Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 17 Feb 2020 16:34:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Day Sleeper Mon, 17 Feb 2020 16:34:24 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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Thoughts on Dora Maar Mon, 10 Feb 2020 18:47:25 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Atlas Mon, 03 Feb 2020 15:41:06 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Part of Marianne Müller’s Life Mon, 27 Jan 2020 16:48:19 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Shift Mon, 20 Jan 2020 18:35:54 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

This is a timely book.

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

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

Again: this is a timely book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Form of the Photobook (Revisited) Mon, 13 Jan 2020 21:50:21 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(not rated)

After Social Media Mon, 06 Jan 2020 15:04:29 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll announce mine once it’s ready.

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

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


Were it not for the nightmares. Mon, 30 Dec 2019 21:25:26 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were it not for the nightmares.

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

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

You Haven’t Seen Their Faces: Contemporary Photography’s Stylish Muteness Mon, 23 Dec 2019 17:00:54 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

And yet! And yet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mari Katayama’s Gift Sun, 08 Dec 2019 21:10:28 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

(not rated)

Making Pictures With Migrants Mon, 02 Dec 2019 16:02:25 +0000 Joerg Colberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(not rated)

Making Sense of the World with Pictures Mon, 25 Nov 2019 15:51:29 +0000 Joerg Colberg

We largely comprehend this world through pictures, whether we’re taking selfies or photographing a very distant celestial body with a satellite that’s rushing past it with a speed of 16.26 km/s (10.10 mi/s). Every photograph is an attempt to make sense of the world, even if only a few are acknowledged as that — those that we all could easily agree as being documents more than anything.

Regardless of whether a photograph is viewed as a document or not, in all likelihood it is the result of some form of extrapolation, of some form or processing. Astronomical images are heavily processed, with the colours seen in them being often added artificially (based on clearly defined astronomical conventions).

A smartphone operates in similar ways. “By default,” Apple notes, “iOS and a device’s image signal processor perform a number of operations on the data from a camera’s image sensor to create a displayable image. These manipulations include dead pixel interpolation, demosaicing, white balance, noise reduction, tone compensation, and sharpening.”

None, of this, I would argue, matters much — after all, our own brains themselves are known to very selectively stitch together what we perceive as reality (please note that with this statement I’m referring to neurological processes and not to what is currently at display on the far-right side of the political spectrum all over the world).

But there is much to be gained from attempting to understand how the process of discerning facts or meanings from pictures — an act of interpretation — plays out. Two recent books use this idea as jump-off points, Drew Nikonowicz‘s This World and Others Like It and Florian Schwarz‘s A Handful of Dust (please note that the latter is not to be confused with David Campany’s book of the same title).

As a brief aside, the books share the same designer, Hans Gremmen (who co-published This World and Others Like It), a fact I only realized after I had decided to review them together.

This being the internet, I should make it clear that these two books are not the same. As I noted, their jump-off point is the same, but they look into the topic using different angles. This World and Others Like It, the more cerebral one, mostly concerns itself with the construction of images and their subsequent inevitable artifice. In contrast, A Handful of Dust plays it more straight, largely ignoring the process of making images and instead tying them to their makers — or consumers — themselves: humans.

This World and Others Like It starts off with a list of coordinates in time and space — these are, the viewer can infer, the data of the images. But wait, picture 2 is one of the famous 1969 photographs of a man on the moon — how could this have a date of 2014 and a location so close to many other pictures? Well, it’s an image of an image, presumably produced in the artist’s studio: Google Earth shows me the Fine Arts Building of the University of Missouri. And it continues in this vein, with images of images or images made to look like other images or images made to look like they tell you about the process etc. Like I noted above, images are constructs, and the book focuses on that very point.

The work stays right there, at the level of the image — the various degrees of artifice involved in its making and the way we viewers read or interpret it. This is good. The book includes a couple of plastic sheets onto which patterns are printed, further confusing the viewer and adding another tactile element. This is good, too. It is my background — I have a Ph.D. in physics and spent years working in astronomy — that probably has me wanting a bit more, though. I know images are constructed so what else is there?

Over the years, I’ve had the same reaction to what one could call metaphotography. I remember Thomas Ruff once told me something about how astronomers process their images (50% of which was actually factually wrong — I didn’t have the heart to tell him), and I realized that what was completely trivial and obvious to me clearly must be truly fascinating for non-astronomers. My background probably also easily explains why I just can’t get too worked up over image manipulation or construction.

So This World and Others Like It is the kind of book that I’d look at during the day, sitting in my office. It’s very well done. It perfectly caters to my intellect, and I can enjoy it while my reptilian brain is cooking up something else entirely for a later moment.

There is some overlap between the two books in what they show — images that look like other images, but all in all despite an abundance of scientific (mostly astronomical) imagery, the main element in A Handful of Dust that disrupts the cerebral game are the many (straight) photographs of people, many of whom at first do not appear to have any obvious connection to the rest of the book. Who are these people? Why are they there? I found myself intensely drawn to them because through this disruption, the artist gets at the larger topic at hand, namely the quest for knowledge, the quest to make sense of it all.

Looking at A Handful of Dust I found myself skipping most of the astronomical content (from the above it might be obvious why). For example, the pictures of the labs with the various contraptions — that’s what I’d see in one of my university jobs if I left my office and walked straight ahead into the lab across the hallway. I found all the other pictures interesting and intriguing, and the design and production of the book truly work together to enhance what is on view. Maybe it’s the book’s size and design that makes this one a lot more immersive than the other one. It speaks to the sheer brilliance of the designer, Hans Gremmen, to have found the perfect solution for these two books.

So if This World and Others Like It is a book for day-time hours, I’d rather look at A Handful of Dust at other times, when my intellect possibly is a bit exhausted, and when I can soak up some of its feelings. (Writing these sentences down made me realize that I have in fact been looking at these books in exactly this fashion.)

It is as if each book existed to remind the viewer of the missing parts that are contained in the other. And when I say “missing” I don’t want to imply a value judgment. Inevitably, as one focuses on one’s work, the process is one of exclusion, of casting aside elements that have no place, that are unnecessary or unneeded. Nikonowicz’s cerebral and at times cold study of images has no place for a more human component, for photographs of people that are maybe only remotely connected to what’s in the pictures. In contrast, Schwarz never approaches his topic too closely, instead weaving in and out while bringing together what at first sight appear to be unconnected elements.

What do we know? What can we know? I suspect we will always use images to try to find out. In their different ways, these two books bring the viewer closer to understanding the role of images in our lives — and their limitations.

A Handful of Dust; images by Florian Schwarz; texts by Boris von Brauchitsch, Martin Dominik, Arnold Stadler; 232 pages; Kerber; 2019

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

This World and Others Like It; images by Drew Nikonowicz; text by Paula Kupfer; 102 pages; Yoffy Press/FW:Books; 2019

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

Lacuna Park Mon, 18 Nov 2019 16:46:27 +0000 Joerg Colberg

There’s a lot of photography writing that’s all about who can out-quote whom, who can show that their vocabulary is larger than everybody else’s: photographers compete with Megapixels (or film size), writers with words. It’s not that I’m worried about the number of words I know, it’s just that I find those kinds of games tedious. If anything, it’s not the number of words – or quotes – you know that will impress me, it’s your wit, your ability to tell me something new with the least amount of effort: call it style if you will.

Nicholas Muellner got style, in fact plenty of it. I’m convinced he got the words and quotes as well, but he’s a confident enough writer to know that he doesn’t have to compete on those terms. After all, as Ludwig Wittgenstein noted (granted, in a different context): “What can be said at all, can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

In the context of art, the second part, the “whereof one cannot speak”, does play a role. Good art writing concerns itself with attempting to do just that, to somehow speak of the unspeakable. But good writers know that when doing so it ought to be done in a clear, simple, elegant manner (not to dive into international art English too much, but it is never elegant — in writing, beauty does matter, too).

A new collection of Muellner’s essays is now available as Lacuna Park: Essays and Other Adventures in Photography. The book ought to find itself on photoland’s required-reading lists. It compiles an assortment of essays written by Muellner over the course of the past decade, some of it done as contributions for other books. The largest piece, The Photograph Commands Indifference, was originally published in 2009 and has been out of print for a while.

I’m feeling intensely self-conscious about my own writing, and the projector in me assumes that other writers find themselves in the same position. Whether or not that is in fact true, this projection usually has me refrain from producing criticism that centers on other people’s writing. This is a bit of a problem since this article will not write itself. I could, of course, produce something using my smartphone’s predicative text, but that would feel like a glib gesture, one that doesn’t do the task at hand justice. So then, let’s try…

At the end of The Photograph Commands Indifference, Muellner sums up some thinking around photographs made by tourists. Following Susan Sontag’s lead, tourist photography has been much maligned. “Contrary to Sontag’s damning readings,” he writes, “the tourist photograph is not always an extension of a consumer economy’s blunt equation of acquisition with success.”

And he continues (buckle up!): “The photograph of the monument can also be read as an expression of our desire to mean something when we are away, ripped from the usual props and contexts of home that obfuscate questions of the existential. […] The photograph, including the acts of making, having and showing it, reasserts and reformulates for the individual the core paradox of the monument, you being here makes meaning.” (emphases in the original, p. 197 in the book) Well, yes! And we could easily extend this idea and take it as that, which drives the now much maligned photography on sites like Instagram.

In an obvious way, The Photograph Commands Indifference and the book’s very first essay, Making Doubles, are bookends. But in a larger sense, I feel that here we have this author’s core concerns expressed, namely the idea that somehow through writing one can come closer to understanding the desires that underlie photography.

That possibly is a losing proposition, but it is one very much worthwhile engaging in regardless. Right at the beginning of Making Doubles, Muellner warns the reader that the “essay has failed,” possibly using criteria for the failure that might be too strict. But that is the writer’s task: to set oneself criteria that are too strict. In other words, you set yourself up for (your own) failure.

As readers, we don’t necessarily have to accept these criteria. The writer’s task is not necessarily the reader’s; and even where it is the writer’s failure could still very successfully show the reader some things she has never before imagined.

I already noted above that there is much in Lacuna Park: Essays and Other Adventures in Photography that is of immense value and that makes this book a most welcome addition to a canon of writing that all too often is a bit on the dry, if not tedious side. For sure I will come back to Muellner’s advertures often.

Lacuna Park: Essays and Other Adventures in Photography; essays by Nicholas Muellner; 208 pages; Self Publish Be Happy; 2019

Making Pictures Mon, 11 Nov 2019 18:28:32 +0000 Joerg Colberg

This is such a boys picture, isn’t it? A photograph of a car — a covered car but a car nonetheless — in an urban environment. I’m not at all into cars, but I liked the scene so much that I took the picture twice, once in 2018 (on the left) and once three weeks ago (on the right).

If you look carefully you’ll see that that some time passed between them. The house in the background was now covered, and the mangled tree had more leaves but was now missing a y-shaped extension at its very top. It’s not clear to me if that covered car had been moved at all. At times, I’m thinking it had — its cover appears to have changed a little bit; but then couldn’t that have been the wind or possibly its owner straightening things?

These are pictures from Tokyo, a city that I had the opportunity to visit twice by now. Each time, I brought my camera, and each time the city resisted being photographed as much as it could. Much like in most Western countries, people, I was told, would be unhappy having their picture taken without their permission. Given I’m not interested in “street photography” that posed no problem.

That left me with the city itself — but what do you photograph in a city that’s so neat, so eager to present only its facade behind which the real Tokyo was happening, a real Tokyo that an outsider simply will not be granted access to?

Last year, I produced a lot of pictures that centered on the city’s very obvious oddness. There were the rotators in the parking garages, there were what feels like an infinite number of orange cones set up to prevent access to what might possibly be remotely dangerous, there were the covered cars in their often minute parking spaces… That was all new and fun, and I made a lot of pictures, some of which I still like. But all in all, it left me wanting more.

What was that “more”, though? Obviously, I didn’t want a repeat performance of last year, so I tried not to photograph covered cars, cones, or garages. I think I got a little bit closer this time, even though every once in a while I did stray from my rule — to arrive at the repeat picture shown above.

The funny thing was that I seemed to remember that I took the picture already, but just in case… And then I did look, and yes, I had taken it already — the same angle, almost the same crop. Lest you think I was performing some kind of magic, to get the picture I had to photograph over a fence, and there was that one convenient spot where I would be able to step on a little barrier which would elevate me just enough…

I like the picture, but I only like it as much because I have it twice now (without planning it), and there is so little difference between what’s in those two frames. If anything, that’s maybe the most Tokyo I’ve ever achieved in pictures. The next time I go back, I could take the same picture again — or maybe it will be drastically different, given a building might have been torn down, replaced by something shiny, clean, and new.

When I started to consciously take photographs with a serious camera again, a large part of my motivation arose from wanting to have these kinds of problems again: what do I photograph, or how do I photograph something? It’s one thing to write about photographs, and it’s quite another to make photographs (writers like me are essentially the barnacles on photoland’s hull, with the ship steadily moving in some direction whether we barnacles want that or not).

In a nutshell, I wanted to have other people’s problems, I wanted to make other people’s mistakes: if I wasn’t struggling with these things, how could I expect other people to work through their struggles?

But photography also is a different kind of seeing, and, frankly, I was a little tired of only seeing the world through other people’s eyes. Some of these people are very good at making me see things, but I was wondering if I would be able to make myself see things that I hadn’t seen before. Turns out I was (I’m working on my first photobook right now), even though it felt that a place like Tokyo existed to expose me to the limits of my abilities.

But it’s at the limits where most of the fun is to be had, isn’t it? Even though in the moment it might not necessarily feel that way. There were many days where I walked around to produce mostly shitty pictures. Tokyo being Tokyo, you never quite know whether turning a corner will produce more such pictures or whether out of the blue something magical will open itself up. I’m not at the stage, yet, where I could say what that “something magical” might be. For sure, it’s not the shrines or temples, though — they’re lovely but just terrible for good pictures.

It’s funny, I started to appreciate photography a lot more when I started writing about it (which had me stop photographing for quite a while). And then I began to appreciate photography even more when I picked up a camera again, to make my own pictures, pictures that I hadn’t made before, pictures that I didn’t know how to make. It’s places like Tokyo that I now appreciate the most, places that make it so hard to find good pictures. That intense and frustrating struggle that so often leads nowhere but that occasionally might offer an unexpected reward: that’s really what I personally want to experience.

Berlin-Wedding (and the rest of West Germany) Tue, 05 Nov 2019 19:35:55 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Over the course of the past year I heard a photographer speak of how a good photograph would conjure up the sensation of smell: the viewer wouldn’t just be able to see what was in front of the camera, s/he would also be able to smell it. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the photographer’s name. I had to think of this idea again when I looked through the newly reissued Berlin-Wedding by Michael Schmidt.

One picture in particular brought me back to the era when the photographs were taken. On page 79, there is an outlier photograph. Where most of the pictures follow along New Topographics-style cityscapes or portraits, here, the viewer is presented with the inside of a telephone booth at the corner of Utrechter Straße and Malplaqetstraße, the door of which is half open (or half closed — your call). West German telephone booths reeked of three things, the coldly lingering smell of cigarettes smoked while engaging in conversation, the nastily brutish smell of the cold metal a user would be surrounded with, and then there were the telephone books that would swivel out of their storage to reveal the numbers that could be called.

Visually, that photograph is out of place in the book. But given the telephone booth’s smell, it might well be regarded as the image that sums everything up: this was the smell of West Germany, the rump country left over after World War 2 that had allied itself with the West and that in 1990 would gobble up the other German rump country to form what is now simply known as Germany, a place where the wounds of that gobbling up are increasingly festering, with unrepentant neo-Nazis reaping the benefits of the still largely West German political class’ tone deafness.

I was born into and grew up in West Germany, in some mostly insignificant shitty city of which there appeared to have been an incredible abundance of. The three Berlin sectors formally governed by the Western Allies were not supposed to be part of West Germany. But the laws weren’t kidding anyone, and neither was the more or less openly professed disinterest by those very Allies. West Berlin was West Germany — it looked like it, it felt like it, and for sure it smelled like it.

For all the talk of Schmidt as the man who was focused on Berlin (well, he was, but mostly in and with Waffenruhe), this most German of all photographers — could there be a more generic name than Michael Schmidt (Michael Smith)? — was most of all a West German photographer with a West German sensibility. If you want to know what that might have been, a West German sensibility, just imagine the mixed smell of cold metal, cigarettes, and cheaply printed publications for mass consumption.

Even just the thought of that smell makes me sick. To imagine that I grew up there. Anyway…

The photograph on page 79 is not a very good picture; but it’s intensely fitting. When I use “good” in “good picture”, I’m referring only to everything beyond it. Photographically, the picture is competent. The lines are straight, and everything is on focus. Beyond that, though, apart from the smell that I sense and that a viewer not originally from West Germany might simply not pick up on, there’s nothing of interest here.

Then again, the West German smell of cold metal, cigarettes, and cheaply printed publications betrayed just that: there’s nothing of interest here. If you wanted to believe the government (which is, of course, what good German citizens were trained to do) there was nothing of interest there when former Nazis pervaded the government and found cushy spots in high places, and there was nothing of interest when I grew up, a time when those old Nazis were mostly (but not completely) gone, having been replaced by their now slightly (but only so slightly) more democratic successors. A prime example of those people was provided by the Bavarian prime minister Franz Josef Strauß, a man I would have a much easier time describing in German, given the German word for swastika (Hakenkreuz) includes the word for (Christian) cross (Kreuz). (They named the airport in Munich after him. Think of that when you fly there.)

Berlin-Wedding essentially describes the West Germany of the mid to late 1970s, the West Germany ruled by übertechnocrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a man who had been an officer during World War 2 (he had, you see, just done his duty) and who then went on to lecture the rest of the world about all the things he had expertise of. Schmidt (Helmut, the Chancellor) should have been the man to destroy his Social Democratic party, but with unfettered global neoliberal capitalism still around 20 years away, all he could do was to lay the foundations, to then watch things fall apart in retirement (where, true to his style, he would continue to lecture everybody else about what he thought was right, now in much reduced form as co-publisher of a widely read German weekly). Helmut Schmidt must have smelled of cigarettes and, lingering I would imagine, of cold steel (Jünger style in spirit), but now I’m digressing.

Berlin-Wedding divides into two parts, the first of which photographically describes the Berlin district with view-camera New Topographics pictures. The second, smaller, part focuses on selected individuals who are depicted in their places of work and in their homes. The latter now looks somewhat more dated than the former, in large part because fashions and interior decorations have changed a lot more by now than Berlin’s built environment in those places not affected too much by gentrification.

In reality there were at least two types of West Berlin (and of West Germany), namely the ones affected by an influx of migrants and those that were not. Due to a shortage of workers, West Germany had openly accepted people from a variety of countries who were called Gastarbeiter (guest workers), and these people and their families tended to settle not uniformly but selectively. Hence, if you go to Berlin today, places like Kreuzberg or Neukölln look a lot different than, say, Wedding.

The same was true for the rest of West Germany. It has become fashionable to conceal a tendency towards intolerance (if not outright racism) behind concerns over political correctness (with the implication that somehow free speech is under assault). Back in the day, that concern expressed as a complaint over the fact that certain parts of some West German cities looked messier to German eyes than others. Still, I took and take the lively atmosphere of Neukölln over the gentrified stifling conformity of Prenzlauer Berg any time, thank you very much.

A few paragraphs ago you probably realized that I’m not a disinterested critic here. But if any work of art is good it’s able to make a viewer feel as if its maker was sticking a long hotly glowing poker into her or him. Art, in other words, ought to hurt, ought to stir us, because otherwise, it’s just entertainment. Schmidt (the photographer) was no entertainer.

This reissue stays very close to the original, published in 1978. I think that’s a good choice because it brings today’s new viewers very close to Schmidt’s intended experience. Curiously, while the book’s form looks and feels a bit dated, the work itself doesn’t. Swap out the old car, advertizing signs, and old clothes, and you get pictures that could have easily been made in many locations in today’s Germany.


Berlin-Wedding; photographs by Michael Schmidt; essays by various authors (original essays only in German; 2019 essay by Thomas Weski in German and English); 120 pages; Koenig Books; 2019


Fünf Finger Föhn Frisur Sun, 27 Oct 2019 21:32:19 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Whoever came up with the title of Fünf Finger Föhn Frisur did a marvelous job, and kudos to the publisher for not translating it. The book’s main essay is reproduced in its original German (Frisurwandel der Öffentlichkeit) and in English (The Structural Transformation of Hair in the Public Sphere) — oh, the beauty of the German language! But who needs text anyway when one can enjoy what look like (and are) promotional photographs made for a Zürich based hair salon from the 1970s until the 1990s?

For better or worse (your choice), Fünf Finger Föhn Frisur is a book about sculpture, more precisely the kinds of sculptures created on the heads of upper-class bourgeois Zürich women that a strong gust of wind outside might have easily transformed into something a little less impressive.

I must have grown up being exposed to similar photographs (no upper class, no Zürich) when I went to the barber, but of course, I didn’t pay any attention to the photographs on display, what with my general dislike of getting my own hair cut. In hindsight, there are at least two regrettable aspects to this fact, namely a) the rather bad hair cut I liked (oh boy!) and b) my missing out on enjoying the photographs I could have taken in instead of ignored.

But that’s how it goes, doesn’t it? We ignore what is all around us, only to later engage in perhaps slightly exaggerated swooning when presented with what we missed out on. There always is the danger that a form of nostalgia is being created that stands in no relation to the actual merits of the things or times in question. The other danger is things or people being exoticized which can easily create a form of othering. So I’m always a bit wary about photobooks that present collections of old pictures. It’s hard to say what the recipe is to avoid these pitfalls — or whether there even can be such a recipe.

As far as I can see, there is no nostalgia here, though, except maybe for the production of these photographs. For sure, nobody is being exoticized here, either. What exactly is going on here? This is where it gets interesting for me. I personally have no interest in hair styles (anyone who has ever met me in person will not be surprised by this statement). Most of what is depicted in the book strikes me as a bit dated, but I’m not 100% sure. Now, if I were interested in hair styles, I’d probably look at the book as that, a collection of them that I might find interesting or revolting or whatever else; but that would be a lot less interesting than what I’m facing here.

When I wrote above that there’s no exoticizing going on, then that’s maybe not entirely correct. For me, much of what I encounter is exotic, but it’s a form of being everyday-exotic: something that is very familiar in some ways, that is thus not being paid much attention to, and that then takes on a very different and fascinating character when it becomes the center of attention. This has me fascinated. Of course, this is something that someone who is paying a lot of attention to hair styles might not experience.

But the paying attention to these pictures throws their artifice into stark contrast. That artifice actually splits into two parts. There is the artifice of the hair styles, which seems to follows its own logic (rather the logic of, say, ease of use or whatever there might be). And there is the artifice of the photography, with its often strange (or maybe I should say strangely exaggerated) poses, the way it often dissolves the figure below the shoulders, and its often just too exaggerated ideas of seduction: the smiles are just a tad too fake, there might be too much of a faux-erotic squint going on — or its opposite, etc. It’s all photographed so well that none of this falls apart. The phoniness is almost believable. Almost. That makes it interesting.

With its inclusion of behind-the-scenes material — invoices, contact sheets, etc. — Fünf Finger Föhn Frisur keeps reminding the viewer of the production, of the artifice involved. What’s more, in various cases different versions of a photograph are included. This way, the book always centers on the photography as much as on the sculpted hair.

Ultimately, the book asks of us to pay closer attention to the photography we see all around us, whatever context it might be embedded in. Ultimately, photography used in advertizing can be just as revealing and interesting as photography in an art museum. Often enough, it’s just as well (or even better) produced. Its ultimate purpose might be different — but why should one type of manipulation be worse than another?

Fünf Finger Föhn Frisur; photographs by Gaechter+Clahsen; essay by Jörg Scheller; Edition Patrick Frey; 2019

(not rated)

American Origami Sun, 20 Oct 2019 23:05:34 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I feel it might be best to cut to the chase right away: America Origami by Andres Gonzalez suffers from the same problem as Mathieu Asselin’s Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation. In both cases, a photographer set out to very ambitiously tackle an important, large topic. In both cases, the respective publisher pulled all the right stops to produce what should be an engaging book. And in both cases, the photography is competent, yet mediocre if not lackluster.

When I write this, I don’t mean to extend that description to the photographers. Someone clearly would have to care a great deal to spend years on exposing the tragic truth behind US mass shootings or an agricultural corporation that’s poisoning the planet. But good photobooks do need good pictures in 99% of all cases. And the 1% of cases — that’s usually where the pictures don’t matter at all (for whatever reason), or the idea of the book is to display crappy pictures.

For all other books you need good pictures. A photobook is a visual medium, and as a maker you will have to sustain a viewer’s attention. That’s what it comes down to.

In the case of America Origami, the very clever binding actually manages to highlight the photography even more (Monsanto is a much more classical production). The book is side stitched, and the pages were then folded, resulting in a triangular spine (see picture above). The publisher describes this as “staplebound reversed gatefold”. This produces for a book that’s very slightly awkward to handle. The viewer can look through the book normally with two hands and no other support. If s/he wants to look at the initially hidden parts, s/he will require some support, whether her or his lap or a table.

Now, whether or not it’s actually worthwhile to engage in the process of unfolding isn’t clear to me. After encountering the umpteenth photograph of a document or letter, I simply stopped looking at the interior. That’s the thing with elaborate constructions like the one used here: the resulting effort to look will actually have to be worth it for the viewer, and I don’t think it is. Seen that way, even the folded binding itself might be questioned.

It gives me no pleasure writing these comments, because as I noted, the topic covered in the book is important and relevant enough. In fact, I probably don’t have to explain why one would need to worry about mass shootings. The reality is that in the time that will pass between me writing this article and me publishing it, in all likelihood there will have been another one: “The total number of deadly mass shootings in the United States in 2019 comes out to an average of one every 13 days.” (source) In every other country I know this fact would be considered as a major problem that needs to be solved as quickly as possible. In the US, thanks to the gun lobby and the Republican Party, there are “thoughts and prayers”.

Now, how does one tackle mass shootings photographically? When they happen, the visual diet has by now been clearly established: there are pictures of police tape, survivors walking out with their hands up (as if they needed to be traumatized even more), relatives and/or friends embracing and crying, make-shift memorials, and politicians giving a press conference. That’s it. None of these photographs obviously have the power to communicate what a mass shooting really means — a problem that war photographers know very well.

How then do you tackle mass shootings after they happened? Gonzalez solved the problem by photographing locations and objects such as letters. In theory, that’s a good idea. But photographing locations runs into the problem that the built environment in the US actually is visually mostly not very interesting at all, whether it’s the malls that look the same everywhere, the houses (ditto), or the public buildings (ditto). So there runs a thread of a sameness through these pictures, which on the one hand communicates that these shootings are just very common. On the other hand, it’s a stale visual diet, which prevents the viewer from engaging more deeply.

If these photographs covered a different topic, maybe their message would be different. But for such a loaded subject, locations such as Littleton, CO (Columbine High School) or Newtown, CT (Sandy Hook Elementary High School), this viewer has felt himself being frustrated about how mute the photographs are. Of course, they are mute because that’s what photographs are: pictures show surfaces, but they can’t portray emotions. Still, if there is any urgency to these pictures, then I’m not made to feel that. And that’s what gets me.

In the book, there are a few attempts to insert the human presence that’s so sorely lacking in most of the photographs (no, pictures of people’s belongings do not introduce that presence). There are short sections with two portraits (in black and white) plus transcripts of longer interviews (there are also speeches by various presidents reproduced). Here then are the human voices. This is good, and it mostly follows ideas used by Svetlana Alexievich in her books (where interviews are condensed into long first-person narratives, with the questions in between removed).

But why are there so few people in the book? Where are the portraits of people? If I have wanted a human presence in a photobook, here I find myself wanting it as much as I possibly can. It’s not even that I need to see people somehow connected to the shootings (that would be very documentary-style thinking). Any of us could become connected to a mass shooting today, tomorrow, or the day after — if we’re unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when yet another mass shooter — in all likelihood a young, white loner — gets out his arsenal of military-grade guns (not so indirectly courtesy of the gun lobby) to go about his business.

Maybe this all comes down to expectations: what exactly is a photobook about mass shootings to do? What is it supposed to tell us? How can that for which words escape us be shown, be told? I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that a huge topic like mass shootings — the mass murder that has become so common in the US — asks for a bold response, a response that I find lacking in America Origami in every aspect except the book’s form. Crucially, the book’s inventive binding cannot conceal the lack of such boldness in the photographs.

Contemporary photography with its often reduced visual elements and its deadpan aesthetic is good for a large variety of things. But it’s also really bad for a variety of others. Unfortunately, this includes mass shootings.

American Origami; photographs and text (transcribed) by Andres Gonzalez; 384 pages; FW:Books/Light work; 2019

Rating: Photography 1.5, Book Concept 2.5, Edit 2, Production 3 – Overall 2.2

Bath in Brilliant Green Mon, 14 Oct 2019 14:51:36 +0000 Joerg Colberg

In photography, all too often the tristesse of contemporary life is given an expression through equally sour photographs that often are devoid of a direct human presence. I can see the appeal of such photography — for a while, I was drawn to it myself. Might one not describe vast parts of the so-called Düsseldorf School as operating along those lines? Even where there literally are thousands of people in the photographs of Andreas Gursky, the effect is the opposite: it’s as if nobody is there.

I can see the point of such work, but I now view it as one of those many dead ends that the history of photography is filled with, where a photographic approach first turns into style and then into mannerism. Lest you now send me emails with your latest “street photography” – that’s not much better, merely exchanging one mannerism for another, the differences in styles notwithstanding.

Maybe that’s the struggle every photographer has to face: how to arrive at something without having that — whatever it is — exhaust itself as an ultimately empty formula. For a variety of reasons, that’s difficult, because who is happy to abandon what might have been so hard to reach? And who wants to tell their gallerists and/or publishers that more of the same just doesn’t cut it for anything other than paying the bills?

I’ve been itching more and more to see a human presence in photographs, ideally one where I can feel a real connection between the person in front of the camera and the one behind. And when I use the term “real connection” I’m explicitly excluding the macho approach to photography, which, sadly, is still all-too common (older male goes out into the world and sticks his camera plus flash into the faces of the most vulnerable — you know what I’m talking about).

I suppose what this all comes down to is that I want to look at photographs where I can sense that their maker cared about more than their own ego. Obviously, all art is rooted in the artist’s ego; but it doesn’t have to stop there. As an artist, one can — I’d say: one should — move beyond one’s own ego.

The above might read like a strange introduction to Nina Röder‘s Bath in Brilliant Green. But it is what I arrived at, thinking about what was going on the background of the work. There are, after all, plenty of photographs in the book that look like some form of collaboration between a person and the photographer. People are shown engaging with part of the land, often in the nude, or they are seen adorned with materials that stand in stark contrast to the softness of their flesh.

It is that very softness, and its rosiness, that hint at the vulnerability of the human condition that rests at the center of the work. The world is depicted as being what it is, harsh and unforgiving, and we humans have to deal with that, whether literally or figuratively.

I sense loneliness and longing in these photographs. To what extent that read is based on what I bring to these pictures I couldn’t say. In the photographs, the figures are always on their own, and for the most part their faces are being hidden or turned away. They are, in other words, nobodies. But they’re not nobodies in a social sense, they are nobodies as human beings in an environment that is hostile to them being there. This fact points at why we collectively ought to take better care of each other: there is nothing else in this world that could do that for us.

Bath in Brilliant Green mixes landscapes with still lifes with studio photographs and more, and it does that well. For sure, there is that clear thread of feeling going through the work that I spoke of above. It’s edited and designed well. However, for my taste, the book’s printing falls on the lifeless side, with shadow detail sorely lacking. This means that images dominated by dark tones lose a lot of definition, at times resulting in muddy flatness. I think that’s unfortunate.

But all in all, it is the human presence in the work that carries most of its meaning. Working with people in front of the camera is hard. It requires work, dedication, passion, empathy. And obviously the performative style of photography used in the book isn’t the only way to do it. Still, what a difference it makes to see human figures — and not just landscapes devoid of a human presence!

Bath in Brilliant Green; photographs by Nina Röder; texts by Sarah Frost, Nicolas Oxen; 144 pages; Kehrer; 2018

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3, Edit 3, Production 2 – Overall 3.1

Attention Servicemember Mon, 07 Oct 2019 19:43:51 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Eighteen years after a group of terrorists attacked the United States on its own soil, there still are soldiers in Afghanistan, which served as the base of the terror organization, Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has now been defeated — or maybe not, it’s really not that clear. The moment someone suggests withdrawing the soldiers from what looks like an endless war that doesn’t appear to have any goals other than sustaining itself, someone else will claim that Al-Qaeda aren’t defeated and/or they might re-emerge. You can swap out Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan for some other group and country — there is no shortage of locations where the US is maintaining a military presence without, seemingly, making any headway beyond anything that’s purely warfare.

The world of photography has long lost interest in locations such as Afghanistan or Iraq, much like the rest of the country. Meanwhile, Afghan civilians are still being butchered by the dozens, now often remotely through the use of drones: “A U.S. drone strike intended to hit an Islamic State (IS) hideout in Afghanistan killed at least 30 civilians resting after a day’s labor in the fields, officials said on Thursday.” “We are aware of allegations of the death of non-combatants,” some military spokesperson is being quoted, “and are working with local officials to determine the facts.” Yeah, right.

War is a meat grinder, and the meat that’s being ground typically is that of foreigners. But the thousands and thousands of soldiers sent abroad to do the grinding do not come home unaffected. Some lose their lives, others a limb or two, and most — maybe all of them — lose their sanity, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for the rest of their lives. I’ve now lived long enough to understand that war is not communicable in any way — you have either experienced it, or — if you’re lucky — you don’t. I’ve also come to understand that there’s a gulf in understanding between those who have experienced war and those who  have not.

One of my grandfathers came home from World War 2 as a psychological wreck. Today, we’d speak of PTSD, back in the day (it took me years to piece this together), he was just being difficult and abusive to those he returned to. And then he left again, to find his final resting place in a pauper’s grave somewhere in the city he was born, having been disavowed by my relatives. As I said, a gulf of understanding — also on my part (how could they?…).

Ben Brody went to war, happily at first. I know this because he wrote about it in his book Attention Servicemember: “I was 22 and thought the Iraq War would be the pivotal moment for my generation, as Vietnam was for my parents’ generation.” Ben, with whom — full disclosure — I worked on some of the pictures in the book when he was my student, wanted to be a photographer; having failed a photojournalism class he signed up as an Army combat photographer. This put him into the middle of things, from which you couldn’t easily extricate yourself (like a photojournalist).

Obviously, you cannot just take any pictures as a combat photographer, or rather your superiors want to see a certain thing (victory). As Ben writes in the book, this approach isn’t entirely different than how photojournalism works, it’s just somewhat different objectives. Having eventually left the military, he went back to photographing, this time as an embedded photojournalist. He ended up photographing in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is a very large number if photographs from both locations in the book.

There also are photographs from until after he decided he wasn’t going back any longer, photographs in which he attempts to describe what the world at home looks like to him now: “After long periods in war zones, being shot at and blown up starts to feel normal. When you get home, you feel crazy for awhile, because no one is trying to kill you. That feeling fades quickly, but I still see the tactical geometry of any room I’m in. I also see war at the gas pump, war in the choices that people make who consider themselves peaceful, war in our drug use, war in our economic system, war in our collective anxieties.”

Attention Servicemember brings all of this together, and it might just be the photobook to describe the almost 20 years of continuous US wars in the early 21st Century. A lot of the elements don’t seem to quite fit together, but that’s apparently what war does: it reveals the insanity of the human condition that lies underneath the very thin (and currently thinning) veneer that we mistaken for our culture, for our civilization. It is the text that holds it all together and produces the impressive end result that the book is. Ben’s first-person account of his journey gets the viewer/reader as close as s/he can hope to the reality of war.

Highly recommended.

Attention Servicemember; photographs and text by Ben Brody; 304 pages; Red Hook Editions; 2019

(not rated)

When Red Disappears Mon, 30 Sep 2019 18:52:19 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I became aware of Elspeth Diederix‘s When Red Disappears the way I learn about 99% of all photobooks — online, possibly through some marketing email. I don’t remember where and when, but I do remember that I made the choice not to pursue the book (I will contact a publisher and ask for a review copy when I see something that I feel I want to cover). After all these years, I have a pretty good idea what a book might look like when seeing it presented online.

But there still always is everything the book, the object, brings that cannot possibly conveyed by digital photographs plus the obligatory advertizing copy. So making such decisions online isn’t fool proof. In the case of this particular book, I found out when the publisher in question, Hans Gremmen’s FW:Books, sent it to me (along with others). I would have easily agreed to reviewing the book, had I come across it as an object and not online.

I feel this lesson is something that anyone interested in photobooks will have to keep in mind, especially when operating on a limited budget, which requires some careful decision making: the internet is great to share information about books, but it actually is pretty lousy when it comes to conveying their physical attributes.

A brief digression: Another major shortcoming of the internet is its tendency to amplify the voices of those who don’t really need such amplification, while others (more often than not women or minorities) simply aren’t heard or are only heard by a very small number of people. A lot of photobooks by famous photographers sell very well not because they’re any good but because they get massive play, and no critic is willing to write anything negative about them — while, in private, admitting openly that, well, they’re terrible.

My digression doesn’t have anything to do with When Red Disappears… Oh, whom am I trying to kid here? Of course, this article is going to get read and shared a lot less widely because the photographer isn’t a household name in large parts of photoland.

The reality is, though, that this particular book is more nicely produced than roughly 80% to 90% of all photobooks, and for that reason alone it deserves to be appreciated. This might sound like an incredibly silly thing to say, an endeavour of engaging in photobook-production geekery. But it is not, because without the production and the choices made for the underlying body of work, the book would be one of the many forgettable ones produced every year.

In other words, what actually can — and I would argue should — be gained by very carefully considering the form and materials of a photobook is demonstrated very clearly here. For those who have followed Gremmen’s work as a publisher, this will come as no surprise.

The book features a body of work produced under water, details of some Dutch ocean floor, with the various organisms living there being the subjects in what comes across as a fairly murky world. As the essay at the end of the books makes clear, there are various reasons for things looking the way they do under water, including a limited amount of actual light, the colours provided by the organisms themselves, and the way optics plays out in the sea.

“The first colour that vanishes is red,” Diederix is quoted in the piece, “by about 30m down, the yellows have been lost too”. Even though I studied optics as part of my undergrad degree in physics, this had never occurred to me. I must have seen many films and pictures taken underwater, and I had never asked myself why things looked the way they did.

Diederix’s achievement is to have taken photographs that are amazing despite the fact that they don’t look anything like the kinds of imagery one might know from some touristy location, with colourful coral reefs shining brightly in some impossibly blue water. Here, things are very reduced. Where it is visible the ocean floor looks like some uninviting grey desert, and marine life doesn’t look too interesting, either. Photography is good when it can make the remarkable look remarkable. But it is great when it can do the same for the unremarkable, the kinds of places photographed here.

Having the pictures is one thing, making a good photobook out of them is another. Hans Gremmen knows how to do such a thing. In a variety of ways, When Red Disappears invites comparisons to Awoiska van der Molen’s Sequester. In both cases, the printing of the book needs to deliver so that the book will come close to the photographic prints by these two Dutch artists. And it does.

Much like Sequester, When Red Disappears appears to have been printed on black paper, so the added inks literally lift the images out of the darkness. What looks like black paper, though, is not that: the printer worked with white paper and fifteen times as much black ink as usual. In addition, the edges were treated to be black (Hans Gremmen kindly revealed these production details). The overall effect is tremendously beautiful — and it is exactly this that simply cannot be appreciated in digital reproductions (I might also add that the smell of those inks is quite something, but that is really only production geekery).

As far as I’m concerned, a photobook ideally is more than a container for photographs, whether we’re looking at catalogues or monographs. All too often, it is not. And often enough, that’s OK. But I feel the photobook itself should be its own object of art — possibly even at the expense of the photographs it contains. If I had to make my case in front of some jury, When Red Disappears would be an ideal example.

Honestly, if you can’t appreciate this book regardless of whether you like the pictures or not, then I don’t think you understand the form of the photobook and the many aspects that go into its production (printing, material choices, etc.). But there’s more to the form: it will also make you like the pictures or, at the very least, make you appreciate them. So here we have photographs from the murky waters of the Dutch sea, presented in all their glory. This is photobook making at its very best.

Highly recommended.

When Red Disappears; photographs by Elspeth Diederix; text by Philip Ball; 88 pages; FW:Books; 2019

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 5, Edit 4, Production 5 – Overall 4.5

Photobook Reviews W39/2019 Mon, 23 Sep 2019 18:41:14 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Publishing photobooks is a labour intensive and almost completely thankless business: at best, you might see your company’s name listed in one of the many, many shortlists (that often aren’t so short at all). If a prize is given, it’s the photographer who gets it, regardless of the fact that while it’s her or his photographs, it might actually be other people who made the book what it is, starting with, well, the publisher. The reality is that good publishers know how a photobook can succeed, whereas many photographers don’t.

The best way to understand photobook publishers is through looking at their books. With many publishing houses, if the name on the spine is mentioned, one instantly has a good idea of what a book might look like or, roughly, what work an artist might have produced. For example, everybody knows what a Steidl book looks like and what kind of photography is likely to be found therein. In this particular example, there is a dedication to the craft of printing that I can appreciate regardless of whether or not I like every book made in Göttingen (I don’t) or whether I think every book needs to come with heavy layers of ink (nope).

Walter Keller might not be a household name in photoland, even though many of the books he produced and championed clearly are. In the world of photobook making, he’s a legend. Whether it’s Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh, Michael Schmidt’s Ein-Heit, Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows, Roni Horn’s You Are the Weather, Gilles Peress’ Farewell to Bosnia, Nan Goldin’s I’ll Be Your Mirror, or Here Is New York — A Democracy of Photographs (the book that would ultimately wreck the publishing house) — these are just some of the books made by Walter Keller, some in conjunction with Fotomuseum Winterthur, an institution he co-founded.

A new book, Walter Keller — Beruf: Verleger (Walter Keller – Profession: Publisher), now dives into the man’s life and work (note that at this time, the book only appears to be available in German). Keller wanted to publish early on in his life, and he wanted to work with photographs. His earliest product was a pamphlet that later turned into a more refined magazine named Der Alltag (The Everyday). Besides Keller, the magazine involved a number of people who would go on to play serious roles in the world of photography, such as Urs Stahel (one of the driving forces behind the book) or Patrick Frey (whose own company published it).

There are ample examples of spreads from Der Alltag, just as there are spreads from the many books Keller ended up producing. In addition, there are numerous essays and conversations about the man, who comes across as incredibly driven and visionary, with the flip side of not the best sense of business and a certain degree of myopia. The book also dives into Keller’s womanizing, devoting a whole essay to it, which I found a little bizarre. What insight is gained from the essay is unclear to me.

One aspect that I enjoyed about Walter Keller — Beruf: Verleger is to discover artists whose books I hadn’t heard of before. So far, my own biggest discovery is Marianne Müller’s truly extraordinary A Part of My Life, which is still available for next to nothing everywhere online. If that book were published today, I think it would be widely discussed: it’s such strong work that does not betray its age at all (the photographs were all made in the early to mid 199s). It’s not included in the recent How We See: Photobooks by Women, so there’s a book by a well known publisher that somehow ended up being more or less forgotten.

Walter Keller — Beruf: Verleger; editors: Urs Stahel, Miriam Wiesel; texts by Theres Abbt, Bice Curiger, Regina Decoppet, Nan Goldin, Martin Heller, Martin Jaeggi, Liz Jobey, Friedrich Meschede, Michael Rutschky, Joachim Sieber, Andreas Spillmann, Urs Stahel, Nikolaus Wyss;432 pages; Edition Patrick Frey; 2019

(not rated)

Rebecca Fertinel‘s Ubuntu (I Am because We Are) employs a few tricks to elevate pretty standard documentary-style photographs into a interesting book. It speaks of a sense of community in ways that don’t feel quite as restricted as an ordinary documentary photobook would be. To begin with, the text that provides the (basic) background of the pictures is hidden underneath the flap of the back cover. There are no title page or table of contents. The photograph on the front of the book continues inside, and this device is used for all horizontal images: one half can be seen on one side of a page, the other half on the reverse.

Such an approach runs counter photobook orthodoxy (which is most pronounced in the United States). But the key here is that while it’s a photobook, it’s not necessarily a collection of photographs any longer, with some added text. This is not a new idea, but one that said orthodoxy just can’t wrap its head around: the book is the entity to be considered and not any one (or a few) of the photographs contained therein. Consequently, the various celebrations contained in the book blend into one another, whether it’s a wedding, a birthday, a funeral — it’s all one community coming together to celebrate life through being a community.

It’s not just some community. The title already contains a hint. Ubuntu is often translated as I am because we are, “but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean ‘the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.'” (sadly, if you Google just the word “Ubuntu”, you’ll learn all about some computer operating system). The term originates in Africa, and so do Fertinel’s subjects. There are a few hints in the photographs betraying the locale, and the text at the end of the book confirms what an attentive viewer is able to puzzle together: the portrayed form part of the Congolese community in Belgium (background).

This is a book for our times. Not only does it show the beauty of a group of people that, I’m sure, is not very widely known at all. It also very strongly hints at the value and beauty of the idea of community, the idea of belonging together and of living with and for each other — and not against each other, as seems to have become the modus operandi pushed by neofascists and populists all over the world and amplified on social media. The fact that Ubuntu is as much a concept originating out of Africa as humans themselves holds special relevance: there is much that can be learned from those who for too long have been at the receiving end of colonial violence.

And it is really only the form of the book itself that conveys this message as it refuses to reveal time and again the kinds of specifics that anyone based in a Western tradition is used to expecting. With the idea of community in mind even the treatment of the photographs, the wrapping of the horizontal ones around the pages, makes sense: it’s all about the overall result, about making a viewer feel the larger whole instead of them getting each and every one in an atomic fashion.

Ubuntu (I Am because We Are); photographs by Rebecca Fertinel; texts by Hans Theys, Rebecca Fertinel; 164 pages; Lecturis; 2019

Rating: Photography 3, Book Concept 5, Edit 3, Production 5 – Overall 4.0

On a surface level, Yann Mingard‘s Everything is up in the air, thus our vertigo has nothing to do with Ubuntu (I Am because We are). It’s highly conceptual — a stark contrast to the documentary approach used by Fertinel. But in both cases, the larger idea is being approached through photography’s strange muteness: pictures show, but they don’t tell — because by construction they can’t. In this particular case, the Swiss artist presents a number of seemingly separate topics that, together, address the larger issue of the Anthropocene.

In each case, a grouping of images (presented without captions — some very basic factual captions are hidden in the book’s front flap) is being accompanied by some short, factual text. The images might be photographs by Mingard, or they might be screen grabs of videos, or reproductions of documents or paintings. The text itself then reveals the very basic underlying topic, which explains everything and nothing: everything because the viewer/reader gets an understanding of what s/he might be looking at, and nothing because abstract or long-term processes cannot really be visualized, let alone understood. They just are.

I think it’s the book form that’s most conducive to allowing for a project like this to shine. The photographs are beautiful and incredibly competently made, but I’m not sure on a wall, with some text next to it, they’d work as well. Maybe this is me being impatient with reading wall text; but maybe this is also me being a little bit tired of looking at large prints in expensive frames in some white-wall environment (that you might have to pay an admission fee for) attempting to speak of some larger drama: I’m just unable to look past the production value and the sheer artifice of it all. But I haven’t seen the exhibition the book is based on, so maybe I got it all wrong.

Regardless, the challenge of conceptual work always is that it runs the risk of coming across as too complicated, as too cerebral, as too much made for that small crowd of curators that really loves conceptual photography. I think the only antidote possible is for the photographs to be beautiful and not too clinical. With its inclusion of a relative wide variety of materials, Everything is up in the air, thus our vertigo succeeds. I particularly like the beginning of the book that compares Turner paintings with screenshots of air pollution in China. The colours themselves are visceral, and the artifice in the image sources makes for an unexpected comparison.

Much to his credit, in his “straight” photographs, Mingard resists the temptation to stylize the work too much. A lot of the photographs are very dark or use a black background, but there are enough others that avoid the risk of the style becoming a gimmick. Taken together, however cerebral the idea of the Anthropocene might be, its consequences are all around us, most notably in the form of climate change. There is much for each and everyone of us at stake here. Hopefully, books such as Everything is up in the air, thus our vertigo can help raise awareness of what we’re dealing with.

Everything is up in the air, thus our vertigo; images by Yann Mingard; texts by Frédéric Moser; 144 pages; Editions GwinZegal; 2018

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 3.5 – Overall 3.6

Images and Text, Text and Images Mon, 16 Sep 2019 17:00:40 +0000 Joerg Colberg

When it comes to their own photographs, many photographers are divas, insisting on them being treated as precious entities that ought to be treated with the utmost respect. This approach works well enough for some photographs (as exasperating as it can be to see it in action), but it ultimately does photography a big disservice. Many of the various trends we still unfortunately witness in photoland can be traced back to the precious image, whether it’s the bad mouthing or outright dismissal of what so-called amateurs produce on Instagram or whatever else.

But the precious-image approach also has repercussions inside of photoland, in particular when it comes to photographs sitting next to text. Divas don’t really like anything possibly competing with their precious images. Consequently, where text is present (often for reasons of sheer necessity), it is often treated as at best secondary, as something that more often than not doesn’t work, in fact cannot work given that much like photographs text needs to be able to do operate on its own terms. The secondary-text approach works well in a variety of contexts, such as, for example, in photojournalism where often clunky and awkward reading text serves to provide the captions or the larger context, telling everything that, alas, pictures can’t show.

Having spent the better part of the last decade writing, my relationship to text is a little different than most photographers’. But I also came to photography not as a writer or blogger but as someone who enjoyed taking pictures, and I still do. Now, whether or not I am a good writer and/or photographer is really besides the point. I will, however, make the claim that I understand the perils of both photography and writing a little bit better than many who only do one or the other.

I’m not even talking so much about how to make a good picture or write a good text, I’m talking about the psychological struggle. I do understand the precious-image approach. But I not only know that (photographer’s voice) it’s so great when things just come together in a photograph, I also know that (educator’s voice) there’s always another picture, and I know that (critic’s voice) pictures can only do so much. The reality is that photographs can come alive in a variety of ways once the insistence on the precious image falls away — if anything the recent photobook boom has demonstrated just that (the presence of the many conservative gallery-show-on-paper books notwithstanding).

Of course, to understand how photographs can work with text, looking at some cases where things work very well helps. I know that many photographers are enarmoured with Larry Sultan‘s Pictures from Home. That is a good book, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the book that reaches the full pinnacle of what images and text (or text and images) can do with each other. For that, you’d have to look at books like, for example, John Berger and Jean Mohr‘s A Seventh Man or at W.G. Sebald‘s Austerlitz. The use of photography in these two books is very different, but in both cases they contribute to the overall book immensely. Crucially, while you could easily show Sultan’s pictures without any of the text, for A Seventh Man or especially Austerlitz that would just be an absurd idea.

So for images to work well with text, I want to claim that they have to fully shed their precious-picture aspect. This is not to say that they simply have to be shitty. That’s really not the point. They need to be good pictures. But the moment they come alive next to text, they cannot insist on being precious any longer. They need to be content with operating alongside text — or rather their maker has to.

A new benchmark achievement of what the combination of images and text can achieve is now being made available in the form of Alan Huck‘s I walk toward the sun which is always going down (full disclosure: I was Alan’s grad-school advisor when he worked on the book). It contains ample text, which of course will have to be read. So strictly speaking this isn’t even a photobook — it’s basically a form of literature that uses photography prominently (I’ll leave it to academics to argue over whether or not that is a photobook).

References and/or quotations abound, both in the text and in the photographs. In the writing, the quotations can be found more easily than in the images; but they are very apparent in the photographs as well. The author thus betrays his being deeply embedded in a literary and photographic tradition. In part, the book is thus a form of synthesis where all these influences are being brought together to form a meditation on what it means to take in the world on a long walk.

On the other hand, there also exists a clear voice of its own — I walk toward the sun is not merely a collage. That voice is one that I’d describe as one of resignation, even though that’s maybe too strong a word for what’s going on in the book. Maybe melancholy would describe the mood more clearly.

I’ve read the book many times (in all kinds of iterations, including its earliest ones), and I still don’t tire of it. Each repeated reading/viewing has brought out new elements, has made me see things in a different way. I can only hope that I walk toward the sun which is always going down will find the wide audience that I think it deserves. The world of books working with text and images has just become a lot richer.

Highly recommended.

I walk toward the sun which is always going down; text and photographs by Alan Huck; 144 pages; MACK; 2019

New Dutch Views Mon, 09 Sep 2019 19:15:23 +0000 Joerg Colberg

A 1989 publication entitled Hollandse Taferelen (Dutch Scenes) by Hans Aarsman presents the authors views of his home country through a combination of photographs and text. Photographically, the book is very much a product of its time, with the view-camera images referencing more widely known bodies of work, whether (mostly in process) Joel Sternfeld‘s American Prospects or (in the spirit of the work) Joachim Brohm‘s Ruhr. Much like Brohm’s portrait of parts of Germany, Aarsman’s portrait of Holland reveals a rather unremarkable place being made utterly remarkable. In a sense, Aarsman’s views of the country are much more true to it than any tourist brochure could be (but then, they do make for very bad tourist-brochure material).

In a country as educated as the Netherlands, with its long and widely shared artistic and cultural tradition, I suspect that these 1989 scenes would have not necessarily be seen against either Sternfeld or Brohm. They would have been seen against the long history of portrayal of the country over the whole course of art history. Aarsman’s photographs are completely unlike Dutch Golden Age Landscape Paintings. But ignoring media and styles of portrayal, I think the spirit of these works is very much the same: artists celebrating this fragile part of the world which is constantly threatened by the sea not only for what it is but especially for how it reflects the lives and efforts of those living within it.

Marwan Bassiouni‘s New Dutch Views follows this tradition. To write that it does so with a twist is both correct and not correct. It is correct because the Dutch views each are part of another view, one in which the interiors walls and windows of mosques are visible. It is not correct because the inclusion of who is looking at the land might have been made explicit — but isn’t all art made from a particular view point? To insist that there’s a twist might just reinforce the very separation the book in my mind works so hard against, namely the one that divides those Dutch citizens who happen to be Muslims from all the others.

I can think of at least two immediate reads of the work. The Dutch views present the land outside of a very specific environment, the mosque. I’m alternating between reading the work as aspirational, as wanting what is inside these buildings to be an integral part of what is visible outside, and reading these photographs as an expression of a frustration, a frustration arising from the feeling that the inside and the outside might not be easily reconcilable, given societal and political circumstances.

A country like the Netherlands is embedded in a larger geographical region — Europe — that is no stranger to the persecution of religious minorities. To pretend that Islamophobia is anything other than yet another variant of any of the various religious follies that have wrecked the continent for the past two millennia is disingenuous. The various neofascists pretending they’re aiming to protect the values of whatever countries they’re from — in the Netherlands, you’d have Geert Wilders — are not doing that. Instead, they’re following a tradition that has led to the deaths of millions of people over the course of Europe’s history.

But the toothpaste has long been out of its tube anyway: Islam is a part of the Netherlands, just like it’s a part of Germany and many other European nations. This then would be the third read of the work, the read that in the ideal world that we don’t live in would be the only one, the obvious one: these pictures happen to show what the Dutch landscape looks like from the windows of mosques. The aspirational read, the frustrated read — they are caused by the politics inserted into our societies.

As is the case with most photography, it’s really the context that provides the fuel that drives a work’s power. These photographs are powerful and challenging because they assert what ought to be the case, given the constitutions of Western nations, but what is being challenged on a daily basis by neofascists and also many conservatives, namely that all people are equal, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, religion, political orientation, or whatever else. The photographs do what they do because of what we bring to them when we see them. In other words, they make us react, and we better pay attention to how we react to them: we might learn something about ourselves.

The book contains some added text in the form of short fragments that are hidden inside the pouch pages. The pages haven’t been trimmed at the top, so the interiors of the pouch pages are easily accessible, but they don’t present themselves right away. With these fragments, Bassiouni expresses his own sentiments and ideas, covering his upbringing and identity. This adds another element to the book, a human voice that will help the viewer get a better understanding of the photographs on view.

With so many complex, narrative-driven photobooks having emerged recently, I’m enjoying seeing one that tackles a complex subject matter as simply and beautifully as New Dutch Views does. With just a few basic devices employed (also for the design and production of the book), it demonstrates the power of the photographic book.

New Dutch Views; photographs and text by Marwan Bassiouni; 64 pages; Lecturis; 2019

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 4, Edit 3, Production 4 – Overall 3.9

Photography in the Era of Digital Proliferation Mon, 02 Sep 2019 15:16:46 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Photography can be art, but usually it is not. It is something entirely different. Where it attempts to be art, it has to conform to corresponding expectations, resulting in a type of packaging that even before the digital era was at odds with the medium’s central property, namely its ease of reproducibility, an ease that was grounded both in technology and people’s desires (exceptions to the rule, whether Daguerreotypes or Polaroids, do not invalidate the central point to be realized here).

Walter Benjamin wrote about some of the consequences arising from this fact against the background of the threat of fascism. Yet again, that threat has re-arrived, only to now play out in an era where vast parts of communication take place in the digital sphere: information is not tied to a carrier any longer in the sense that it was in the past. Instead, it arrives and disappears on screens of all kinds, in particular those we carry with us.

Those screens have become battlegrounds of information warfare, fueled by a variety of actors. Most famously, the 45th President of the United States is using his Twitter account as a daily exercise in narcissistic hate speech, whipping up ugly sentiments and inspiring domestic terrorists to kill those deemed subhuman.

The public sphere in which these developments play out has become intertwined with our most private one: we wake up, and we look at our smartphones to check for messages, emails, articles, and/or pictures. Pictures, however, have ceased to be just that, pictures. Instead, they have become essential elements of our communication, whether they’re emojis (which make the connection between pictures and communication most clear), photographs, or whatever else.

Pictures, in other words, have fully become important elements of our most basic communicative acts, given that to share them they do not require anything other than a device that can temporarily display them.

This unmooring of photographs from a photography-specific carrier (a “print”) has exposed the artificiality of the medium during the (roughly) first 150 years of its own existence, an artificiality driven ad absurdum by those operating with photographs in the art market.

Photographs demand to be seen, and for that demand to be fulfilled they needed to become data: This is the central aspect of the digital revolution (the ease with which pictures can be manipulated is relatively meaningless in comparison). Of course, photographs do not command to be seen on their own. It is us, their makers, who want them to be seen.

To share a photograph is a communicative act in which more often than not the actual picture in question is meaningless: it will be looked at for a fraction of a second, all kinds of thoughts might be triggered, but it will never re-appear. It could re-appear because the photograph will exist in some memory banks somewhere, but it will not be re-displayed.

When it will re-appear, it will often do just that because some corporation’s algorithm was designed to trigger a feeling of nostalgia in its users, to attempt to tie them more strongly to whatever platform they are engaged in. Beyond such machinations, however, the vast majority of photographs are looked at briefly, once. Consequently, there exist platforms which share pictures that disappear forever once they have been seen.

In the long run, most photographs are thus completely meaningless, however much meaning they might have possessed in the moment when they were shared and seen: there will always be another picture, another communicative act.

Photographs have thus more in common with money than with the kinds photographs money can buy in an art gallery: we all use money, whether in physical or digital form, but we only care for it thinking of its exchange value.

As noted above, our private communications are never very far away from the most public ones – they all end up on the small screens we carry around us and that we look at in a regular fashion. The public and the private have merged: we share parts of the latter with the former, and the former reaches us in a variety of ways: social media, the news, or whatever else.

These days, expressions of hate are never far away, whether in the form of a tweet by Trump (which we might see even if we don’t follow the man on Twitter, given that the news media still happily quote it) or by anyone emboldened by what can only be understood as a complete collapse of central parts of the idea of the US presidency (however flawed many of their ideas and approaches were in retrospect, it is hard to imagine the founders be willing to accept a complete moral vacuum at the very core of the country they founded), a comment left by someone angry (or someone possibly in the indirect employ of, let’s say, Russia’s president), or whatever else there might be.

Whatever else there might be – there’s a lot. These days, to partake in that public/private sphere that’s connected to our smartphones is to inevitably enter a cesspool of willful ignorance, hatred, and barely concealed violence. To be connected to the world these days means to partake in a racist reality TV show that runs on all channels — and we are not given a choice whether to watch it or not. It simply is there. Our lives have thus become invaded with violence of all sorts, and photographs play an essential part of that.

Before pictures became data, one would have been easily able to disengage from all the nastiness that has become such a dreadfully ubiquitous part of our daily lives now. Now, though, that choice is essentially gone.

It is true, you could still cut yourself off from most of it. But could you really go about a life of your own willful ignorance as Gestapo-style raids target immigrants or as any trip to the local supermarket or mall might end up on the coroner’s table?

If, in other words, you care for someone other than yourself, anyone really, how can you avoid caring for the larger good that in some form or another we’re all part of?

Can we, in yet other words, make pictures while pretending those pictures do not enter this particular environment we live in right now? Is there such a thing as an activist photographer?, Colin Pantall asked. I’d like to propose a re-phrasing of the question: when the private and the truly ugly public have become as enmeshed as they are now, can there be a photographer who is not an activist? Aren’t you an activist of some sort the moment you share a photograph and drop it into the larger public-private pool?

I am not convinced that in the era of Trump, which would have been impossible without the incessant digital proliferation of information, photography cannot be a form of activism. To deny it that status would be to deny the extent with which public ugliness and violence have entered our own private lives, in part because of our choices (nobody forced us to sign on to social media), in part because the choices available to us have become so relentlessly limited.

Activism here does not necessarily entail attempting to change the world on a larger scale. Sure, one could go about something to help solve the climate crisis, to help immigrants, to help bring about gun legislation (and thus give coroners a break), or whatever else.

But at its most atomic level, any photograph that is shared with someone else and that was made with elements of compassion, if not love, is already a form of activism, a push back against the aforementioned onslaught of outrage, anger, ugliness, and violence.

Maybe those of us who think of themselves as photographers or even artists need to realize that that is their medium now: a means of communication, maybe the means of communication, and if we want to mentally (let alone physically) survive the times we live in right now, there will have to be a collective push back against the ugliness that we have allowed to invade our public and private lives.

Enough is enough!

Make pictures and share them!

But make picture and share them with the intent of brightening other people’s days, of reminding people that the hatred and cruelty perpetuated by Trump et al. are their choice, not ours, a choice that we can and will reject!

Paula Markert’s voyage across Germany Mon, 26 Aug 2019 17:05:21 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The most recent prominent German court case dealing with large-scale domestic terrorism spanned four years. Unlike the cases from the 1970s and 80s, this one did not focus on a left-wing terror organization. This time, the defendant was the sole survivor of a group that had called themselves National Socialist Underground (NSU), responsible for a string of 10 murders. The case was remarkable for a variety of reasons, one of the most important ones being that for the longest time, authorities hadn’t been concerned with terrorism at all. Of the ten victims, only one had been not of originally Turkish or Greek origin. In all the other cases, authorities had suspected all kinds of reasons for the murders, many of them connected to their own blatantly racist biases.

In an article in the weekly Die Zeit, journalist Özlem Topçu noted that the long duration of the case notwithstanding, it had been worth it. There had been clear evidence how the trio had had deep ties to Germany’s far-right underground and was thus no conveniently isolated group. Topçu wrote: “And other ugly things have been brought to light: the failure and falsehoods of some intelligence services and investigating authorities. Their partly questionable working methods and their attitude towards the victims.” (my translation)

This is tough stuff, especially in light of a far-right party now sitting in the national parliament, the Bundestag, or with the head of one of the federal intelligence services being removed from his post after he questioned the obvious existence of far-right violence in an East German city. Said far-right party calls itself Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), and German history aptly demonstrates what such an alternative path might lead to.

So there is obvious concern about the open emergence of far-right voices in Germany. But as the NSU case demonstrated, that concern does not appear to be quite as widely shared to the right of the country’s political center or by some of the people in charge of upholding the constitutional rights of all its citizens — and not just the ones the AfD considers as the real Germans.

How can you tell such a story with pictures? Well, you can’t, or rather you can’t tell the story with pictures alone. When you open Paula Markert‘s A Journey through Germany. The NSU Serial Murders, the first thing you’ll see are the names of the ten victims, the dates of their murders given under their names. If you’re curious whether there is something contained in the folded cover (the book uses what is commonly referred to as Swiss binding), there is a dedication against a blood-red background: “In remembrance of the victims of the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU).” (the book is fully bilingual German/English — here, I’m only quoting the English text) And then you might notice that the cover contains more than merely an image of what looks like a German court room: the book’s title is embossed.

I find the use of these devices not only effective but also entirely appropriate. In fact, not even just appropriate but also morally necessary — especially in light of the suffering of the families of the nine victims with migrant backgrounds. After all, this is as much their story as their adopted home country’s. To insist on a separation between the two would only serve to create that gap that serves as the foundation of the racist völkisch thinking of the AfD and other far-right organizations.

So how is the story being told? It’s a combination of photographs that work along the lines of Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site plus portraits plus added text. Unlike in Sternfeld’s case, the captions for the photographs are listed in the back of the book and not right next to the pictures. In addition, there is a variety of texts interspersed with the photographs throughout the book, including extracts from legal texts, court protocols, newspaper reports etc. The separation of the captions from the photographs allows for a space to open up, where the sheer malleability of photography helps tell part of the story.

After all, for many years, the NSU was going about their killing spree without the dots being connected. A photograph of a piece of forest might show the location where a victim was found, but as a viewer you only know that if you’re being told; and even after you know, nothing in the pictures indicates that what you’re looking at is in fact what you’re looking at. This is, in other words, where photographs separate from the world they’re taken in and become something else entirely.

The viewer will thus become broadly acquainted with the story through the Foreword in the book. But the lack of the kind of information later provided in the captions adds an additional charge to the photographs: you know that each picture must mean something in the overall story, you just don’t quite know (yet) what. It’s an effective way of storytelling that makes part of the book positively uncanny. It also produces an emotional charge that involves the viewer in a story that in all likelihood they might not have any direct relationship with.

The book thus is a form of documentary that refuses to be too documentary, that, in other words, is happy with uncertainty seeping in, with viewers being able to feel something that cannot be expressed in words or pictures.


A Journey through Germany. The NSU Serial Murders; photographs by Paula Markert; text fragments from various sources; 112 pages; Hartmann Books; 2019

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.5, Edit 3.0, Production 3.0 – Overall 3.6