to military research, exploitation and exploration are two sides of the same coin. In equal measure, the separation between what we could call hard and soft sciences does not hold either. It was the latter, filled with philosophers, “humanists”, and ideologues, that provided the justification for the exploits of the former. The idea of the enlightenment only sounds good if you keep it strictly separate from its actual consequences. Enlightened Westerners colonized vast parts of the world.

We might note that photography has played a huge part in all of this. Once it became available, it was used in service of all of the above. Seemingly only a tool to gather information, it is exactly that gathering that made the exploitation and extraction possible. Almost by construction, photography’s uncanny ability to turn everything and everyone into a visual specimen resulted in vast parts of the world being treated accordingly.

At the same time, there is something to photography that has it attract those whose main impetus is to collect (or hoard). For example, with all of the above in mind the late Bernd and Hilla Becher’s much lauded typologies — collections of photographs of industrial structures, most of which have since disappeared — could be seen as an expression of the Western mindset now ravishing its own corpse.

On the one hand, you can view the grids of water towers or gas tanks as artistic expressions that celebrate a part of human development that has now disappeared. On the other hand, I find it not hard to be struck by the pointlessness of it all: what exactly do we gain from looking how this water tower looks every so slightly different than that water tower as the consequences of centuries of exploiting the natural world are crashing down on us in the form of — and this is the new term — global boiling?

In much the same fashion, I have always been more repulsed than fascinated by the fact that natural-history museums tend to contain stuffed animals or, even worse, animals suspended in fluids in large collections of jars or other receptacles. As a child already, I found so-called dioramas — little constructed stages that contain stuffed animals in a simulation of their natural habitats — ghoulish. I could never understand why you couldn’t just leave those animals where they belonged — instead of first killing and then preserving them so that they could “inhabit” a museum.

Many years later, I struggled to understand photographers’ fascination with such dioramas. On the one hand, they make for handy pictures — someone essentially stages a picture for you; on the other hand, what exactly do you bring to the scene as a photographer? Showing the constructedness and artifice is good, but it’s also very reductive. I don’t think anyone would look at such pictures and suddenly reach a form of satori about natural-history museums (“Oh now I get it! It’s all fake! That never occurred to me!”).

Of all the books I have seen that focus on the above, João Paulo Serafim‘s A Certain Idea of a Natural History goes furthest in terms of trying to bring the various threads together. While it contains a number of photographs from natural-history museums, there are just enough hints of some of the darker aspects of the Western tradition of trying to understand in tandem with exploiting the world (I should add that these come across in the book but not so much in the web page). But I’m also thinking that the work probably could have gone even further in that quest.

In addition, I can’t help but feel that contemporary photography’s currently dominant instinct to produce a certain type of clever stylishness almost by construction keeps things at arm’s length (maybe the most extreme example of what I’m talking about is the work coming out of ECAL). Of course, acquiring such skills is good for photographers who want to move on to produce advertising photography.

But now such advertising photography seeps more and more into photographic institutions. Many young curators love it because it allows them to show work that is critical of certain broadly defined themes without offending the wealthy patrons and corporations that fund the institutions they work at.

Seen this way, this type of photography wouldn’t be neoliberal realism. Instead of propagating neoliberal capitalism, it merely engages in faint token criticism that demonstrates how, you see, libertarians are open to facing the issues (albeit in the most homeopathic fashion). (There probably is a good book to be written about this. If you’re interested in that, you know where/how you can find me.)

Coming back to A Certain Idea of a Natural History, the book might provide a good jump-off point for an artist (or maybe Serafim himself) to bring out the gruesome consequences of Western exploration/exploitation more. There is a picture of Brazil (a former Portuguese colony) with an arrow pointing towards Europe. There also is a stylish studio still life of the ornament that you can find at the front of Jaguar cars. But that picture is then immediately diluted by its placement next to another studio still life.

As an object, A Certain Idea of a Natural History is a very well made production by Hélice Press, a Portuguese publisher I had not heard of until the book arrived in the mail. In particular, I enjoy the attention to detail as far as layout and design are concerned. This works very well. Furthermore, I found the book listed for 25 Euros at an online book shop. I certainly appreciate the combination of a well made photobook that also is very much affordable.

A Certain Idea of a Natural History; photography by João Paulo Serafim; essay by António Guerreiro; 64 pages; Hélice Press, 2022

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We Stay Mon, 24 Jul 2023 14:23:04 +0000 Joerg Colberg

When the German writer Walter Kempowski‘s first massive collection of war-time writing entitled Echolot (Sonar) was published, I couldn’t wait to read it. It centered on a few months around the battle for Stalingrad and the collapse of Nazi Germany’s 6th Army. Finally, I thought, I would be able to understand what Germans had been thinking during the Nazi era. I remember how bewildered I was reading these letters, diary entries, and other records that had been written by a collection of mostly ordinary people. Almost none of these people had anything other than the daily minutiae of their lives in mind, a large collection of what I thought were petty, irrelevant things.

It took me a while to understand that the experience of war cannot be fully communicated. Aspects of it can. But even those register differently for those who actually experienced them and those who merely read about or view them. And I’ve learned that there actually are quite a few seemingly irrelevant details that in actuality can define the difference between life and death. Take for example the patterns of tape that Ukrainians place on their windows that even when the glass shatters from an explosion will prevent it from becoming a set of dangerous projectiles.

It is one thing to make such observations from afar. It’s very much another to live in a country that is under attack. Following its playbook from Syria (where the West stayed quiet about the atrocious war crimes committed), russia has been bombing Ukraine in an indiscriminate fashion, targeting hospitals, air-raid shelters, cultural institutions, religious buildings (this past weekend, Odesa’s Transfiguration Cathedral was attacked with a missile), restaurants, and of course apartment buildings. Occupying russian forces have tortured and murdered civilians willy nilly (this article is worth your time). Furthermore, thousands of Ukrainian children have been kidnapped to russia.

At the very beginning of the war, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy released a short selfie video that showed him and a few members of his cabinet standing in Kyiv at night. “We are all here,” he said, dispelling notions that he would leave the country for a safer location. In the days that followed, millions of Ukrainians did leave their country, seeking refuge all over Europe. Many of them are still stranded abroad. But for many others, the option to leave did not exist; or they decided not to exercise it. Men, of course, were not allowed to leave.

Those who stayed behind have to live life under war conditions, which entails a number of challenges too difficult to imagine for those who have never experienced them. I personally grew up hearing air-raid sirens regularly; but this was every Sunday at noon when they were tested. I never got used to the sound, but I also knew that there were no actual consequences. There would be no explosions. What might it be like to have the real experience instead? I don’t know. I’m unable to imagine.

With We Stay by Lesha Berezovskiy, there now is what I think is the first photobook chronicling the earliest days of war from the perspective of people living in the war zone (if there are other books I am not aware of them). The book shows the photographer, his wife Agata, and a number of friends (plus some strangers) living their lives during the first 13 months of the war. Some of the locations known to those following the war from abroad make an appearance, such as the liberated suburbs of Kyiv and the bridges the Ukrainian army had blown up to protect the country’s capital.

But mostly, the book delivers the experience I first encountered with Kempowski’s book. If as a viewer, you’re only familiar with the news imagery coming from Ukraine, the book might confuse you at first. This is a good confusion, though. After all, photographs are not the best tools to communicate feelings and thoughts. We Stay solves this problem by adding short snippets of text to some of the photographs in the back. These read like diary entries, but they could have also been written after the fact. Either way, they strongly communicate the inner world of the photographer and his friends.

I should note that the text is available in English and in German. There’s a translator listed in the back, but it’s not clear which text actually is the translation (maybe the original was written in Ukrainian and not included?). I’m bringing this up because for some of the snippets, there is a noticeable difference between the English and German text, with the German text including parts that are not present in the English version.

The inclusion of the many portraits and of the text is crucial for the book. This in fact has been one of my recent misgivings about so much of contemporary photography. There’s nothing wrong with a collection of pictures without people. But if you want to communicate a human experience, unpeopled pictures can only do so much.

Furthermore, the book also deftly sets photographs taken outside against Tilmannsian interiors. As already noted, some of the former depict scenes that in the early days of the war made it into the news. These pictures become re-charged through their placement in the vicinity of found still lifes from the comfort of the photographer’s home.

The combined effect points to one of the main reasons why the photobook is such a powerful vehicle for visual communication. The sum of its photographs can become vastly more than the collection of its individual members simply because the pictures manage to create an added charge in each other.

Taken together, We Stay is a book that deserves to be seen widely, in particular in those parts of Europe that still live under the illusion that things on the continent will go back to normal or that enjoy the comfort of their own safety without wanting to do too much for Ukraine (it’s a Swiss publisher…).


(Please note that this article follows the convention used in the book for the spelling of the aggressor country.)

We Stay; photographs and text by Lesha Berezovskiy; 136 pages; Sturm & Drang; 2023

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Україна Yelena Yemchuk Mon, 17 Jul 2023 14:27:56 +0000 Joerg Colberg

If you wanted to, you could divide the world into two parts. One part would contain all those people who are able to control the narrative that surrounds them and who for that reason are in charge of their own destiny. The other part contains all the rest of the people whose story is largely defined by those other people. From what I can tell a much larger fraction of the world is part of the second group. Despite (or rather because of) their enormous privilege, the first group resists changing this situation.

This basic situation plays out on a number of levels, ranging from what on a societal level is microscopic to what’s macroscopic. And it extends far beyond that as well. On the largest possible scale, entire countries are placed into one of these two categories. This fact can have gruesome consequences, as the inhabitants of countries who were or are defined by others know all too well. Colonialism would have been unthinkable without a racist definition being created around regions that were then plundered and pillaged by nations who carried the banner of their own supposed enlightenment.

The war in Ukraine entails not only a literal fight over land. A fight over the definition of what the country actually is forms an essential part of the war. Russia’s fascist dictator claims that there is no such thing as the Ukrainian nation, which somehow translates into a right for Russians to commit mass atrocities. Ukrainians, in contrast, are now struggling to not only survive but also to show the world that there actually is such a thing as a Ukrainian nation with its own very rich culture and history.

But the problem extends far beyond the two countries. More than three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, most Western European countries still have absolutely no understanding of the richness of culture and history between what used to be the Iron Curtain and the border of the country that replaced the Soviet Union as a major power, Russia. It’s probably more than fair to say that in the US such knowledge is even more limited.

For example, German news media still parrot Russian propaganda about Ukraine without even batting an eye. I don’t know whether they’re just clueless or they don’t care (I also don’t know whether the difference matters). And it’s not even Ukraine, whether it’s Poland, Hungary, Latvia or any of the other countries that lie between Germany and Russia — most Germans don’t care to learn more. This obviously isn’t only a German problem. But since I’m German, I prefer to get upset with my own people.

Even as art and culture have been assigned little to no value in our neoliberal world, you can still see their power by the frequent Russian attacks directed at Ukrainian art and culture. Even the most uncultured fascists know that a display of military power and might only translates into a very brittle narrative around a nation, one that topples with very little effort.

Especially if you are an artist (or writer [such as this one]) struggling to make ends meet, you want to remind yourself that there is a value to art that transcends prices realized at auction houses by a huge amount. You won’t be able to pay your bills with it, but you contribute to a larger good that cannot be assessed in financial terms.

Art can play an enormous role in building a narrative around a group of people or a country that corrects one imposed by other groups. In part, this is because good art does not make any claims regarding telling the full story. Instead, you tell your story. This leaves space for uncertainty and for discussions. That’s why such narratives are much longer lasting than those imposed by sheer power. The latter will crumble when challenged just enough. The former allow for openness and for adaptation; they are, in effect, human: full of truths and contradictions at the same time.

You will want to see УYY by Yelena Yemchuk in this context. The book was compiled from a number of previously separate projects by the artist, which include photography and painting. I think it is the intermixing of previously unrelated material that makes the book stand out. Of course, the work was related before in the sense that it was made by the same artist. But typically, separate projects are not intermingled the way it was done in and for this book.

The overall spirit of the book is one of playfulness, albeit an adult’s. Unlike children, adults know of the horrors of the world, and they can incorporate it into their playing, creating unsettling aspects.

I have no way of knowing how I would perceive the book if the war was not going on right now. On the one hand, the war adds a terrible sense of heaviness. I’m imaging the people in the pictures sitting in air-raid shelters, some might serve in the military, yet others might have found temporary homes abroad. I’d rather not imagine that some of them might have been died, say in an apartment building targeted by the war criminals in the Kremlin.

On the other hand, it’s exactly the war that amplifies the book’s overall feeling, namely that there is a rich culture, a culture beyond our simplistic Western understanding. The war lends an urgency to the book: “We are still here.”

Yemchuk’s parents emigrated when the artist was a child, meaning the book was made by someone who essentially re-discovered the country of her birth. While some people might use this fact to contest the importance of the book for Ukraine, I do think that such a discussion would be missing the real point of art. As I said, art is not defined by one truth, and it’s not clear that an insider’s view is automatically preferable over an outsider’s (or here, an outsider-insider’s).

Even as book making is incredibly difficult, given the fact that most photographers and many book makers are part of the precariat that the neoliberal world of photography has created, as a cultural artifact the book has enormous importance. УYY and earlier A Sensitive Education (find my review here) has me excited about seeing more from Départ Pour l’Image, the publisher behind these two books.

I personally am not necessarily very interested in finding the next publisher that will take over as that one hot photobook publisher. Instead, I’m more interested in the whole field expanding out steadily, with previously underrepresented regions filling in blanks in the world map of photobook publishing.

УYY; photography and paintings by Yelena Yemchuk; essay by Luca Reffo; 160 pages; Départ Pour l’Image; 2022

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Hidden under the Amstel Mon, 10 Jul 2023 13:55:38 +0000 Joerg Colberg

One of the biggest disappointments for me as a child was the fact that the city I grew up in didn’t have much of a history. As an adult I now know that there actually was plenty of history for a place that had been founded in the late 19th Century. But children aren’t interested in, say, sailors’ mutinies that lead to revolutions. Instead, they’re interested in castles and knights. There were the remnants of a castle, at least that’s what a plaque said when you stood on top of what was a rather measly hill — both in terms of height and width. But it was said hill that constituted the remnants. The castle, said to have been occupied by pirates that ravaged the North Sea (see, that was exciting history for a young boy), had been razed to the ground centuries earlier. The first sword I saw in one of the small towns nearby barely looked like one, given it had been extracted from rather wet ground, providing me with a lesson that is still very valid for me today: in general humidity isn’t great if you’re interested in preserving things, whether swords (I don’t own any) or books.

As an adult, you’ll never shake all of what excited you as a child, especially not if you’re eager to keep some of the admittedly naive, yet ultimately creative curiosity that children tend to have. I will admit that even though I have by now seen a lot of different places, I still get most excited when I see something old, a place where there were human beings walking around centuries ago. I suppose that it might sound a little trite to write of a connection with those that came before me. But I think that there is a little bit more to it. That connection would be impossible if those human beings had not lived and worked in a community that enabled them to carry it forward (or not: visiting Pompeii left a deep impression in me). It’s possible that I’m writing these words the way I do because I now live in a country where that connection is shallow. While the small town I currently live in is proud of its community, that community pales in comparison to what I know from Europe. And it’s not necessarily a European thing at all. I know that there is a long tradition of civic community in Japan, the one non-Western society that I know more of.

It was by reading Hidden under the Amstel (subtitled — buckle up: Urban Stories of Amsterdam told through archeological finds from the North/South Line) that drove home the point to what extent I am actually not only interested in but also attached to the ideas of civic community and civic pride. If you wanted to see the book as a companion to XXX Stuff (that I reviewed here) I guess you could. That book is a visual catalog of 15,000 items that were unearthed by archeologists when the city of Amsterdam built a new metro line (such infrastructure is part of maintaining a civic community). As I wrote at the time, it’s a brilliant achievement in every way. Hidden under the Amstel is different, though. Instead of “merely” presenting the various finds in an organized fashion, in this book 31 experts (historians, archeologists, and others) present what 107 types of finds mean: how they speak of the daily life of those who owned them and, by extension, how they speak about the city itself and the country at large.

A large part of the reason why this is so fascinating is because for many of the items in question, we don’t actually know all the details. As it turns out, people’s daily lives rapidly fade into obscurity the farther we go back in time. Obviously, written history only remembers famous or important people (where, of course, determining what or who is important forms a large part of the task at hand: that’s where the writing of history becomes political). Everybody else might leave behind no trace other than the items they touched and/or produced during their life time. Hidden under the Amstel dives into this exact aspect of the city’s history: using the 107 types of items, it reveals what they were used for and what the use tells us about life and larger societal circumstances back in the day. Even as my interest in murder mysterious is limited, meaning that I might not be the right person to make the following (trite) observation, I will still make it: in many parts, the book reads like a murder mystery, albeit one where people do not lose their lives.

The many authors manage to make the details of the seemingly most mundane items interesting. For example, I now know a lot more about nails than I thought I’d ever be interested in. Furthermore, I had no idea that in the late 1400s, people would play games with little bones that they’d throw. Annemarieke Willemsen, curator of the Medieval collections at the National Museum of Antiquities  in Leiden, connects the objects with historical writing and with illustrations. For example, back in the day, it was decreed that children weren’t allowed to play with the weighted bones near a church because of the noise and the possible damage to church windows. For most of the items in the book, it’s stories like these that have them come alive again. I’m imaging the sound of animal bones weighted with lead on a cobbled city street, intermingled with the cries and laughter of the children playing with them.

As was the case for XXX StuffHidden under the Amstel was in part conceptualized and then produced by Willem van Zoetendaal. The book is an incredibly beautiful production of modest size but with over 500 pages, filled to the brim with some of the photographs from the older catalogue, with the texts, and with other illustrations from the history of Amsterdam: paintings, etchings, photographs… Reading the book feels a little bit like entering the city’s Wunderkammer, with a trusted expert telling you everything they know about any of the objects on display. It’s not necessarily a photobook in the strictest sense, but then what is a photobook anyway? Why be so insistent on some particular format? It’s true, the photographs play a supporting role here; but without the photographs of these objects (details of which are frequently referred to in the texts) the book wouldn’t work.

Highly recommended.

Hidden under the Amstel; photographs of archeological finds by Harold Strak, with numerous other images and photographs from a variety of sources; 31 authors, ed. J. Gawronski; 2023; Van Zoetendaal

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Un cuerpo escupe sol Mon, 03 Jul 2023 13:50:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg

There’s something interesting about Risograph printing. It has some of the qualities that — if you’re old enough — you might remember from material that had been xeroxed and re-xeroxed too often: there is a definitive lack of contrast, with dark areas losing a lot of definition. On the other hand, the process’ visual rawness itself makes things look very different than, say, a poorly printed photograph on matte paper. The latter merely looks bad. But even a poorly printed Risograph image possesses grit. It feels alive, even if the life on display might not be the one typically seen in the world of photography.

In competent hands, most but crucially not all of the shortcomings of the Risograph process disappear. Because of the screen, there will always be some grit. Because the individual colours in multi-colour print runs never line up perfectly, there always will be a slightly haphazard feel to the images. Because the base colours fall outside of the standard, dominant colours might be ones that aren’t often encountered in CMYK printing. And you can do unconventional things. To get my own images close to what they look like in my book, Travis Shaffer (who produced them) printed a layer of white ink over black.

I’ve maintained for a while that colour photography has lost some of its character in the digital age. With very few exceptions, the colour inkjet prints I encountered in ten years of teaching looked interchangeable. It’s not that they didn’t have character. It’s just that they all had the same character. It wouldn’t be impossible to achieve the same effect with a Risograph machine, but you would have to work really hard on that. The machine basically forces you to consider what you want things to look like, with — and this is where it gets interesting — the high-resolution, “life-like” look that presses so much colour inkjet printing into the same uniform not being available.

I recently bought a couple of Risograph books, and I think they both work really well. Sébastien Girard produced Samuel Fosso’s African Spirits. This is a rather large publication. It’s maybe a tad too large for my taste (where and how to store it properly?). But it’s very nice. I also ordered a copy of Theo Elias’ Fåglarna, produced by Édition Bessard. I’m usually not that much into this type of photography — diaristic snapshots around traveling, but the production really makes this work shine here. You end up with an interesting mix of a photobook and a zine, with the best aspects of both coming together.

Even as the following amounts to comparing apples and oranges, my favourite recent Risograph book is Ana Lía Orézzoli‘s Un cuerpo escupe sol. Of these three books, it’s the one that embraces the format “book” the most. It’s a handmade accordion (or leporello) book that features both black-and-white printing and colour. The colours mostly fall into the same spectrum of orange, brown, yellow, and pink.

If you want to treat the individual segments of the accordion as pages (why not?), individual images might occupy any number of pages between one and four. Thus if you look at the book the way you’d look at one with separate pages, you might only see part of a photograph. Obviously, you can always unfold a larger section to take in more. Furthermore, on its verso (remember, an accordion book has two distinct sides) the book has a short piece of text unfold (in Spanish; Ana kindly sent along an English translation).

If what can make dreaming so strange it’s the fact that the logic under which it operates differs so much from what we are familiar with from being awake, then it is that type of logic that dominates the sequence of images in Un cuerpo escupe sol. Were there no logic to a dream, it would not have the potential of being unsettling. To call the book that, unsettling, isn’t quite right, though. If the word would not be so sadly overused in the world of art, I’d adopt it here: uncanny.

In the world of the photobook, there is an equivalent to the lack of character that I spoke of when I mentioned most colour inkjet prints. It’s the container-approach to book making that I mentioned here several times. This particular book provides a good example of the exact opposite. This is a book that you will remember in part for its unique character. As an artist, that’s what you want.

I should also note the fact that Ana is based in Peru. One of the beauties of the photobook is that it’s an affordable piece of art that you can make available to people all over the world. As an object, Un cuerpo escupe sol is relatively small and light, which helps keeping shipping rates down and which should help finding interested buyers far away.

Hopefully, there is no need to reiterate that the world of photography — still very much dominated by Western players — can only benefit from having more voices contribute to the conversation and share what they have made. The photobook can play an important part in that process.

All of this combines to Un cuerpo escupe sol being a book that anyone serious about the photobook might want to consider as an addition for their collection. I’m sure that Ana will be happy to send out more copies to people all over the world.

Highly recommended.

Un cuerpo escupe sol; photographs and text by Ana Lía Orézzoli; unpaginated (accordion format); self-published; 2023

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A Sense of Longing Mon, 26 Jun 2023 13:19:29 +0000 Joerg Colberg

As a species that prides itself in either its enlightened values or its own spirituality, we betray a stunning lack of compassion. That lack is in no way compatible with either those values or with the core tenets of the religions we profess to adhere to. While our lack of compassion appears to be erupting more and more into public view — as one very drastic example you might take the callousness with which the European Union lets migrants drown in the Mediterranean Sea, nowhere is it more pronounced than in our relationship with the rest of the fauna that, and this is where it all starts, we don’t even see ourselves as part of: animals.

Very few people appear to have any understanding that animals are not merely plants that happen to be moving about, devoid or maybe incapable of all feeling and interior life. Anyone who has ever spent time with an animal and has tried to establish a deeper relationship with it knows very well how complex it can be. There is a simple reason why, say, people who live with cats or dogs attribute personalities to all of them. Not only that, those people also know the differences in personalities very well. Furthermore, they understand that a relationship between a human being and an animal is not a one-way affair.

I should say that I can’t and won’t pretend that I personally am without my flaws when it comes to animals. I’ve lived long enough by now to know that trying to adhere to some extreme standards not only sets you up for a rather miserable life, it also makes you a pretty annoying person to deal with. My approach has been based around the idea of trying to get better in the mid and long term, while trying to be mindful and compassionate on a daily basis.

Furthermore, I should add that I have one rule for this site: I will not look at or review photography that is made around animal abuse. Over the years, I’ve received a number of books around, say, hunting. They went straight into the recycling bin.

One of the main problems is that people take their own species’ capabilities as the measuring stick with which to assess animals. Whatever is observed in an animal is inevitably compared to the properties of human beings. It’s easy to see how that approach can only serve to maintain the hierarchical relationship that forms the basis of what ultimately comes down to a self-defeating approach to the natural world. Animals are cruelly exploited — where they are not ignored and left to fend for themselves. It’s only when an important animal species is suddenly imperiled — such as when there’s a huge drop in the honey-bee population that we need for our food production, that people start to worry.

There are some signs of hope, though. To be honest, I don’t expect to see a drastic change in our attitude towards animals in my life time. But there is a growing awareness that our exploitation of animals is wrong for more reasons than one, which is tied with a slowly growing interest in products that are not produced from animals. For example, about ten years ago, it was impossible for me to find products that mimic meat at a local supermarket. I would have to go to an alternative location — maybe a local co-op — to pick up something that was, well, really terrible. Now, even the most bargain-oriented supermarket carries products that are actually often very, very good.

Recently, there has been an uptick in photography made around animals as more intelligent and sentient beings. This uptick has now resulted in a number of photobooks. To begin with, there is Yana Wernicke‘s Companions, which appears to have been widely noted in Europe since its release. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of the book, so I am unable to write anything more about it.

Francesca Todde‘s A Sensitive Education was already published in 2020. It’s probably fair to say that none of us wants to remember that particular year. If this was the time when you had a photobook published, you’d be pretty close to releasing it into a vacuum (much like online writing actually). But the copy of the book on my desk is part of the second edition, released in 2021. The first edition (300 copies) must have sold out rather quickly.

As an aside, I really appreciate the fact that there is a second edition. Book publishing is an iffy business. You never know how many books you might sell, especially if your book is the very first of a new imprint (as is the case with this book). If you’re able to sell out an edition then I think you ought to be producing a second edition. I realize that that’s extra work. But if you prefer not to have a second edition, your goal is basically twofold.

First, you deny all those people who would love to have a copy of the book the chance to get one. Second, you cater to what I think is one of the worst aspect of the world of the photobook, wealthy collectors trying to get an investment (that, possibly, can be flipped for a lot of money later). You’re basically replicating the basic mechanism of the art world (creating fake scarcity), while defeating one of the most central aspects of the photobook, namely the fact that it’s (usually) affordable and thus a lot more democratic than photographic prints.

Back to the book: At the end of A Sensitive Education, there is a cast of characters, which includes Mildred, a white stork that, we are told, “considers Tristan her partner.” Tristan, in turn, is the sole human in the book, a bird educator. “Despite this strong attachment, Mildred has so fa refused the invitation to move house with him, heedless of Tristan’s efforts to build a new next and move her eggs.” There also is Bayo, a crow, who “knows Tristan better than anybody else”, Elypse, a black kite, and a number of other birds. I love that they’re all presented as their own idiosyncratic characters.

What struck me most about the book was the very strong sense of tranquility it exudes. I suppose that you have to remain still if you want to photograph birds, less you startle them. But that’s not really what I mean. Instead, there is something almost otherworldly that emanates from the photographs, as if one were in the presence of a completely different world that somehow has found a place somewhere in the middle of ours. Of course, in a literal sense, Tristan’s is that, a different world, given that he does not approach these animals the way I described above.

But it is one thing to understand that engaging with animals on a different, yes: deeper level can lead to a different world. It’s quite another for a photographer to be able to capture this in a visual fashion. The tenderness that runs through all of the photographs for sure contributes a great deal to this. There also are the smart choices made for the book itself. It’s a modest production (a side effect of which is that the book is very much affordable) that, however, combines a number of smart choices in terms of layout and production. As any very good photobook should do, its production choices enhance the work on display and draw the viewer into the world on display.

“They” — they being stray dogs in Palermo, Charlotte Dumas concludes the short afterword of her A Terra, “make me think about our mortality and about the space we occupy in regard to others, individually and as humans alongside other sentient beings. About what it means to belong, to a pack and to a species. I feel a sense of longing observing these dogs that together form a collective body, gentle and humble.” (you can read the full text on the publisher’s website)

There is a hand petting a dog on the cover of the book, presumably the photographer’s. On the back, there is the face of a dog, the dog the back of whose head we see on the front cover. You always need a good picture on the cover of your book, one that does two jobs at the same time. First, it has to help sell the book. Second, it should strongly communicate the idea of the book. Interestingly, while this particular picture can be found in the book — it’s shown on the title page, it differs in form from all the other photographs. Those show mostly individual dogs lying in the streets of Palermo.

But crucially, the cover picture of A Terra communicates the spirit of the book, a spirit that is pervaded by compassion for these stray dogs. In fact, any dog might be shown more than once in a given spread (or, in fact, in the whole book). In a very traditional sense, where a photographer takes a number of pictures and then proceeds to select the “strongest one” (whatever that might mean), this approach is unphotographic. But here, it only re-enforces the fact that this particular photographer approaches animals with a heightened awareness of what they are: sentient beings.

I’m thinking that in this particular case, if as a viewer you don’t already possess at least a modicum of such an understanding, then you will see the book merely as a typology of sorts of dog pictures. In other words, you would miss the book’s point completely. And I think that would circle back to the underlying problem, namely the fact that so many people are incapable of thinking about anything on this planet merely as something to exploited for their own purposes, larger realities be damned.

Survival of our species will only be possible if we manage to toss that approach over board. As I wrote, I have no hopes of seeing such a change in my life time. But that doesn’t mean that I think that it is impossible to achieve. It will have to start out on the smallest level, the individual one. This includes more photographers making work like Yana Wernicke, Francesca Todde, and Charlotte Dumas. There is a lot to be gained on a personal level. As these books demonstrate, there is a lot to be gained on a larger level as well.

A Sensitive Education; photographs by Francesca Todde; text by Francesca Todde and Luca Reffo; 112 pages; Départ Pour l’Image; 2020 (2021 2nd ed.)

A Terra; photographs and text by Charlotte Dumas; 48 pages; Van Zoetendaal; 2023

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Whose Responsibility? Tue, 13 Jun 2023 14:17:15 +0000 Joerg Colberg

During my recent stay in Budapest, I participated in the third Work in Context Symposium at MOME. Its theme was responsibility. My contribution ended up coalescing around a number of things that had been on my mind for a while but that up until then I hadn’t connected. The following essay is based on my talk.

If you think about photography and the way it might be talked about, discussions typically fall into one out of two possible models. I don’t mean to imply that occasionally there might not be more nuance. But more often than not, things boil down to what in effect are two very simplistic ways to treat photographs and their makers.

The first model is the artistic-genius model. In this model, the photographer is an artist and s/he is a genius. As a brief aside, I should note that the artistic-genius model is not confined to photography and that is is incredibly problematic for all kinds of reasons. There now is more and more writing around the topic. If you’re curious, maybe start with Cody Delistraty’s article.

In the world of photography, the artistic-genius model is often used as follows: “I, the maker of these pictures can do whatever I want, because it’s art”. Most commonly, you see this expressed more or less literally when, for example, a photojournalist decides to do something that violates her or his profession’s rules (here’s a recent — very cringey — example).

There obviously is something to be said for an artist violating the ordinary rules of a culture, to possibly have that culture explore its own blind spots, ideas, or themes that it would rather not look at.

I don’t think, though, that that’s what the people who use the “artist/art” defense typically have in mind. Instead, they use a very simplistic idea of what art might be to try to construct a defense around their practice. That art itself does follow rules and ideas and that art can and should be criticized rigourously typically is excluded from discussions where “oh, it’s art” is brought up.

We might also note that even though artists can violate rules, that doesn’t necessarily mean that artists occupy a position outside of all ethical or other considerations. To begin with, all artists operate following the tradition of their medium (or possibly against it). But given that art often challenges a society, it can only do so by acknowledging the society’s larger sets of rules in some fashion. An artist who is completely untethered from that would be unable to do so. Thus why should artists be exempt from ethical considerations?

Obviously, you might argue that the artist and their work need to be seen separately. If we ignore the fact that this approach is mostly commonly invoked when some ethical dilemma pops up — more often than not, it’s used to defend transgressive (usually male) artists, strictly speaking the work cannot have emerged from the vacuum it is supposed to be now considered in. It would seem to me that to insist on a strict separation of artist and their work is just as naive an approach as to say that the artist is identical with the work.

There is a flip side to the artistic genius as well. In our neoliberal world, artists have taken on the roles previously enjoyed (if that’s the word) by court jesters. They are a part of our world, and they are acknowledged for that. They might say or show — you can just imagine the pearl clutching, parts of it is usually performative — outrageous things. Most importantly, they are financially supported by those in power: the rich.

But that’s where it all ends. Art today doesn’t really have any power left. Its role is to adorn the lives of the rich, to allow them to flaunt their societal finesse. The German art critic Wolfgang Ulrich wrote a very good book about this, which, alas, has not yet been translated into English: Siegerkunst.

The second model is the photographer model. In this model, the person who took the picture or pictures under consideration is 100% and exclusively responsible for what they depict. I’m sure that you have seen this model in action, too. It is widely used when people get upset over a picture taken by a photojournalist. How could they take the picture instead of intervening or of magically doing something that would have prevented what is being depicted in the picture? How dare they!

There’s no need to dive further into this model. It’s extremely obvious how naive and misguided such an approach to photography is. And yet it is frequently used.

If you look at these two models, they have one thing in common, and that’s the important aspect here. Both models absolve the viewer of any responsibility whatsoever. If there’s a picture that somehow triggers a larger public debate and if there is a problem, it’s the photographer’s fault. If they can sell themselves as an artistic genius then, well, they get out of jail for free. If they can’t then they’re fucked. They — and only they — are to blame for what is on view in the picture.

As societies, we have created a mechanism that shields us from having to face the consequences of our actions, however indirect these actions might be. When made to face a photograph of these consequences, we can offload the problem onto the picture, and this always means: onto the photographers.

From my somewhat polemic description in the above, you can probably see easily why all of this is a huge problem. In effect, as societies, we have created a mechanism that shields us from having to face the consequences of our actions, however indirect these actions might be. When made to face a photograph of these consequences, we can offload the problem onto the picture, and this always means: onto the photographers.

Obviously, there are cases where this approach makes sense. Plenty of photographers are to blame for what’s on view in their pictures. But if the default for any discussion around photography is one where everything is always the photographer’s fault, then it’s easy for photographers to play the artist-genius or victim card (the most recent version of the latter is by claiming “cancel culture”).

But those cases aren’t the ones that get wide play. The cases that get wide play center on the large crises we’re facing. Often, they’re photojournalistic images. In many cases, an ensuing discussion around the photography (which sadly enough is often encouraged by the photojournalism crowd that still has to shed its adherence to sheer bravado) deflect the viewers’ responsibilities for what is on view.

So instead of, for example, talking about the European Union’s failures to address their migrant crisis, instead people discuss a picture of a dead Kurdish toddler on a beach and wonder whether the picture will change anything. Well, no, because excessive talk about the picture alone doesn’t address the core issue: the glaring lack of empathy and compassion that’s driving the European Union (and that means: vast parts of its citizenry).

In the above, I have focused on discussions around photography on purpose. While I do believe that in photoland we’re in desperate need of smarter and intellectually more rigourous and vigourous discussions around photography, as photographers to automatically take on all responsibility for photographs and, crucially, to let viewers — society — pretend that they have no role in what happens when photographs are shown is a very, very bad idea.

In other words, discussions around responsibility in photography have to involve the responsibilities of the audience. First of all, photographers are members of the societies and cultures they live in. Being a photographer does not mean that somehow magically, that connection gets severed. Even if as a photographer you don’t see it that way, you always are a maker and a viewer, and as a viewer you are a member of some group or society.

The very media that use photography have been of no help. When in doubt, they’ll happily offload their own responsibilities onto the photographer. To give just one example, I stopped counting how often the New York Times ended up exclusively blaming a photographer for material they published (essentially throwing them under the bus) — as if the newspaper didn’t employ photo editors and other editors and had a huge role in all of this.

Another problem embedded in all of the above is the way we see and treat photographs. Somehow, we have turned them into these strange cultural artifacts that have magical power. I don’t think that we treat any other cultural artifact that way. When you look at how photographs are being discussed, it’s almost as if they had a consciousness of their own — at least that’s what I take away from many discussions. But they don’t.

In fact, I personally don’t even believe that a photograph means anything until it is seen by someone. And a photograph might ultimately be completely irrelevant in the sense that it matters infinitely more that it was shared than that it was made or what it looks like.

Given that we live in the day and age of fake news, and given that the tech crowd has now brought us what they call “artificial intelligence”, we might as well get to a better understanding of how photographs do what they do quickly.

The fact that many people believe in what they want to believe in — instead of “the facts” — is now widely understood. And yet, we still discuss photographs as if people would study form and content and then come to the logical conclusions that those “facts” lead them to. But that’s not how most photographs are being treated and understood.

As members of photoland, we’re unlikely to be able to change the societies we’re embedded in, especially if, as I’ve argued many times before, we keep insisting on remaining in the bubble we’re in. With the above, I intended to demonstrate that we actually have a lot to gain from a deeper engagement with our societies.

To begin with, we are members of them, whether we like it or not. But we also are currently stuck with a very simplistic approach when these societies look at our photographs. That approach doesn’t serve us well, and it also doesn’t serve our societies well at all.

If we want our photographs to have an effect, we will have to find ways to get past the way they are currently being treated and discussed. This means rejecting the usually simplistic ways photographs are being discussed. It also means rejecting sole responsibility for what they show.

If we want our photographs to have an effect, we will have to find ways to get past the way they are currently being treated and discussed. This means rejecting the usually simplistic ways photographs are being discussed. It also means rejecting sole responsibility for what they show.

But this approach cuts both ways. Photographers also seriously need to reconsider the use of phrases such as “I’m an artist” or “I’m a storyteller” (the latter almost always includes the implied but unspoken adjective “privileged”). Placing yourself outside of the society you operate in ultimately won’t do much for you. Insisting on the preciousness of your pictures won’t help, either.

If photographers want to get a better deal as far as their own responsibility is concerned, if, in other words, they want their societies to accept their own and usually far larger share of responsibility of what’s on view in pictures, then that means erasing many of the barriers that historically have been set up between those who take the pictures and those who view them. Those barriers have long stopped making sense anyway.

Most crucially, though, photographers need to have the guts to expect responsibility from their societies. What this could look like isn’t clear to me. This probably might require a number of new approaches that transcend traditional models (galleries/museums, fancy art books).

I know one thing, though. If — and this is just some random example — you make photographs around refugees or migrants and you then exhibit those pictures in a museum or fancy art gallery, or you make an expensive art book that people outside your bubble won’t buy, then that’s not going to change a thing, regardless of how much curators or critics talk this up.

Thus, the above not only concerns photographers but everyone who is active in photoland. In a world that is overwhelmed with a stunning number of problems (climate change, inequality, fascism, genocidal wars, and more), a world where photographs are the main currency of communication the professional world of professional photography has become oddly mute and irrelevant.

We need to do better.

Glückauf Mon, 12 Jun 2023 13:09:45 +0000 Joerg Colberg

It’s probably fair to say that many photographers have a very limited understanding of what photobook publishers actually do. They think that they give them their book (in some dummy form), and the publisher then merely prints and distributes it. While they actually do take care of printing and distribution, even for those publishers that with very good material consistently produce the most boring and unattractive books (think Aperture) such thinking vastly underestimates the actual task at hand.

But then a lot of publishers don’t seem to understand their task at hand, either. Or rather, many of them treat book publishing as pouring books into a container where if there are any considerations about what the end result might look like, it’s thinking about the paper stock and/or making sure it’s printed with rare-earth minerals at some high-end printing house.

The end result of the container-approach contains two aspects. First, the resulting books are not really in conversation with contemporary book making. Second, almost inevitably the books end up being rather expensive, essentially making them collectors items for rich people.

The socio-economic aspect is bad enough. I’d be happy to argue that to a fairly large extent it accounts for the misery photobook makers in general are finding themselves in. If you make photobooks for other photographers or that very small number of rich collectors it’s very difficult to sustain your business, given that you’re essentially aiming at a very limited market with close to zero growth. You can go to photobook fairs all you want: you won’t be growing your audience, given that people outside of the bubble you’re in tend not to show up there.

But the other aspect if more interesting for me both as someone who looks at photobooks and as someone who critically writes about them. As that person with those two roles, I expect photobooks to be in conversation with contemporary photobook making.

What I mean by this is that a photobook produced in 2023, the year I’m writing this, should not look like a book that came out of, say, 1970 or 1980 — especially not given that photobook typically aspire to be art objects. Instead, a photobook produced in 2023 should look like a book produced in, well, 2023. It’s really that simple.

Even if inevitably there are fads in the world of photobook making, photobook publishers should feel the need to embrace what contemporary photobook making has to offer. Even if you think of your photobook merely as a container for someone’s pictures, there are many ways for the resulting book to look at least somewhat contemporary.

After all, regardless of whether you understand this fact or not, the object book itself does quite a bit of the lifting. A well-made book — and by this I mean a lot more than heavy paper stock plus thick printing — communicates its own relevance. It calls attention to itself as the object you can put onto your book shelf or hold in your lap. I often think that this aspect of the book is completely underappreciated: it has to be beautiful itself.

A lot of photographers worry about this aspect, fearing that if the book itself gets any attention, then what about their pictures? Shouldn’t it be all about the pictures? But if you’re so insecure about your pictures, why even make a book at all? And you’re also completely missing this one very important aspect of a well-made book: it elevates the material inside, the pictures. And that’s what you want, even if you don’t think that your photographs need that.

Yet again, Hans Gremmen has produced an example of what an incredibly well-made book can look like, a book that manages to look and feel contemporary (even though the photographs themselves were taken decades ago), a book that simply is elegant and beautiful as an object, a book that helps to vastly elevate the material — here: not just the pictures themselves but also materials produced by the photographer in the form of contact sheets, work prints, etc. The book is called Gluckauf, it contains photographs by Bertien van Manen, and it’s available through Hans’ publishing house FW:Books.

As you might be able to infer from the title, the book contains photographs taken in a number of mining locations all over the world. The photographer herself grew up in a mining area in the Netherlands. For the photographs, she traveled to the UK, to what was then Czechoslovakia and now is the Czech Republic, the United States, and to Russia. The material itself is somewhat heterogeneous with its mix of colour and black-and-white pictures and the inclusion of video stills.

For the presentation, the simplest possible solution was chosen: the material is presented as separate groupings. There are short sections of different material that are placed in between most of the groupings. The visual materials (contact sheets and pictures of work prints) are printed on black paper, using silver ink. (I don’t really want to spell it out, but I might as well: coal is black… You get the idea.) There are are extensive notes by the photographer from her trip to the Appalachian Mountains; these are reproduced on white paper.

For the work from the Czech Republic, images of completely destroyed landscapes that resemble an actual war zone, the photographs wrap around the pages. Fragments of the same image typically find themselves in different spreads. Again, this is a very nifty choice: the already fractured landscape is broken up even further visually, and the often stark juxtapositions of the fragments in each spread drive home the sheer destructiveness of the industry itself. This is photobook making at its finest.

The landscapes aside, the bulk of the pictures centers on people, often photographed in the comfort of their own homes. There is an intense sense of kinship emanating from these pictures. Even as Van Manen was a stranger for her subjects, time and again the daughter of an engineer in the Dutch state mines managed to establish a deep rapport with the people she decided to portray.

As a viewer, you can tell how deeply the photographer cared for the people who ended up in her pictures. I’m almost tempted to think that the pictures themselves weren’t so much the point of the meetings, even if in retrospect and as outside viewers they are the only things we now have access to.

But it’s incredibly refreshing to see work where you can see how a photographer cared deeply for the people in front of her camera. Instead of treating them as raw material for her work, they became an integral part of the photographer’s life. In fact, somewhere in the later parts of the book, Van Manen herself can be found in one of the photographs, blending in seamlessly: she’s sharing coffee and sweets with a group of people, and a woman named Galina is looking at her with a relaxed smile.

All of this makes Gluckauf an absolutely essential photobook. Especially the container-book crowd might want to look at what the photobook has to offer when a publisher is willing and able to embrace the many possibilities of contemporary photobook making.

Highly recommended.

Gluckauf; photographs and text by Bertien van Manen; texts by Fabian de Kloe/Patricia van den Ende and Marcia Luyten; 168 pages; FW:Books; 2023

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Against Narrative Mon, 05 Jun 2023 13:29:20 +0000 Joerg Colberg

There can be no doubt that the current trend of narrative-based photobooks has led to an increased understanding of what photographs do when they are placed into a context designed to communicate a larger story. In the most extreme case, a photograph might do more than one thing. It might communicate something on its own. But in the company of others, it might take on a different meaning.

In light of the latter, placing photographs next to other photographs to explore their communicative potential always is a good idea. Even as comparisons of photography with other forms of art are problematic, given that superficial similarities might deceive one to misunderstand one’s photography (see all the comparisons to poetry), maybe we could say that placing photographs next to other photographs is comparable to exploring resonance in music: will, and obviously I mean this in a metaphorical sense, another photograph be able to make this one vibrate, possibly in ways previously unforeseen?

On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that the narrative approach to photobook making has now gone too far. Over the past few years, I have been receiving regular questions along the lines of “do I need a narrative?” These questions typically come from photographers who have been quietly amassing their work, only to be confounded by how the photobook itself is currently being discussed.

For those of us who are older and who have seen more than one fad come and go, it’s easy to dismiss the question. Of course, you don’t need a narrative in your work. But imagine being a young photographer, fresh in school. Imagine that you’re photographing landscapes or maybe portraits. Or maybe you’re making abstract work. Imagine the excitement of looking into the potential of photography, possibly for the first time in your life having your heart go faster — only to realize that seemingly everybody is using pictures in ways that yours won’t work in. Then what?

I think you can see how this poses a pretty large problem for these photographers. It’s one thing to have ample experience with books and to be able to navigate the various pitfalls created by them. It’s quite another to be such a young photographer. This is someone who experiences photography’s creative potential in a way that us old hands simply (and sadly) don’t get to enjoy any longer. But this is also someone for whom the number of possibilities are bewildering, someone in need of gentle and useful guidance towards a deeper understanding of the medium.

Please note that I’m using the term “young” mostly in a metaphorical sense. Even as many of these photographers are biologically young, someone whose experience with photography starts at a much later age might easily experience the same confusion.

The most immediate solution to the problem is simple: as critics and especially educators, it’s our responsibility to carry everyone — and not just those who happen to follow along the idea of narrative-based photography and photobook making.

At the same time, there is another problem with narrative-based work. Especially if you focus too much on your supposed narrative before you have even finished photographing your work, you run the rather large risk of shoehorning your work into a very predictable and usually very shallow corner. After all, the nearest narrative is always only a few obvious pictures away, possibly after some short and equally obvious snippets of text plus some vernacular materials have been added.

Thus, what we’re currently witnessing is not only a fad. We’re also witnessing a deluge of very simplistic photobooks that work well enough but that — let’s face it — nobody needs to look at more than once. I won’t given any examples, I’m sure you can easily think of many on your own.

Working with narrative can thus also be a trap for those attracted to it: easy solutions — in fact: solutions that are too easy — make themselves available too quickly and too conveniently. A narrative-based approach too easily shortcuts the true creative potential of photography. It offers the simple and easy solution one can think of at the very beginning as a good outcome, allowing for the work to follow a simplistic and shallow script.

Instead, though, good photography arrives at its conclusion only after a typically large set of trials and errors. “Fail again,” Samuel Beckett decreed,  “fail better.” That process isn’t necessarily enjoyable — at least not at every point of its journey. But it is only through this type of process that more complex narratives as much as more complex narrative-free photography projects are developed. You’ll have to allow for your own work — the pictures you take — to outsmart your own ideas.

How do you do that? Well, you don’t think about narrative at all when you start your work. Narrative is the great attractor of simplicity when it’s being placed at the beginning of the creative process.

And again, as critics and educators, but also as photographers, it’s our job to discuss the work we’re made to see in a fashion that will call out those simplistic solutions for what they are — instead of mindlessly celebrating each and every narrative-based book (especially if it comes wrapped with the usual design- and production-based bells and whistles).

In the end, the lack of criticality that I perceive in the community hurts us all. It makes the job of those young photographers much too hard when in fact it should be our collective duty to help them develop their work. And it also makes the fad of narrative a lot more shallow than it needs to be.

If you enjoyed this article, please consider subscribing to my Patreon. There, you will find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more. For those curious, there now is the possibility of a trial membership for seven days.

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See you in June! Sun, 30 Apr 2023 17:38:23 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I’m going to be out of town almost all of May, teaching in Budapest (Hungary). Consequently, this site is going to be on hiatus. I’ll be back with regular programming in early June.

Meanwhile, I will continue posting new articles on my Patreon. There, you can find exclusive articles, videos, and audio guides about the world of the photobook and more.

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

Thank you for your support!

Conversations about Germany: Thomas Weski Mon, 24 Apr 2023 15:25:58 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Late in 2022, Michael Schmidt‘s Ein-heit, which had been long out of print, was reissued. The book is not only a masterpiece of photobook making, it also directly addresses what has remained Germany’s most monumental historical event over the course of the past 50 years, the unification of West and East Germany. With the many historical images used throughout the book, vast parts of the country’s history in the 20th Century are addressed, including World War 2 and the Holocaust. Furthermore, the different types of government under which Germans lived can be found in the book as well.

Up until Schmidt’s Waffenruhe — published roughly a decade earlier — and the 1996 Ein-heit, unlike their artistic peers — writers, painters, movie makers — German photographers had largely avoided dealing with their country’s history. How or why I still don’t understand, and I find it reprehensible. Unfortunately, Schmidt died in 2014, meaning that there is no opportunity for me to speak with him about these particular books and his thoughts about the country and history they were dealing with.

Thomas Weski was a close collaborator of Schmidt’s, and he has been in charge of the Michael-Schmidt-Archiv. He curated the retrospective that traveled to a number of major European museums and he produced the catalogue. Thomas also initiated the re-release of some of Schmidt’s books, of which Ein-heit is the latest example.

Given how close they were, I approached Thomas to see whether I could get insight into some of the things I was interested in. He kindly agreed to speak to me over Zoom in February this year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and it was translated from its original German.

Jörg Colberg
I am currently working on a project that revolves around German photographers who have dealt or are dealing with contemporary German history. After the Second World War, there were writers like Heinrich Böll or painters like Gerhard Richter or Anselm Kiefer who dealt with German history. In photography, however, for a long time nothing happened. I have always been curious about that. Michael Schmidt was one of the first and most important photographers to deal with this history in Waffenruhe and Ein-heit. You knew Michael. You are also mentioned in the book. That’s why I wanted to talk to you.

Waffenruhe was published in 1987. Two years later, in 1989, the Wall came down. Suddenly, the book had become something completely different. It almost became a document because it dealt with something that had now ended. How did Michael react to the fall of the Wall?

Thomas Weski
Unfortunately, I don’t know where Michael was when the Wall fell. So I can only speak for myself. I was very surprised the morning after the Wall came down, because I hadn’t even noticed it the night before. At breakfast I followed the coverage first on the radio, then on TV, and of course later at work it was the main topic. For the time being, Michael had lost the topic of his life with the fall of the Wall.

However, he did photograph the process of change, the signs of dissolution, and the visible removal of the border installations in Berlin. He spent a lot of time in the former area of the Wall, now an empty zone in the middle of the city that had a dystopian character all of its own.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, 89/90, ©Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, 89/90, ©Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, 89/90, ©Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

From this work, the book 89/90 emerged. However, he only published it in 2010 for the exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, which I curated. So there was a delay of 20 years. Before that, the work lay dormant in his archive. But in parallel to the project he later called 89/90 he started working on Ein-heit. He immediately took advantage of the situation by traveling to East Germany to photograph there. He also went to East Berlin. There were some photographers who regretted that the Wall had fallen. That was not the case with him. But I don’t really have a clear answer for your question.

I have always read Waffenruhe as on the one hand a documentary work describing the past. On the other hand, though, Waffenruhe voices a premonition in addition to an atmospheric psychogram of the still-divided city. I find it interesting that he addressed this theme with its different aspects at this particular point in time in a way that goes beyond a depiction of the concrete situation and that formulates something like an artistic conception. I always had the feeling that West Berlin photographers tried to photograph the city without the Wall in order to achieve something universal, metropolitan, rather than something specific, uniquely historical. There were only a few photographers who dealt directly with the Wall. For example, at the end of the 1970s, the Berlin photographer Hans W. Mende walked and photographed the entire course of the Wall in his project Grenzbegehung – 161 Kilometer in West Berlin [Border Walks – 161 kilometers in West Berlin]. But in the world of photography, apart from Michael no one dealt with the psychological significance of this dividing wall. In literature that did happen, I’m thinking of Uwe Johnson or Peter Schneider, for example.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Waffenruhe, 1987, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

Michael always worked a focus on on projects, didn’t he?

Yes. In the catalogue of the retrospective you can see that well. There, we listed the various groups of works chronologically. At the beginning of his photographic work there were commissions. Michael adopted that structure for his artistic work. He always worked on very clearly defined projects that were limited in terms of time and topic. He maintained this way of working, which also gave him a structure for his everyday life, throughout his whole life.

For each project, he changed or evolved the particular method he used to approach the particular subject matter photographically. This is an aspect of his work that younger photographers find interesting. It’s a constant pulling back, questioning, finding new approaches, and not an implementation of a successful method all throughout one’s life. It’s taking risks and accepting failure — otherwise, there is no growth of the artistic work itself. Time and again, Michael was impatient and dissatisfied with himself. His goal was to always find a specific and unique form of expression for the themes we has working on.

Working on Ein-heit he added the photographing of historical documents..

There already is an image that shows a photograph of a photograph in Waffenruhe. That was the beginning of his appropriation of images that had already been disseminated through the media. The Siemens Kulturprogramm, for which I was working at the time, financed Ein-heit. I was responsible for the project there, so I visited him regularly to work with him as he was developing the project. There was a phase where he was doing a lot of these photographs of photographs. So I was a bit afraid that he would get stuck in a pure repro project. Around that time, Richard Prince also started talking about sampling, meaning ways of artistically re-appropriating existing visual material in the style of music-production techniques. For a while, I was worried that Michael might be getting into a too fashionable direction. So sometimes I was a little concerned when I went back to Munich from these Berlin visits, wondering where things were going.

I once succinctly called these pictures “repros”. He immediately sharply rejected the notion of reproduction, saying “I take photos of photos. For a portrait I need a person to work with, I need a building for an architectural picture. And so here I use a photo for a photo.” To be honest, in the beginning I didn’t really understand that for him a printed image was part of reality and thus could be a subject for a photograph. He found historical motifs in books he bought at flea markets or second-hand bookshops. He then decontextualised them in his photographs by cropping them extremely in such a way that they take on a completely new meaning and, moreover, are resolved as an image.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

There is an image showing a group of young people. The American art historian Michael W. Jennings wrote about it that they were members of Kommune 1 in West Berlin. But instead it is an FDJ party meeting with young students somewhere in the GDR. Michael took a very small part from of the group picture. This way, the picture opens up. It detaches itself from the historical situation and becomes open to individual interpretation. This is the method that he then applied when photographing photographs.

By chance, I was made to look at this the other day. I came across the source material of one of his pictures. The Auschwitz Museum has a presence on social media and shares all sorts of documents and photos there. It showed a blueprint of a crematorium at Auschwitz. I had always thought that Michael Schmidt’s picture — really just a small section — came from there.

This got me thinking. On the one hand, he appropriates the image. On the other hand, it is very important that it is related to Auschwitz. If you don’t see that or don’t know that, then the effect might be completely different. So I was wondering what he was thinking. Did he want people to know that it is Auschwitz? Or maybe not?

Michael Schmidt, Untitled., Ein-heit, 1996, ©Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

Is it this picture? [shows the fourth picture in the book]

Wait, that’s also Auschwitz?

It could be so; I suppose so. It’s a technical blueprint. So there is a suspicion that is triggered. Given our collective historical knowledge, we read the picture as part of this machinery of destruction. But we don’t know whether it really is. And of course, in the context in which the image is placed by Michael the motif becomes charged, opening up to all kinds of interpretations.

In this picture I managed to decipher two of the text fragments. One is “Müllverbrennungsofen” (waste incinerator). The other text says“Müllverbrennungsraum” (waste-incineration chamber). I haven’t been able to find anything else, yet.

As with many images, this leaves us on thin ice, if you will. We can only guess. I would say that this uncertainty is part of the concept of this work. When interpreting the work you can’t find stable ground under your feet. I find this phenomenon of different possibilities of attribution interesting because you don’t expect that in the field of documentary photography. Instead, it turns everything that you from documentary photography upside down. Comprehensibility is missing, connections are not provided, and clear insights are made impossible. In other words, instead completely subjective interpretations are fuelled.

There is a motif in the book that we know as a photograph of the clothing left behind by concentration camp inmates. Schmidt’s close cropping makes it very abstract, almost indecipherable. But when you take a longer look the terrible trace become obvious, because at least for my generation the visual DNA of this motif has been burned into us.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

In another image, the perhaps unambiguous content of the initial is again reduced so much and thus charged up by Schmidt that one must involuntarily think of the scene of an execution or a summary court martial. But it is probably not that at all. That’s what’s so strong in this work. The potential of a subjective interpretation based on a collective memory is triggered.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

I think that a different cultural group reads things quite differently and may not even understand the references. That was the criticism voiced by some people when the group of works was shown at MoMA in New York. The question arose whether their audience would be able to follow the work at all? I think they would. Ein-heit has two sides. It is specifically German. At the same time, it is universally valid because it deals with different social systems, their power structures, representatives, visible signs, even propaganda. During that process, it raises the question of perpetrators and victims.

Is there a collection of the source materials at the Michael Schmidt Archive?

We can trace certain sources quite accurately. There are some books where we can see that he used them. Maybe a dozen. One publication is an anniversary book of the SED, the state party of the GDR. He photographed quite a lot from that book. But there is no huge library or a huge amount of original materials that he used. I was surprised how few there are.

I know many of the people in the photos. I know who they are. But there are some pictures where I think I know them. But then it turns out to be someone completely different.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

[laughs] Exactly! There are also some people from his circle of friends in the book, Wilmar König [shown above] or Joachim Brohm, for example. Schmidt himself also appears with the portrait from his ID. And there are portraits of people from the circle of his daughter from his first marriage, who at the time was active in the subculture of West Berlin. In the photographs of photographs, there are politicians like Lübke, Adenauer or Mielke. But I can’t identify all of them, either. In that case, I read them as types, as representatives.

I’ll show you a portrait where everyone thinks they know. Here. Do you know him from back in the day?

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

I thought that was Heino.

No. I think that’s Wilhelm Wieben, who for many years was news anchor at Erstes Deutsches Fernsehen. But I’m not 100% sure, either. [laughs]

I was thinking about that. On the one hand, it’s interesting for find all the references.

Yes, of course.

On the other hand, there is the risk that the impact of the work will be limited because it may become too specific. It might not be so important to know exactly every person in every pictures. The real topic is the underlying mood.

Yes, I also believe that the quality of the work is formed by its vagueness, by it being unfinished and open ended. Sometimes, you lose this magic when you commit too deep to an interpretation or research.

My research into the details is about finding out more about Michael and his intentions.

Maybe I can tell you a bit about the reception of the project and why it was first exhibited in New York. Around 1987, Michael met Peter Galassi, who at the time was still curator at MoMA’s photography department under John Szarkowski. He had sent him Waffenruhe on the recommendation of Lewis Baltz. There is a response letter, which we showed at the retrospective, in which Galassi thanks him for sending the book. In 1988, Michael was part of New Photography 4 at MoMA, in which he was represented with Waffenruhe. In preparation for the exhibition, Galassi visited him in Berlin. I translated for Michael, who didn’t speak English very well. After the meeting, there was regular contact between the two of them and me.

In the mid-90s, Michael showed him a dummy of Ein-heit. Galassi then expressed his interest to the Siemens Kulturprogramm. He said that he would like to exhibit this project. At the time, that was important for me because the Kulturprogramm had financed the creation of this project without what would come out of it. Galassi’s interest and the announcement that the project would have its premiere at MoMA was very reassuring, not only for Michael and the cultural programme, but also for me.

It quickly became clear that the exhibition would then also be shown at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, where starting in 1992 I was curator of photography. For the presentation in New York, Galassi generously listed me as co-curator. But he did the work all by himself, together with Michael. At his request, the light in the exhibition galleries was very bright. At the pre-opening, a few fuses blew, which was quite funny. [laughs]

Michael created the concept for the book on his own?

Entirely on his own. My function was more like being a sparring partner when you do boxing. He showed me the work or later the dummy again and again and was eager to see my reaction. Often, I had to form an opinion first. Therefore, couldn’t tell him so much at the particular moment. I was only able to do so later. But it was still important for him to have a regular exchange. Of course, I was curious to see what would emerge.

Did he communicate what he wanted to achieve with the work and what his ideas were? Or did he show the work, saying “Have a look. What do you think about this?”

He told me the basic idea of the project. But it changed over the course of the work on his photographs. As did the title. Initially the working title was Daheim. Of course, the term Heimat was being discussed in Germany at the time, because it had been contaminated by the Nazis. Turning back to Heimat — that was already considered problematic.

I’m interested in the fact that the book is very political. What were Michael’s opinions, what was his politics? Do you know something about that?

Michael was a political person. Looking back on his service in the West Berlin police force, he always made the point that he had been on the right side of history. It was consistent for him to resign from the police force at the beginning of the 1970s. He must have been suffering there. After all, he was in the police during the student movement and at the beginning of the RAF. Furthermore, there was his longing to be able to concentrate exclusively on photography. All of this led to the end of his work in the police force. He didn’t talk much with me about those things. When someone mentioned that he used to be a policeman, he was always annoyed by it.

Michael Schmidt, Untitled, Ein-heit, 1996, © Foundation for Photography and Media Art with the Michael Schmidt Archive

I thought that maybe he’d talk about it in private or as an artist.

Not really. He taught himself to talk very precisely about his work. In the beginning, he was unable to do that. He grew up in very modest circumstances and taught himself everything. I always admired his self-education. Apart from a few lectures, there is very little written material from him. Even from conversations I can’t remember any fundamental political standpoints except for emotional expressions.

I was interested in his general attitude towards the subject, the fall of the Wall, reunification. At the time, that was a hot topic. I remember that many people in the SPD said that reunification was not an immediate possibility and that we had to wait and deal with history.


That didn’t work out. History simply developed more quickly. The conservatives wanted reunification right away. I was curious what he thought about that. Everyone had an opinion.

I would say that he had the hope that there would be a third way, which we as the left had hoped for at the time, namely that one would take the best from the two social systems and try to create something new.

But I also realise that I can’t really answer your question. We did talk regularly and often on the phone over a long period of our friendship. But it was a lot about getting each other’s daily problems off our chests.

In the end, this leaves us with possibly the best solution, the work itself.

For sure. It’s quite hefty and really hard to grasp. Ein-heit is not a book that you can understand quickly. As a viewer, you are initially thrown back on yourself. Usually, photographs open up relatively quickly. In certain contexts in which they are used they have to be quickly readable. Otherwise they would not be successful — I’m thinking of advertising or photojournalism. With Ein-heit it’s just the opposite. Since I first looked at the book, it has become more and more complex for me. Questions always remain. Of course, that is interesting. I only know the same feeling from very few other photography books, for example William Eggleston’s Guide or Walker Evans’ American Photographs.

In Ein-heit it is also remarkable how many interpretations a picture can allow. There are many more of those than there are pictures in the book. Often the content does not arise in individual images but only through the sequence of images in the book. Sometimes it arises between them. Michael Schmidt reduced this idea to the simple formula 1+1=3.

A younger generation certainly will see the images differently now, because they may not even know all the references.

Yes, I agree. If you take collective memory as the basis for understanding something like this work, then it’s always generational and limited to a culture. Americans will read the book differently. Someone who now is 20 years old also sees it differently. They might see certain types in the portraits, but they don’t recognise the people. They don’t make any rediscoveries.

Perhaps there will be discoveries that are denied to us.

That would be great. Then the book would remain timely, and it would not just be a work with a historical reference. That would be ideal.

Depravity’s Rainbow Mon, 17 Apr 2023 15:37:00 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Now that I have spent decades looking into the past of the country I was born in, Germany, I’ve come to realise that the greatest threat to humanity is not posed by lunatics such as Hitler, Goering, or any of the other main characters from the Nazi era. These people undoubtedly were evil in the most basic sense of the word. However, without the active help of not only perfectly ordinary people but also, crucially, of a group of highly talented individuals whose moral compass was completely absent Hitler would have been unable to lay waste to an entire continent and kill millions of Jewish people in an industrial fashion.

To begin with, there are the likes of Adolf Eichmann, capable administrators who will apply their organizational skills to any task they’re given. When pressed, they will say that they were merely “following orders” and thus somehow are not responsible for the consequences of their deeds. And then there are the likes of Albert Speer or Wernher von Braun who operated at higher levels but who also were cut from a different cloth than Eichmann. Or take Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. All were extremely gifted people who happily put their talents to use for their regime’s murderous purposes.

After the war, surprise!, surprise!, they claimed that they had not known about the crimes they had contributed to. Obviously, this was the default defense for most Germans. But especially with individuals who were that gifted at solving even the most complex problems, the excuse rings particularly hollow. Von Braun was smart enough to develop the most advanced rocketry the world had seen until then, but somehow he was not smart enough to literally see the slave labour that was used to produce it?

After the war, Speer spent two decades in jail. Von Braun, in contrast, ended up as an employee of the US government, developing its space program. It is von Braun who thus makes for one of the most interesting cases. Here is why. Monstrous lunatics such as Hitler or, to use a contemporary example, Vladimir Putin are fascinating because they are obviously completely evil. At the same time, they are so different from most people’s lived experience that there almost appear to be from another planet (or from a movie — the go-to image people often use). In contrast, people like Eichmann live in our midst.

People like Speer or von Braun not only live in our midst as well, they are also very much visible. They’re the brilliant operators that any country relies on to keep it running. Which is fine — there is nothing wrong with brilliant operators per se. The real problem is twofold. First, it’s how morally compromised they can be (and often are). But second, and this is what really gets me, is that we don’t appear to have a problem with that. Let’s use a contemporary example. John Yoo, the person who wrote what became known as the “torture memos” still teaches law at UC Berkeley.

One of the most disturbing aspects of all of this is that in our democratic societies, we have no problem with employing people whose moral compass appears to be completely broken or absent, and we allow them to do their work for us even when their problematic past is openly known. Or we lionize billionaires who very obviously and openly voice their contempt for the democracy we live and act accordingly.

When I grew up, the standard tale was that Nazi Germany had been completely different than the West Germany I was living in. I was basically led to believe that after the war, the Nazis had all magically vanished into thin air. I was unable to understand how this could have happened. Now, I know that I had been lied to left and right. Now, I know that perfectly ordinary people not only have the capacity to do evil, they also have the capacity to tell themselves (and others) that there’s no problem with that.

The life and career of a Wernher von Braun provides a perfect example. If you don’t know much about him, you can learn a lot more from a new book by Lewis Bush, Depravity’s Rainbow. The book basically chronicles the man’s life story. But it does so in a very smart way that helps bring focus to von Braun’s life, his work, and the way two very different countries happily used his expertise.

In a nutshell, the life story is wrapped onto itself. As a viewer, you see von Braun’s greatest US success, the successful landing on the moon, and his birth and upbringing first. As the book unfolds, it moves back in time for the US space program and forward in time for von Braun’s German life. This way, two seemingly very different aspects of the man’s life are being brought together, as are the ways the two different countries he lived in engaged with him. Later rocket launches now sit next to earlier ones, and a variety of other material is brought into connection.

Late in the book, you get to see a copy of von Braun’s ID from Nazi Germany’s Oberkommando des Heeres (Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht), issued in early 1945, followed by an ID of the US Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville, AL, issued in 1949. It’s the same man, the same face, staring into the camera. The switch, it would seem, was easily made. Just a few pages later, the final photograph in the main section of the book shows dead inmates at the Dora-Mittelbau concentration camp where von Braun had had his rockets built.

Apart from von Braun’s life work itself, there obviously is another topic that is being explored in the book, namely the problem of dual use. Actually, as I’ve argued above, the problem isn’t so much dual use itself, the fact that the same technology can be used for productive and destructive purposes. It’s that most people don’t appear to have a problem with that. But mine might be a different interpretation than Bush’s. There is an excellent essay at the end of the book in which he dives into the details of many of the aspects I alluded to here.

Depravity’s Rainbow combines a lot of archival material with photographs taken by Bush in various locations that played a major part of von Braun’s life story, in particular locations in Germany that probably are mostly only known to people looking more deeply into the country’s history.

The book makes for an excellent example of what at some stage I termed the research-based photobook because it manages to present a rather complex story in an engaging and insightful fashion, focusing both on space programs and the moral inadequacies of an incredibly gifted human being.

Bush has his reasons for using the cyanotype process for his imagery. I’m not sold on those. I find the blue and brown tones distracting; but that’s just a minor quibble.

In any number of ways, the life story of Wernher von Braun has lessons for us today. In Ukraine, for example, Russian forces are using contemporary missiles in the V2 fashion, indiscriminately bombing civilians in Ukraine. At the time of this writing, the latest example comes from Sloviansk where one dozen people were killed in their apartment buildings.

Putin, a cartoonishly evil character, would be unable to wage his war without all those people who have no problem with sending off their missiles (many of which originally were produced for air defense). I’m sure that when this is all over, they will all say that they didn’t know anything or that they couldn’t have done anything. I’ve heard all those excuses in the different context of Germany already.

One final comment. Depravity’s Rainbow was self published. Making a book is a difficult task even when working with a publisher. Doing it on one’s own is even harder. Getting a copy of the book will not only add a real treasure to your library (at £40.00, the book is a total steal), it will also support its maker directly.

Highly recommended.

Depravity’s Rainbow; photographs and material collected by Lewis Bush; essay by Lewis Bush; 250 pages; self-published; 2023

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Photography and Art Mon, 10 Apr 2023 14:49:20 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I’ve written the following in any number of variations countless times: photography has a lot of limitations. It is incapable of showing inner states, leaving us with depictions of surfaces. Because of these limitations, it’s an interesting medium to work with. However, I don’t think I’ve written about why this is interesting. What has me make that claim?

People have come up with all kinds of solutions for photography’s problem. For example, if you have a photograph of your late grandfather’s pocket watch, you could add a caption underneath that says as much. That way, a viewer would know what they’re looking at. Of course, you immediately get up another conundrum: as a viewer, you will have to believe that the caption tells you the truth. After all, it could just be some pocket watch, and the photographer added the caption to throw you off.

But in general, text can help solve the problem of conveying information that cannot be communicated visually or that is hard to communicate that way. This is the approach taken in the world of photojournalism and documentary photography, where factual text is made to work closely with images to communicate. By now, it’s a well established model. Its possibly only interesting aspect is the fact that what we today view as the rules of documentary photography have not always existed in this fashion. For example, in the 1930s, there was a very different focus on representing facts and on the role of fiction to achieve the larger goal.

I own a fair number of books that are photojournalistic or documentary. Many of them are quite good. But I rarely (if, to be honest, ever) look at them. They quench a thirst that I don’t experience very often. It’s not that I’m not interested in facts or information (I am). Instead, I find the game that you can play with photographs when you step away from intending to convey a very particular truth a lot more interesting. Again: why?

The answer probably comes down to the combination of two factors. First, I enjoy the process of engaging with a set of photographs to see what they will do to me. I attempted to write this sentence in the broadest possible sense, because I did not what to cut off anything. This engagement might centre on trying to understand something. It might centre on picking up on a feeling. It might centre on experiencing beauty. The list goes on. While these types of engagement are not necessarily strictly separate (of course, they can be), I enjoy all of them.

Second, I enjoy the type of photography the most that allows me to play a part in it, whatever that part might be. What I mean by this is that instead of being a passive observer (as in the cases of photojournalistic or documentary photography where someone attempts to funnel information into me), I become an active participant in the work. In fact, my whole self becomes a participant: my biography, my short-term and long-term feelings, my current life circumstances etc. Phrased differently, just like every person I engage with photography based on who I am in any particular moment, a combination of long-term and short-term factors. When it’s done well, photography affects me in ways that have me reflect not only on what I encounter in the pictures but also on aspects of myself.

Making art is a selfish act. Looking at art is a selfish act. However, given that there are shared sensibilities at play, the combination of these selfish acts offers a chance to get converted into a larger, societal effect. I personally don’t believe that it’s art’s job to make the world a better place. That’s our job. Instead, it’s art’s job to give us a chance to become better people.

When you approach art this way, a lot of it opens up to you. Instead of being attracted to art that you know speaks to you directly, you can expose yourself to art where it’s not clear what you will get out of it. Note that I didn’t write “whether you will get something out of it”. I feel that all-too-often, people approach art as a form of investment (this probably is not very surprising, given that decades of living under neoliberal capitalism have taught us to deal with every aspect of the world that way). Instead of letting art do its job, people try to gauge whether the investment will result in what they deem to be a desired outcome.

When you do that, though, you limit yourself to what you already know. In effect, you apply your own equivalent of the algorithms used by entertainment streaming platforms to your own life: I like this, so I will like that, given that I know that it’s in the same ballpark. You can observe this effect in the groups and bubbles that have formed in photoland, where the same group of people will look at, discuss, and make the same kind of photography. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to judge these groups. If that’s your way of engaging with art then, well, enjoy! I personally find it much too limiting.

It’s not only that I get bored (but not in a good way) by exposing myself to more of the same all the time, it’s also that I crave the thrill of looking at something that I don’t understand, that I think I have no connection with (at least right now). Because, you see, later I might be able to get to some connection with what I see, even as now I wouldn’t be able to tell what that connection might be.

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Better Not Move Mon, 03 Apr 2023 15:24:06 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“The object of our mind can be a mountain, a rose, the full moon, or the person standing in front of us. We believe these things exist outside of us as separate entities, but these objects of our perception are us. This includes our feeling.” I had to think of these words by Thich Nhat Hanh while spending time with Petra Noordkamp‘s Better Not Move, a book of photographs and text that is an expression of grief.

The bulk of the photographs in the book were made during a residency in Japan shortly after the artist’s partner had died unexpectedly. They are photographs of the ground, of the roots of trees, of rocks, of the insides of traditional Japanese houses. In addition, there are a few photographs of personal items that have nothing to do with those. These pictures come before short pieces of text that are sourced from a number of movie screenplays (none of which, I admit, I was familiar with).

The short texts focus on men and women as partners in relationships — marriage and the like. Noordkamp added a couple of longer texts of her own, one obliquely describing her time in Japan during the residency (there is a fear of earthquakes), the other outlining the larger situation: there had been the man who had died, and the three months in Tokyo were spent dealing with that fact. “Photographing the lines, structures, shapes and patterns,” she writes, “gave me something to cling onto and offered comfort.”

Ever since a number of artists photographed the possessions of people who had died — Christian Boltanski might have been the most prominent example — photographers have been focusing on treating such pictures as traces of their presence. In fact, one of the most common projects for photography students centers on taking pictures of typically a grandmother’s or grandfather’s possessions.

Interestingly, Boltanski never believed that his Inventories said anything about the person who had been in their possession: “Their only interest is that anyone who looks at them sees his or her own portrait in them, since we all own pretty much the same objects […] We learn more about ourselves than about the person behind the inventory.” Had Thich Nhat Hanh been a photography critic, he would have easily agreed with this. But he didn’t have to play that role, because his Buddhist teachings make the point very clear: the objects of our photographs, to adapt his words to this context, “are us”.

“Do not lose yourself in the past,” Thich Nhat Hanh continued a little bit further down in his essay on Right Mindfulness (in: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching), “Do not lose yourself in the future. Do not get caught in your anger, worries, or fears. Come back to the present moment, and touch life deeply.”

In the end, all photography is a combination of paying attention to something and trying to have other people partake in that: the attention itself and not so much whatever it is that is its object. Different types of photography do this differently. In a simplified fashion, we could say that the world of art photography is mostly centered on the former, while the much vaster world of social-media photography focuses on the latter (hence the often absurd admonishments produced by photography critics attempting to deal with how ordinary people take and use pictures).

The problem, of course, is that looking at photographs as — for a lack of a better word — documents is a lot easier than to view them as relatively unimportant aspects of a social gesture. You can write a detailed critique of what a photograph looks like, how it was made, or how you engage with this aspect. But it’s a lot harder — and yet a whole lot more rewarding — to try to understand other people’s pictures as part of their attempt to navigate their place in this world.

As much as I typically try to be aware of the different ways photographs can operate, when looking at art books, I always start out with focusing on what is being shown. As it turned out, this made my job when dealing with Better Not Move harder. After a while, though, I started focusing less on the photographs and more on the person who had made them. I started to imagine myself in her place, looking intently at what is on view.

Operating a camera can and usually will divert our attention away from what we see through the viewfinder to how we see it that way. As photographers, after all, we are craftspeople who are worried about our pictures’ form and content. As viewers, though, we don’t necessarily have that problem. The pictures have been made, and we can access them in ways similar to how Noordkamp accessed the stones or roots or walls, as the objects of our perception that Thich Nhat Hanh spoke of.

I have no way of knowing whether thinking about photography this way will be helpful for a world of photography that still is so focused on ideas such as indexicality. Still, art always is about its makers and about the connections we, as viewers, can establish with them. I see Better Not Move as a meditation on what it means to still be there while someone else is not, with each photograph being its own small assertion of that fact.

The more I looked at the book, the more I ended up focusing on the moments in which I did that. My looking became my being.

This idea led me to deeply appreciating this book, which, I should add, has been beautifully produced with just the right amount of careful attention to detail.


Better Not Move; photographs and texts by Petra Noordkamp, with text fragments from a number of movie screenplays; 192 pages; Architectura & Natura; 2023

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Thoughts on AI Images: Art, Very Convincing Nonsense, and Visual Literacy Mon, 27 Mar 2023 14:00:12 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The world of art, of which the world of photography is a minor, rather insignificant part, prefers to hype up the latest technological advancements. Thankfully, the craze over so-called NFTs died down pretty quickly after “crypto”, a form of fake money that combines libertarian thinking with old-fashioned Ponzi scheming, imploded. Just a short time later, advancements in what is called “artificial intelligence” (AI) resulted in the release of new tools that are able to produce text that reads like real text (more on this later) and pictures that look like… well, not quite real pictures, but they seem to be getting there.

So far, the talk in the art world about AI images reminds me of when artists started exploring Second Life. There was a lot of hype, a lot of rather half-baked work. And then the fad disappeared pretty quickly. I’m thinking that AI images might stay around a little longer, but I could easily be wrong.

It’s worthwhile to point out that part of the panic that erupted over the tools bears similarities to how the world of photography treated the advent of digital cameras. I do not mean to dismiss the criticism that’s leveled at AI. But some of it seems misguided to me. Maybe I will start with the latter. There is considerable merit to discussing the problem that new tools lower costs for people buying the products and that they end up replacing human workers. (Obviously, if you’re a neoliberal capitalist, these aren’t problems but features.)

While I do have thoughts about all of that, it’s a politics problem, not a photography one. As long as we don’t pressure law makers to mitigate the effects of a rampant capitalism, we’re not going to solve problems like this. Copyright — AI images use other people’s pictures — obviously is a huge problem as well. In the US, the people who can fix this problem sit in Washington, DC.

It’s useful to keep in mind, though, that in the world of photography, we’re not entirely blameless ourselves. If rates go down all the time, if there’s a race to get everything cheaper and cheaper, then the fact that someone will be willing to work for that lower rate (or even for free) is not helping the overall cause.

In much the same fashion, to pick a completely unrelated example, if the market for photobooks isn’t growing because it’s mostly photographers buying other photographers’ books, then making more books for photographers also isn’t really a solution to the problem. Like I said, these are basically questions of politics and/or community, and we might want to treat them that way.

Coming back to photography, over its relatively short history, new technologies were created at a rapid rate, leading to new tasks arising and then made unneeded at a relatively rapid rate. As far as I can tell, in photography discussions over new technologies have always involved the kinds of discussions we’re now seeing in the context of AI. But when it comes to AI I do think that there are a few things that are interesting to talk about, in particular because they have repercussions beyond photography.

I should briefly preface the rest with what I’ve seen in terms of AI images. I’ve seen a lot of them, and so far I haven’t seen anything that has a lot of substance. I also tried an AI image tool for my own work and came to the conclusion that while occasionally, there are interesting images, AI falls way short in a larger, important sense: it’s not capable of producing something that is coherently speaking of its maker’s vision. For example, the visual narration in my book Vaterland completely evaporated when I replaced my pictures with AI ones.

But I also thought that it would only be fair enough if I elaborated on my own thinking around AI images. So that’s what I want to do in the following. After all, it’s not that theoretically, I’m not interested in AI images. But for me, they have to cross a certain bar to become art.

To begin with, creating images in a computer is not new. After all, there is computer-generated imagery (CGI). This article explains why furniture maker IKEA uses CGI for their catalogues. When you use CGI, you will have to start from scratch or from what you have already set up.

AI image tools offer something completely different, in that they assemble new images from a database of already existing ones. If you use CGI and you want a photograph of a chair, you will have to tell the computer exactly what the chair is supposed to look like, how it’s lit etc. With AI, you can tell it “show me a photo of a chair” and it will produce one:

This is one of the images produced by Stable Diffusion when I prompted it with “Show me a picture of a chair” (I used the free demo version). It looks like a chair, but it’s also wonky. Somehow, the geometry isn’t quite right and neither are various constituent parts. The articles I’ve read so far about AI photographs typically run along the lines of being amazed how realistic they look (which is debatable, but such nuance is typically omitted) and how advances in technology will make the pictures look even better (which might or might not be true; we’ll see).

It’s interesting and disturbing to notice how similar a lot of these articles are to the generally uncritical and hype-prone articles you can find in the world of tech.

Regardless, the picture of the chair was produced by assembling it from existing pictures. Conceptually, that’s interesting, because for me, the first big thing I think about is the following (which is probably based on my background as a theoretical physicist). Let’s use an example. If you buy a bunch of Lego bricks, you can create all kinds of things — as long as you follow what the bricks will allow you to do. In other words, you will be restricted by the options presented by them.

It is as if an artist, let’s say Ai Weiwei, decided to make something from Lego bricks. Whatever he’d decide to do, he’s be limited by what the bricks allowed him to do. In fact, Ai Weiwei indeed just used Lego bricks to recreate (if that’s the word) a painting by Claude Monet. “By recreating this famous scene,” we are being told, “Ai Weiwei challenges our ideas of reality and beauty.” (does he, though?)

I think a good way to look at Water Lilies #1 would be to view it either in the context of art in general (which might yield too low a bar, but your mileage might vary) or in the context of this artist’s own back catalogue. Taking the latter approach, does this piece of art strike you as being in the same league as his earlier work?

By the way, that’s a Claude Monet painting made from Lego according to Dall.E 2.

The point I’m after has something to do with originality, but it’s not quite that. I personally find originality completely overrated. There are a few photographs that I admire and that were genuinely original when they were made. However, the bulk of the photographs I appreciate were completely unoriginal when they were first made, and that didn’t matter one bit. For example, people have taken millions of pictures of landscapes before, and there still are very good landscape pictures being made. The same is true for family photography or any other genre of photography.

But using the term “originality” is too misleading anyway, because mostly, great art is not necessarily appreciated for that (or that alone). To get back to what I’m thinking about: can AI create very good art out of the constituent parts of existing art in a way that moves beyond those parts?

Could AI create a Beethoven symphony out of the parts of Bach concertos? You might think that, well, yes, Beethoven and Bach used the same types of scales and some of the same instruments. But that’s not necessarily how you go from Bach to Beethoven, and it’s not how you’d get to Schoenberg (to throw in a more contemporary composer).

If you think about this on a visual level, you could ask the same question in a different context. If you look at the history of photography, could you create later photography from pieces of earlier one?

This question can get very interesting when a first, basic answer would be: yes. Take collage. For example, László Moholy-Nagy’s or Hannah Höch’s collages are made from existing photographic material in the most literal sense. But could AI really do the same job? Could an algorithm replicate the creative genius of a Moholy-Nagy or a Höch?

My current sense is that that is unlikely. But that’s the only interesting question around AI photography for me. Everything else is merely craft. There’s nothing wrong with craft, but I’m interested in art.

You might argue that AI is merely being used by someone, so it’s not the AI that makes the pictures (this is debatable, but let’s buy into this), it’s the operator. However, the problem does not disappear. It shifts: assuming that the operator possesses enough creative genius, will they be able to make AI do things on their terms — instead of getting images based on the algorithms?

It’s a bit like looking at Facebook pages. They all look the same because people can only fill pre-arranged templates. You can only work with the options provided to you. In principle, this is not a new problem for photographers: you always can only do what your tools allow you to. But with AI, you now have a new parameter: everything you can do has to be based on something that already exists (older images).

When evaluating AI photographs in an art-historical or critical sense, you have to be careful, though. Let’s use an imaginary example. It would be pretty straightforward to imagine AI being used to create the equivalent of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills. If that body of work didn’t exist and if Cindy Sherman decided she wanted to create such a body of work today, she’d have to feed her own portrait into the AI system, to then produce those film stills.

However, the question is whether this would be interesting. After all, the original Untitled Film Stills existed in a specific context, the so-called Pictures Generation. They thus acquired their initial meaning in an artistic climate in which artists looked into the role and value of pictures and into how existing pictures shape our world and expectations. If you imagine an AI generation of film stills in that context (admittedly an absurd idea, given that back then AI didn’t exist), then it’s easy to see how Sherman’s AI Untitled Film Stills would have done the same job as the actual ones.

However, if you imagine Cindy Sherman producing the pictures today, far removed from the Pictures Generation and with us being now in the world of fake news etc., the idea would probably fall pretty flat. The conversation about photographs has moved far from the concerns of the Picture Generation.

If you look at the untitled film still I had Stable Diffusion produce, you can see how the AI can’t get hands right. That’s a problem, albeit not in the art-historical or critical sense I’m interested in here. In fact, you could argue that the weird hand is the only interesting element of the picture. However, it’s hard to see how this AI shortcoming translates into a form of artistic merit, especially if we demand that such merit has to be at least somewhat related to a maker’s intent.

Consequently, in an artistic context, AI photographs need to at least aspire to have artistic merit. By that I mean that their makers have to attempt to contribute to the current artistic discourse. So far, I don’t see that happening (nope). Trying to make funny pictures or trying to prove that you can get realistic looking pictures with AI — that’s too low a bar.

There is a second, very interesting and very important aspect to AI photography. In a loose sense, it centers around the intersection of veracity and believability. Something might not have to be truthful to still be believable. For example, little children believe in Santa Claus. This is the general area where the generation of material, whether visual or textual, ultimately can — and very likely will — become political.

A little while ago, I tested ChatGPT to see whether I could make it write nonsense. To be more precise, I wondered whether the AI would correct factual mistakes I included in my questions. It did not. In all fairness to ChatGPT, I just got access to Google’s Bard, and it happily served me nonsense in the same fashion. Instead, both produced what I called Very Convincing Nonsense.

Very convincing nonsense is a piece of information that looks or reads as truthful and that is convincing in form, but that is actually not accurate. This type of nonsense is great for comedy. But it’s not funny otherwise, especially not if it ends up being used by Vladimir Putin’s troll farms or any of its Western equivalents (which are largely driven to undermine our democracies).

Here, you have an actual example that was disseminated by the person it is supposed to depict, Donald Trump (I found this on the same day that I started writing this article). If you look carefully at the image, you can see at least two of the standard problems of current AI image generators. The hands aren’t right. Furthermore, kneeling with your right knee behind your left heel is very, very difficult. (I literally tried this. In general, I have very good balance. But I found it almost impossible to balance the way shown in the image.)

Essentially, you have to be able to recognize the nonsense if it is embedded in something that looks or reads as convincing. If you’re unable to detect it, then… well, you’ll just take what you see at face value. In fact, while I was working on this piece, an AI picture of the pope in some stylish white winter coat fooled a lot of people. When I saw it, I didn’t believe for a second that it was real. Apparently, a lot of people did.

On the other hand, most of the people for whom the Trump image was made probably don’t believe any more in what it shows than citizens of the Soviet Unions believed socialist-realist art. It’s hard to imagine that any of those hard-right Christians believe that Trump is religious. But in the image there’s a code that is transmitted. And that code matters, because the image serves to deliver it — instead of what it depicts in a literal fashion.

Here is a recent example of an Instagram post by a member of Germany’s neofascist AfD party (it would seem that after some discussion of the imagery, the guy pulled the image). Norbert Kleinwaechter (whose last name ironically translates into “Little Guard” in English) is vice chairman of the party’s faction in Germany’s Bundestag (the federal parliament). The text reads “No to even more refugees”. There’s nothing subtle about the image, but obviously that’s par for the course for a party that has a history of producing racism. Note that the fictional person at the leftmost edge of the frame has five fingers.

If you’re not part of the target group, it’s important to be able to read the codes. They might be blatant as in the case of the AfD image, but they can also be more subtle. The visual code often connects to an invisible code that delivers the actual message. Just like in the case of the extremely well balanced Trump, photographic veracity isn’t the actual point.

In my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, I talk about codes in a different context. It’s easy to make fun of images like Trump’s or the photographs discussed in my book. But if your response ends there, you’re not performing the crucial and more important second step: understanding the codes that are being exchanged. You’re short-circuiting your critical facilities.

A good and very instructive example of detecting very convincing nonsense in AI image was recently discussed by Hiroko Yoda. Someone had AI generate a picture of a Japanese woman in a kimono (if you look at Yoda’s Twitter thread, you’ll see that the original post she referred to has now been deleted). “I’m certified as a kimono consultant in Japan,” Yoda writes, “and this triggered me in all sorts of ways.

To begin with, Yoda notes, there are some obvious craft issues. The AI showed a kimono that for a number of reasons couldn’t really be made, whether in terms of the materials or in the way it was folded. But there also is a very important cultural issue tied to it: “the biggest issue is super critical. Look closely at her white undergarment visible at collar. It’s folded right over left — used only for the dead. This is super creepy. So you have a white-faced woman wrapped in fabric scrap with odd hair accessories & funeral undergarments; if I ran into her in Kyoto’s Gion at night I would probably freak out!

I’ll be honest and admit that I would have not been able to notice any of the problems because I’m not familiar with the details of kimonos. (I can see how the chair I had AI create doesn’t make sense, though.) But I think you can easily see how what Yoda describes is very important: nobody in their right mind would wear a kimono this way in Japan. Obviously, the AI has no idea there is a problem because otherwise, we must assume, it would not have created the image this way.

What we’re left with is a visual example of very convincing nonsense: an image that does not make sense. But you would only know if, in this case, you were a kimono consultant (or, at the very least, someone who knows as much about the garment). And that is exactly the larger problem with AI images that we’re about to run into more and more. The problem is not only that images get produced to show something that didn’t happen or doesn’t exist (even though that’s bad enough).

The larger problem, at least in my view, is produced by images that convey nonsensical information even if they were supposed to be truthful and accurate, images that are so convincing that we take them at face value. I suppose you could view this problem as the equivalent of glitch artifacts. But in AI images, apart from wonky hands or other optical problems the more dangerous glitch artifacts are only visible if you have enough background knowledge to detect them.

One of the solutions we have for this problem is a vastly increased awareness of the importance of visual literacy. Specifically, by visual literacy I mean knowledge of the way of looking into how images convey their meaning. We will have to become a lot more aware of how we consume images. This would involve teaching visual literacy in schools and universities (outside of art departments or classes).

We will probably also get used to the fact that we often have to research images online. If we see an image we might have to look around and see where else it shows up, to infer something about its truth value. My guess is that verification tools will become available. It’s easy to imagine an arms race between AI image-creation and verification tools.

Whatever the outcome, now is the time to start becoming more critical of AI tools. Now is the time to start thinking about how to deal with them. AI image click bait is fun — but it’s just possible that at least some of the time is better spent on learning more about how to critically look at images.

Another world Mon, 20 Mar 2023 14:51:55 +0000 Joerg Colberg

There’s something fascinating about how similar Japan and Germany are. In the late 19th century, both countries emerged out of a suspended state to try to catch up with the countries they perceived as their peers. This process involved trying to reconcile modernity with their own cherished and in part deeply flawed national and cultural identities. In the end, both countries failed miserably, inflicting enormous pain on their neighbours through wars and genocide.

Completely crushed in World War 2, both countries were given another chance (an unearned gift), only to emerge as economic power houses that, alas, have never quite figured out what it means to be a normal sovereign country. Starting in the 1980s, their paths started to diverge. Germany embraced neoliberal capitalism to the fullest, transforming itself into the mini-US it is now. Japan instead went through an extreme really-good-boom-and-really-bad-bust cycle, after which its ruling class doubled down on investing money to fuel the economy even as the country’s birth rate imploded.

But there remains a deeply fascinating similarity between the two countries. Deeply insecure about their own national merit, both are engaged in a fight between outside cultural values and their own, native ones. The latter contain so much fiction that it’s hard to see real differences between Amaterasu, Japan’s sun goddess, and a Disney character, or Richard Wagner’s Ring opera cycle and any one of the various Marvel franchises produced in Hollywood (except that the music is a lot more tedious and the acting is a lot worse in the operas). But to Japanese and German people, the differences feel very important.

Much like in any other country, the fight over Japanese or German national identities involves symbols (or signs if you’re into semiotics). For me, as someone who grew up in West Germany, I can see this struggle much more clearly in Japan than in Germany. In a rather basic sense, many elements of Japan’s visual culture make me look at least twice because they and their context are unfamiliar to me.

The huge pitfall for a Westerner of course is to immediately fall into the traps of orientalism and/or othering. If you look at things in a realistic fashion, though, a country like Japan that seems “strange” to a Westerner in fact is a lot less strange than many Western countries. As an aside, I just listened to a podcast in which two linguists, both fluent in Japanese and with years of experience living there, discuss “weird” experiences they had in Japan. At some stage, one of them says that it’s actually a lot more likely to meet a weird person in the US than in Japan.

As someone not from Japan, you don’t want to make any assumptions about what you encounter. You want to try to take things at face value. In fact, you wan to do that in any foreign country. If you do that, you will be able to see beyond what a tourist might see. Furthermore, you will start picking up on that struggle over national identity and symbols. It is that struggle that plays out in Kenta Nakamura‘s exuberant and brilliant Ginga ni umeru (Release into the Galaxy).

The book combines staged/set up photographs (mostly portraits) with snapshots in a wild mix that might ruffle some feathers both in Japan and in the West, albeit probably often for different reasons. The opening sequence alone makes it clear what will be unfolding in the book’s pages. The first spread pairs a photograph of a elderly woman dressed in a Cinderella costume enjoying some food with a photograph of a young child whose mostly blue possessions have been arranged around him.

The second spread shows two women who both wear one of those red-blue glasses used for 3D movies or pictures (see picture above; these glasses recur throughout the book). On the left, a young mother is holding her child. On the right, the woman is wearing a very formal looking white kimono while sitting on a couch (as far as I know, it’s a bridal garment).

The third spread has a brightly lit photograph of a cow’s udder against a pair of metal poles in water at what looks like sunset. This then is followed by a photograph of a dried and flattened squid against a portrait of an older Japanese man wearing a double-breasted suit.

Obviously, you would have to see the book to understand how it works. But maybe you can sense from the descriptions above that some of its meaning is created from using the contrasts between two opposing photographs, often done in a way that’s very much on the nose. In fact, a lot of the pictures are in the on-the-nose category with their bright colours, lit by flash. A lot of what you see has been visually exaggerated. But it works because many of the people posing do so in the most deadpan fashion, implying that what you perceive as weird — that’s you, the viewer, putting it on them.

There are a number of photographs from a funeral in the book, including what looks like a selfie of the photographer with the same dead relative who is later seen in her casket (following Japanese tradition, there are flowers arranged around her). The selfie itself comes with a huge emoji over the deceased person’s face (remember, the word emoji is Japanese). This might not be the most tasteful picture (then again, Masahisa Fukase took a funeral selfie, too). Yet in the context of the book, it doesn’t stick out too much. Nakamura treats everything as being worthy of satire, to poke holes into conventions, traditions, new ways of living, and the importance people place on themselves.

Even as the edit of the book is slightly uneven — there are some pictures that don’t contribute much to it, Ginga ni umeru is the most surprising and fun photobook I’ve seen in a while. The world of photography is so serious about so much. When it’s not serious it’s often too obvious and punching down (usually employing classism to do so). In contrast, this particular book does all the right things. It doesn’t distinguish between high and low culture or traditional and pop culture.

As a viewer one can’t help but connect with many of those who happen to find themselves in front of Kenta Nakamura’s camera. I don’t know why that older woman is wearing a Cinderella costume. I don’t know why the woman on the cover (who is seen again later) owns a pet turtle (that might or might not be alive). But it seems like everything is trying to make do in a society that’s filled with a a strange mix of customs.

If you manage to pull yourself back from the society you’re embedded in, you might find some of the same strangeness in the customs of your own culture. That is, I think, what you will want to keep in mind after you’ve looked at this book. You will have to avoid the easy conclusion that “Japan is a weird country”. It is not. It might look weird (and Nakamura dials this up 11) because as outsiders, we’re not familiar with what a Japanese person would take for granted. But in some fashion, every country looks weird to outsiders. You simply can’t focus on the weirdness — because it’s mostly your projection.

Seen that way, once you’ve enjoyed Ginga ni umeru you might want to start looking into how all of the same contradictions play out wherever you might be located.

Highly recommended.

Ginga ni umeru; photographs by Kenta Nakamura; 136 pages; GAP4 Publishing; 2022

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This Almost Empty Road Mon, 13 Mar 2023 14:24:40 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I can’t say that I’m an expert in the area that Timothy Snyder described in his book Bloodlands. What I know I know from the book. If you look through the Wikipedia page, towards the bottom, the reception of the book is discussed. Some of Snyder’s points were highly contested, and part of the protest appeared to have included accusations of bias towards some of the states that occupy the region.

The latter would in part be only logical, at least as far as I understand it, given that what we see as clear-cut borders on our contemporary maps do in fact not neatly separate people quite as clearly as we might be tempted to think. Before the borders in Central and Eastern Europe were re-drawn, many of the countries in the area had sizeable minorities, with often rich local cultures that often intermingled.

Even as after World War 2 large numbers of people were literally made to move, a process that was violent and that destroyed the livelihoods of many, many people, physically moving people will not eradicate cultures, connections, and conflicts that had been established over the course of centuries. It will also not eradicate memories of oppression and mass murder at the hands of those who committed them, Germany and Russia.

As far as I understand it, there is a strong sense of solidarity between the countries that now occupy the area Snyder covered in his book. At the time of this writing, this solidarity manifests itself very strongly in the support Ukraine receives from countries such as Poland or the Baltic Republics. I don’t think in the West, people understand the reasons for that support. Even the word solidarity seems not strong enough. There is a shared history that includes culture just as much as being violently oppressed.

As far as I can tell, the above forms the basis for Monika Orpik‘s Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road. I’m not trying to be coy here with my use of “as far as I can tell”. It’s very much possible that, say, Polish viewers and readers will find much easier access to the book than I did (I would have to ask people). And the book does include a number of clues what it tries to center on. But they are very difficult to find for someone who is not familiar with the location.

Let’s back up a bit. In a nutshell, the book contains a large number of photographs in a very bucolic setting. There are hints here and there that the location is somewhere in Eastern Europe: there are the occasional post-Soviet markers such as interiors of buildings, Christian-Orthodox crosses (that possibly are more widely known beyond the area now, given that so many of them are in the news from grave sites in Ukraine), or a group of priests.

I quite enjoy the overall mood that is established by these photographs. I get a feeling of a hinterland, a place that somehow has been left behind a bit. It’s not a neoliberal look at it, pointing a finger at what’s lacking, though. It’s simply observant of the land and its natural beauty.

There are three large blocks of text in English and a language that uses a Cyrillic alphabet (it’s not Russian, given that there are a few characters used that don’t exist in Russian). You’ll have to read both texts to figure out that the country in question is Belarus. The text conveys the voices of people from there talking about their experiences with the violent dictatorship in their home country. There also are four grids of similar images plus a short sequence of dark photographs of a pair of hands. What these are intended to communicate I don’t understand.

I think that one of the biggest challenges for any photographer when making a book is to realize that their audience often does not know everything you want to tell them, yet. The photobook is this curious thing where you have to slowly build up what you’re trying to get at; someone who only knows the pictures — and nothing else — will have to be able to figure it out. The inclusion of text does not change this challenge radically (unless you use text that explains what you’re after, in which case the whole thing becomes something entirely different).

Looking through Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road and thinking about what I started this article with had me think that I might simply not be a member of the book’s target audience. Maybe its target audience is exclusively located in Eastern Central Europe. My sense is that the book’s makers took a lot of information for granted, information that I simply have no access to.

And the book does make it very hard to figure out what’s going on. I wouldn’t want to claim that it’s trying to be mysterious on purpose (I wouldn’t know, and in any case, it would be unfair to make this claim). But I will say that a Western audience, in fact any audience really that’s not familiar with the region and its culture and politics, will find it difficult to access the book and to find the intended meaning beyond the landscapes.

For example, outsiders are unlikely to know what OMON is (it’s the vicious riot police you see in Belarus and Russia). If you use a specific term like this in a book (you find it in the first text), you want to include a note for an audience not familiar with it. I know that this seems like a small detail, but it’s one out of many in the book.

In general, in your photobook, you want to avoid two extremes: giving too much information and giving too little. If you give too much information, access to the book will be sharply reduced to something prefabricated. If you give too little information, people are simply not going to understand what you’re trying to get at.

In the latter case, the general sentiment that I often hear about this falls along the lines of “I want this to be mysterious”. Being mysterious is good — if a sense of mystery is the overall idea. But an audience will still have to understand that. This might be the hardest aspect of photobook making.

That said, obviously not every book needs to be made for an audience outside of the region where it was photographed. I suspect that the book will resonate with people in the area. At the same time, especially in light of many Westerners being indifferent about Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine (just one of the many aspects of the region that’s not understood well — if at all), it’s exactly Western audiences that would benefit most from learning more about the region.

Stepping Out Into This Almost Empty Road; photographs and transcribed interviews by Monika Orpik; 124 pages; Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych (OPT); 2022

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