Conscientious Photography Magazine Jörg Colberg's online photography magazine, featuring photographer profiles, interviews, articles, and book reviews. Mon, 23 May 2022 16:27:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Laissez Faire Mon, 23 May 2022 14:42:42 +0000 Joerg Colberg

If analogue photography has developed much of its allure from taking pictures of grimy surfaces, digital photography excels with glossy ones, especially if there is a lot of light around. I wouldn’t want to attribute any deeper meaning to that (at least for now). Over the course of the past two decades, our seeing of the world has been increasingly shaped by how digital cameras describe the world. This development has gone so far that parts of our world are now being created in such a way that they look good in digital pictures.

While in general I am not too interested in photography that seems too camera-technology specific (regardless of whether it’s analog or digital), I do get the occasional kick out of something that is really well done, something that pushes a particular technology to great effect. For me, there is a degree of guilty pleasure in this: I might have spent too much time looking at and attempting to critically write about photography to be able to just enjoy something — unless, and this is rare, the work in question is so strong that it manages by short circuit my critical abilities (this is an exceedingly rare event, given photoland’s sea of visual and conceptual sameness).

The only problem with digital photography pushing shiny surfaces and modern light is that in principle, it’s the same message that also underpins neoliberal capitalism. Your neoliberal realism is often right there, and whatever critical idea a photographer might have had in mind is being undercut by the sheer visual appeal of what often is pretty noxious.

This might be the main difference between capitalism roughly 100 years ago and now: where in the past, getting access to factories was difficult because of the resulting visuals, now, modern factories are almost always open. Neoliberal capitalists are only too eager to have consumers (or images and products) ooh and aah over how shiny robots and human beings arranged around them to present environments that look as if they were taken from some science-fiction movie.

If you think about it, this is a nifty move: we are so conditioned from popular entertainment to view certain things as fiction (or “science fiction”) that by performing that mental association, we don’t realize to what extent we are in deep, deep trouble already. The disaster has arrived, but it’s looking pretty great in pictures.

As Bertolt Brecht already noted, both one hundred years ago and now photographs won’t get at the underlying ideologies and mechanisms of exploitation. But today, workers don’t look exploited any longer — even if they are as abused as their colleagues a century ago.

If you’re a photographer, how do you avoid this problem? I have no idea. What seems clear is that individual photographs will not be able to do the job (see Andreas Gursky or, to pick another example, Edward Burtynsky’s photographs from inside factories in China). It might only be the combination of such imagery in the form of a photobook that offers a chance to create a fissure in the facade (obviously, I’m not talking about a catalogue or monograph of individual photographs here).

Cristiano Volk‘s Laissez-Faire showcases contemporay life under neoliberal capitalism in all its shiny glory where tackiness always is but a step away (if even that). “[I]t’s all about the meat baby”, a neon sign advertises in one picture (one shudders to imagine what might be on sale), while in another the names of corporate brands (Canon, Toshiba, …) tower high over municipal high rises. It’s not clear what exactly the buildings are — office or apartment towers? But it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the life experience they offer is shallow (again: if even that).

And so it goes on and on, with colourful lights being captured the way we are used to now, where everything not only is made to look good in a picture but also can be easily captured in one (given how well modern camera sensors and associated algorithms are able to work with what previously was low light). Perhaps not surprisingly, everybody is having the good time on offer, and everybody looks great (even sea life in some aquarium).

Leisure time and work life seamlessly transition into one another in the book. This makes sense, given that neoliberal jobs require being present 24/7. When we’re on our gadgets, we work for free for the makers of the various social-media and messaging apps that promise to connect us to the world.

I don’t know whether Laissez-Faire offers me anything that I don’t know already. But if photography wants to create that fissure that I spoke of before it maybe might result less from some Brechtian Verfremdung and more from relentless exposure. Maybe at some stage, we will realize how we have created an environment for ourselves that is only serving a small number of billionaires.

For sure, the book comes appropriately packaged. There is a bright yellow plastic dust jacket around the softcover, which inevitably has the book stick to my hands in ways that I want to wash off (it’s not helping that while I’m writing this, it’s 33 degrees outside, a new record in late May as the news told me). But what I really want to wash off, of course, is not so much the book but rather the way it makes me feel.

I hear neoliberal capitalism whisper into my ear: enjoy me, resistance is futile.

Laissez-Faire, photographs by Cristiano Volk; essay by Eugenie Shinkle; 216 pages; FW:Books; 2022

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.7

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Perfect Pearl Mon, 16 May 2022 13:46:59 +0000 Joerg Colberg

How people decide to live with each other forms the most hotly contested area for human beings. At the smallest and most basic scale, we typically have one person living with another person (there are other arrangements, but they’re rather rare). At the core of this arrangement sits love. It is an emotion that we all know intimately well, one of the most basic and important ones.

At no point in history have people been able to experience and enjoy love unconditionally, regardless of whether it’s romantic love or any other form of it. At first, this might sound like a strange statement. But these days, you don’t need to look very far to witness some people telling other people what they can or cannot do with each other.

In the West, we have witnessed massive progress regarding what it typically called one’s identity over the course of the past two decades. At the same time, a neofascist counter-movement has positioned itself to not only take away all current achievements (for example gay marriage), but also to roll back past ones. For that movement, some forms of love are more valid than others. It’s crazy that in 2022, this is the world we even have to live in. But here we are.

Even as many other areas on the planet are centered on very different cultural, societal, and political traditions, many of the West’s ideas have been sweeping the globe because of the dominance of neoliberal capitalism. As a consequence, in many places, traditional ideas are now competing with non-traditional, Western ones that often are known only through how they play out in terms of consumption.

A recent photobook that centers on how this can play out is Tara Fallaux‘s Perfect Pearl. The book looks at how ideas of (heterosexual) romance and love plays out for young women in China. The book is based on an artist residency in Xiamen that lasted almost half a year, giving Fallaux ample time to get to know a number of young women. In the back of the book, their names are given as Binge, Lova, Muse, and Rocy.

In many ways, focusing on a small number of people who are trying to deal with a very basic and essential conundrum is a good approach. As I already said, we all know what love is or, and (this is not necessarily the same thing) what it feels like; we also all have an idea of romance.

Furthermore, even as our individual ideas might all be a little bit (or very) different, we all are familiar with trying to figure them out, trying to deal with them: given my options and my preferences, what can I do to get to that perfect place in life that we all aspire to be at (and, let’s be realistic, mostly never get to — in part because neoliberal capitalism teaches us that we can always do better)?

Given that you cannot photograph many of the ideas around love and romance, Perfect Pearl uses text to fill in the gaps. There is a longer text by one of the young women. In addition, there are frequent short text snippets that are taken from anonymous WeChat messages. “I’ve admitted,” part of one reads, “that whatever I’m doing, it’s the little things that make me happy, as always. So I stopped looking for reasons to ne unhappy for myself to be happy enough.” Ok then, to be happy enough.

The book is produced following the binding that Hans Gremmen/FW:Books used for Andres Gonzalez’s American Origami. The idea is quite simple actually (as is pretty much always the case, the best ideas are simple). You basically produce a softcover book. Then, you fold it in half. As a consequence, when a viewer looks at the book, holding it in their hands, they only get to see the half of the pages closest to the fore-edge — unless they decide to open up the rest.

As you can imagine from this description, this construction creates two types of spaces in the book: the one you can see easily and the one that requires a little bit more work to access. Consequently, you can “hide” material in the latter part. In other words, the construction of the book creates a very nifty way to organize materials simply through the construction of the book (obviously, you could use a different construction and then have a graphic designer do the organization in other ways).

Here, the text messages are all hidden away in the book. To be able to access them, you have to fully open up the book. But unlike in American Origami, this book doesn’t follow this approach for each spread. As a consequence, you never quite know whether you will access more text or imagery that for a lack of a better word feels more intimate — or simply more of what you’ve already seen outside. I do think that this approach works in the book’s favour.

Most of the book plays out between the portraits Fallaux took of her friends and photographs of women or couples who are about the get married. There is a large beach in Xiamen which appears to serve as a frequently used backdrop for wedding photographers. There also are cityscapes, interiors, and still lifes. Especially the latter feel rather reductive, though.

Perfect Pearl deftly paints a picture of young women trying to find their place in life against the background of their culture and the various expectations placed onto them (whether by others or themselves). Even as details might differ considerably, this struggle is playing out all over the world, a struggle that, as I noted in the beginning, is not fully independent from the frameworks created by societies and political systems.

In the end, part of the question always remains to what extent one is supposed to — or maybe has to — push back against restrictions that are too tight and that only serve to define oneself in other people’s terms. There is no good answer. But we might note the choices we, and others, face.

Perfect Pearl; photographs by Tara Fallaux; texts by various authors; 60 pages; self-published; 2022

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.7

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Photography is a force that gives us meaning Mon, 09 May 2022 13:50:44 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I would love to believe that it is our intentions that determine the outcome of what we produce. In some ways, they do — if, and only if, we manage to have the outcome of our work reflect those intentions. That, however, is not a given. Often, it’s not the case.

As a viewer, how would I know about a photographer’s intentions when I only have their work? How, that is, if s/he didn’t explicitly provide a list of intentions? In the absence of such a list, I can only try to infer the intentions from the work. I might or might not be successful. Thus, I have maintained for a long time that discussions of a body of work that center on a photographer’s intentions are not very fruitful.

With that in mind I want to consider two recent photobooks: Agata by Bieke Depoorter (self-published in 2021, of which I own a copy of the second printing) and Anastasiia: She folds her memories like a parachute by Christian van der Kooy (published by The Eriskay Connection in 2018). Both books centre on the same idea, namely that the interaction between a photographer and her or his subject (another person) is considerably more complex than the traditional model of the privileged storyteller telling someone else’s story. Both books attempt to solve the problem by incorporating the subject’s voice, by giving her an opportunity to speak for herself.

We might note that both books contain a degree of fiction, the full amount of which is unknown to anyone other than their makers and, possibly, their subjects. I should note that I view the word “fiction” in a neutral manner. A fiction might arise from any number of fictional events, places, or people just as much as from omissions and other decisions made while producing a body of work.

In the strictest sense, all photographs are fictions, given their photographers’ choices. But in a number of circumstances, we can ignore this fact (even if this might decision might run the risk of falling for the very fiction whose presence we’re ignoring). In the case of these two books, there might be ample fiction. We don’t know the full extent of it. We’re well advised to keep this in the backs of heads.

I’ve read what has been written about the books. Still, it’s always a bad idea to trust photographers and photobook makers too much: trust what they’ve made, but don’t believe their spiels.

While the overall stories behind Agata and Anastasiia are different, the two books have a number of things in common (in the following, when the names are written in italics, they refer to the book). In both cases, their basis is a relationship between two people who started out as strangers. Agata Kay and Bieke Depoorter met as subject and photographer and ended up being friends, even as the extent and full character of the friendship is not fully revealed. Anastasiia (no last name given) and Christian van der Kooy met as fixer and photographer and became lovers. In both cases, the books contain an extensive amount of photographs of Agata and Anastasiia, plus their own words.

There are different production strategies employed to convey the stories in Agata and Anastasiia. The latter uses graphic-design elements to show the difference between the photographer’s and his subject’s words. They are reproduced in black and magenta, respectively. In the case of Agata, most of the young woman’s words is shown as handwritten text. The bulk of it is initially hidden inside the folds of pouch pages (this is a type of binding commonly used in traditional Asian books): a viewer/reader has to cut the (perforated) fore edge to get access to their interior, which either contains text or photographs (or occasionally simply blank pages).

Conceptually, this is a nifty game that I have seen being played in other books. Given the perforation, though, it doesn’t feel as if my — the viewer’s stakes — are quite as high as they could be. After all, the pages will come apart easily. The perforation makes me think of a zipper. Opening up the pages feels a lot less consequential than in the case where I would have had to use a knife.

There is the old belief, now mostly discarded, that a camera can steal one’s soul. This idea now strikes us as naif, even if, I maintain, some photographers are aware of the fact that something like that can actually happen. In an extreme case, a camera can become a weapon. At the very least, writing someone else’s story with a camera takes away that person’s agency.

What we thus ought to be talking about is that it’s the photographer, not the camera, who is doing the stealing. Let’s keep this in mind.


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Shiotani Mon, 02 May 2022 15:27:41 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The standard process for making a photobook goes something like this. You take your thousands or hundreds of photographs, and you whittle them down to the few dozen strongest ones, which you then proceed to put into an order based on the idea of the work. This method is well tested, and it works well with 99% of all photography. The reason for that is that in the world of photography, the main (mostly unspoken) idea is that photographs are special entities.

If you go to art school, say, to get your very expensive MFA, that’s what you’re being taught: focus on the single picture and try to make it as brilliant as you can. As I outlined earlier, this model is based on the idea that photography is an art form. Thus, it better conform to that world’s conventions. To a large extent, the art world has let itself be defined through commerce. And art dealers prefer unique, expensively made things because that’s what rich people like to possess.

But as Lewis Bush pointed out, photography is too interesting to be treated as art. Even if you still think of yourself as an artist, you might want to consider what this means. It might have consequences for how you see photographs — especially your own. A few years ago, I wrote about what this could mean. In hindsight, I feel that the article doesn’t quite convey the importance of what it tries to get at. (I tend to have this problem with my articles. It tells me that I’m still learning: moving my own goal posts. I’ll stop writing once I find that I’ve stopped learning.)

If you ditch what I called the precious-picture problem, you’re in a different world. To begin with, you’ll have to re-consider how you make your pictures and work with them. How do you edit work when you’re not merely picking the “strongest” pictures (whatever this might even mean)? And what exactly does the work communicate? What could a book look like?

An absolutely brilliant example of such an approach is provided by Anders Edström‘s Shiotani. As an object, the book is modestly sized and relatively hefty. Once you start looking at the book, you realize where that heft is coming from: there are hundreds of pages printed on a rather thin paper stock. But the book’s real heft is what it is doing. I’d find it hard to attribute regular photobook terms to it because if you’re looking for anything that’s common in other photobooks, it’s completely absent here.

From what I know, every form of art has its outlier creators that push the boundaries of their chosen medium by essentially exploding them. If you approach their work expecting to be faced with what you’re familiar with, you’ll inevitably be disappointed. And it’s likely that you will also find yourself bored because you’re not being given your regular kick, while the work demands to be seen on its own terms.

For example, if you watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker expecting a movie that follows Hollywood standards, you’ll be in for a huge disappointment. Somehow, nothing appears to be happening. Or rather, there are a few things that are happening. But you could essentially condense that action into five to ten minutes of movie. In much the same fashion, if you listen to a classical symphony expecting it to use the conventions of pop music, you’ll also be bored out of your mind. However, if you listen to a piece of free jazz or psychedelic black metal you’ll be just aghast: how the hell is this music? Where is the structure you’re so used to?

All of these examples have in common that they unfold on different time scales and, crucially, that they need to be experienced on their own terms. This very much holds for Shiotani as well. How do you look at a photobook with hundreds of pictures, in which seemingly nothing is happening at all? Well, you just do. You allow yourself to give in to it, because the rewards are incredible.

What exactly do you encounter in the book? There is a relatively small group of people, many of them elderly, that live in what looks like a traditional Japanese house somewhere in an impossibly nondescript countryside. The location lacks any of the visual attractions that you might think of in the case of Japan. The hills look perfectly pleasant. But there are no torii gates, elaborate rock gardens, or bamboo forests. If they exist somewhere nearby, they are not shown.

Shiotani, Google Maps tells me, is a hamlet to the northwest of Kyoto. On my smartphone, it is a red marker surrounded by green. When I zoom in, the marker remains even as the rest of the map starts to fill in with details. At the smallest level, it turns into a red outline around its name, with some Ono Dam slightly to the south and a Mt. Chorogatake to the north north east. Is this the correct Shiotani? A few Google Street view pictures have me convinced that indeed it is.

My guess is that almost all photographers I know would have a hard time taking a single picture in that location. It would seem that there is nothing to take a picture of. But where are all the pictures in the book coming from? That’s where it gets interesting. In a nutshell, with very few exceptions, none of the pictures shows a moment that’s worthwhile remembering. That is the book’s brilliance.

As you start moving through the book, you’ll slowly get rid of expectations of something happening, to instead become immersed in a world that cherishes its quiet moments, its being very mundane. This is, in other words, our own world — the one we too often try to get distracted from by looking at precious pictures or whatever else. Nothing is happening: there is a meal, and then there is another meal, someone gets up to exit the room, the seasons change, and every once in a while someone dies.

There’s a movie that’s connected to the book. I haven’t seen it so I can’t say anything about it. In all likelihood, the film will be doing some things that this book cannot — and vice versa. Films do their own things — there’s the sound, and there’s the pacing that the viewer cannot control (or rather is not supposed to control; obviously in the day of Netflix and streaming sites that insert advertising that idea has long gone out of the window).

The book brings a viewer closer because it needs to placed into their immediate vicinity — on a lap, a table. It demands more of the viewer because when you close it it’s still there. I’m thinking it’s the still-being-there that would have me prefer the book over the movie (that, again, I haven’t seen — I’m writing these sentiments out of my feelings). I want its intimacy.

In Shiotani, the mundane becomes extraordinary simply because of Edström’s refusal to give in to conventions. If most photobooks are made for a specialist audience, this one really will only appeal to people deeply devoted to them. I don’t see that as a problem, given that this particular book will probably end up in that very small category of truly groundbreaking photobooks. You could place it next to Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu or Lieko Shiga’s Rasen Kaigan. That is this book’s company.

Shiotani is an immersive masterpiece that derives its beauty from its makers’ refusal to work with art photography’s most cherished conventions. Daily life in a small Japanese hamlet becomes extraordinary because every little moment, every little thing is given attention by Anders Edström. As a viewer, you find yourself in the middle of life as it is experienced by a small group of Japanese people. Coming away from the book, you can’t help but look around yourself to wonder whether paying a little more attention might not yield equally unexpected results.

Very highly recommended.

Shiotani; photographs by Anders Edström; texts by Jeff Rian, C.W. Winter; 750 pages; AKPE; 2021

Photography: An Insecure Craft Mon, 25 Apr 2022 13:35:21 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“It’s hard to resist the thought,” Susie Linfield wrote, “that a very large number of photography critics—including the most influential ones—don’t really like photographs, or the act of looking at them, at all.” I find it hard to disagree. As a field (or maybe practice), photography has produced a very strange set of writing around itself: there is not very much to begin with, and what exists is often oddly dismissive of what photographs can do (and, let’s face it, it’s usually also shockingly elitist).

It’s not just a problem of critics, though. Photographers themselves do not tend to take their medium as seriously as painters do, or sculptors, not even to mention writers. Or rather, they take it seriously in some ways, but they always have an eye on something else. Photographs often are described as “painterly” (whatever that is even supposed to mean); they have been compared to poems (say what?); and of late photographers have embraced the conventions of movie making, resulting in photographs that feel like an excuse: I would do real movies, but alas… (it’s a lucrative game, though, collectors and museums love buying oversized and overpriced photographs filled with shallow artifice).

You might wonder: if photographs are so often described with references to other media, what does this say about photography itself? Is this particular medium so dull that one can only make sense of it with the help of other media?

If you look at photography’s infancy, large amounts of time were spent on discussing what it might mean to take a photograph. There was the convenience. But then there also was the fact that somehow, photographs resembled reality too much. Charles Baudelaire, a poet, famously called photography the “refuge of every would-be painter, every painter too ill-endowed or too lazy to complete his studies”. And photographers ate this up. In fact, I think they still do.

This resulted in a number of attempts to make photographs look more like art, spawning visual schlock such as pictorialism or, most recently, what people called New Formalism. Let’s ignore the fact that such attempts are based on a very shallow idea of what art might actually be and/or look like.

At their core, though, these attempts start out with an admission that, yes, on its own photography isn’t art, that it is the refuge that poet spoke about. So now one has to sexy up the photographs because on their own, they’re possibly as “ill-endowed” as Baudelaire claimed their makers were. That the poet’s comments might just have been some petty and rather ill-informed cattiness, emerging from Parisian art circles famous for exactly that — that thought didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone.

Today, photography is by far the most powerful and popular medium. And yet the field of photography is filled with insecurity regarding one’s own work and outright dismissiveness as far as popular-culture applications are concerned. Many practitioners always have at least one eye on other forms of art (in particular painting) — as if they can’t deal with the fact that like any other form of art, photography’s true power is based on its own restrictions.

Of course, part of the problem stems from the fact that photographers have embraced the commercial-gallery system with all its flaws, in particular its insistence on large, splashy pieces and editions (which can be sold for nice money to hang over some rich person’s couch). I now routinely come across websites where photographers list the dimensions of their prints and the edition sizes next to the work. I get it, selling three prints at some large size might make decent money — but what does that have to do with photography?

And there is the craftiness of it all. When I was teaching at an MFA program, I must have spent hours listening to people discussing the merits of one Mohawk superfine paper over some other. I’ve never been able to keep track of all the paper names. But I also remember that all the prints basically looked the same once they were deemed to be good. This is very curious if you think about it. You would imagine that photographers would strive for the prints to reflect their own artistic ideals. But no, there’s a sea of bland inkjet-print sameness.

It’s just a very curious situation: almost everything that makes photography photography — its endless possibilities, its limitless reproducibility — is being dismissed by the medium’s own most serious practitioners. Consequently, real advances in image making now happen outside of the narrow confines of photoland. Many social-media influencers are more adept at creating new images than artists who somehow can’t untether themselves from an art world that only produces benefits for a small number of photographers.

You would imagine that the world of the photobook is in a better shape. But the same problems play out there, albeit in slightly modified form: the elitism, the catering to the wealthy and subsequent production of luxury items, the endless repetition of utterly tired conventions. When it’s not an exhibition in some white space (ideally in one of the centers of the art world), photographers want an expensively produced photobook that they then end up selling to their friends and other photographers.

In all my years of teaching and looking at photography, I’ve seen maybe a handful of photographers or artists who attempted to break out of this tiresome model. For example, Moyra Davey printed out photographs, folded them up, and sent them out in the mail. Alas, later those pieces then end up on the walls of galleries or museums again. Zoe Strauss hung up prints under a highway overpass.

Why can’t a photograph not be printed on your $69 office inkjet printer? Why couldn’t it not be printed by a commercial printer that usually produces posters for advertising? Why do photographers stick to a framework that eliminate about 90% of the true creative potential of the medium?

I think in the end, it all circles back to the idea that photographers want to make art. For photography to be art, it has to look like art, meaning: it has to conform to conventions that were made for other art forms and that do not serve photography particularly well.

These days, NFTs are all the rage in photoland. You’ll find the very same mechanisms playing that have plagued art-photo circles for decades. Just swap out bland art-marketing speak for tech-speak gibberish, throw in some claims that might make normal people think you’re on some substance, and you got your NFT photo statement. Instead of a glitzy car dealership, you now have your Carvana.

It’s not even that I mind galleries and expensive photobooks. If you’ve followed my writing, you know how much I love books. I even like looking at exhibitions (when they’re well done).  It’s just that I’m missing a sense of experimentation. I’m missing the realization that an insistence on boring craft while dismissing photography’s true potential reduces a potentially very powerful medium to the caricature that large parts of art photography essentially have now become.

My theory is that experimentation proves to be too risky when there are only those two possible end results (gallery exhibition and expensive photobook). Obviously, there is only limited artistic freedom within those very narrow parameters. And that, in turn, has led to the stasis that we witness in today’s art photography.

Unlike the various critics mentioned by Susie Linfield I genuinely love looking at photographs. I might have my misgivings about certain things (who doesn’t?), but I love photography. I look at photographs every day, all day long.

But that looking is becoming more and more of a drag. It’s not because there are too many pictures (that’s just a silly talking point). It’s simply the sea of drab sameness, the lack of experimentation, the rejection of most of the possibilities offered by a medium that like no other reflects the world back to us.

Cut with the Blade dada through the Last Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Photoland Mon, 18 Apr 2022 13:05:46 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Hannah Höch and Rould Hausmann, the story goes, discovered the potential of photomontage by chance — while being on vacation. “[V]isiting the town of Heidebrink on the island of Usedom […],” Maria Makela writes, “the couple encountered in homes and businesses of the residents a popular type of engraving in which photographic portraits of heads of local men away at war had been collaged atop generic, uniformed torsos. Höch and Hausmann returned to Berlin and immediately began to experiment with the medium by clipping photographic reproductions from a wide variety of illustrated sources and then mixing and matching them to create startling, often unsettling new imagery.” (Maria Makela: By Design: The Early Work of Hannah Höch in Context, in: The Photomontages of Hannah Höch, ed. Janet Jenkins, Walker Art Center, 1996, p.59)

It was Höch, the sole female member of Berlin’s dada art scene and, I’d argue, the only of those artists whose thinking wasn’t mostly one dimensional ended up having the largest impact in the long run. At the time, her contributions were mostly overlooked and/or belittled by her dada collaborators (incl. Hausmann, who treated her very poorly). The large photomontage entitled Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands (1919-20) is frequently taken as the first photomontage in what by now is a tradition of 100 years.

It is a possibly slightly earlier and much more modestly sized work entitled Staatshäupter (1918-20), though, that sets the tone for many of Höch’s later works. In it, German Reich President Friedrich Ebert and Defense Minister Gustav Noske find themselves on top of an iron-on embroidery pattern. At the time, Höch was employed by publisher Ullstein Verlag, producing a variety of textile designs and patterns for embroidery and other handicraft. As Makela outlines, Höch didn’t mind the work and considered craft as being on the same level as art. Ullstein produced a large variety of magazines and periodicals, including the well-known Illustrirte Zeitung that in August 1919 had featured Ebert and Noske on its cover, standing up to their knees in water at some Baltic sea resort.

Germany had just emerged from an autocracy under the Kaiser as a democracy. Seeing the country’s first democratically elected president displayed in bathing trunks caused quite the ruckus. Deftly, Höch amplified the magazine’s message with her montage, cutting the two politicians down to size. Where the massive Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser piece attempted to compete with the bombast produced by her male peers, Staatshäupter brought Höch’s genius to the fore: collage works best when its wit is not undercut by bombast, when artistic skill does not have to compete with showboating.

(Unfortunately, when it comes to photomontage/collage, puns around cutting are hard, if not impossible to prevent. The image itself is not particularly subtle; but then, there are many things in life that aren’t subtle — or rather: that cannot be properly critiqued with subtlety, given that subtlety itself often is a sign of its user’s privilege.)

“I’m coming for you with a blade,” Justine Kurland proclaims on the cover of SCUMB Manifesto. SCUMB stands for Society for Cutting Up Men’s Books. This references the late Valerie SolanasSCUM Manifesto, a feminist piece of writing that starts out with “‘Life’ in this ‘society’ being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of ‘society’ being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and eliminate the male sex.” Solanas famously shot Andy Warhol, which unfortunately for most people might be the sole thing they know about her.

As I noted in the introduction to my conversation with 10×10 Photobooks, the world of the photobook is overwhelmingly male. Efforts are made to rectify this situation — whether in the form of cataloguing books by women that previously have been ignored, bodies of work being published long after they were made, or whatever else. That’s all good and very much worthwhile. Yet a full reckoning will have to include talking about the books that have been celebrated so far, simply because there is no reason that each and every book that is part of the canon should retain its position or, at the very least, should continue to be treated uncritically.

Kurland’s solution is simple and radical. The artist literally cut up a large number of books from her collection and created collages from their material many of which she then attached to the books’ cases.

Strictly speaking, the world of the photobook isn’t an institution. Despite its amorphous shape and form, though, it acts like one. This fact might be a lot clearer to all those trying to get a seat at the table than those already sitting. Seen this way, you could view SCUMB Manifesto as a form of visual institutional critique.

As a writer I’m glad that I don’t have to write articles about many of the books Kurland cut up and reconfigured. What exactly can one write about, say, the book that contains Lee Friedlander’s nudes? The photography is so bad in so many ways that I’d find myself struggling to arrive at anything other than exasperation. Wielding her blade, Kurland does not have this problem. A few deft cuts and montages, and — voila! — there it is, the fantasy of what many men mistaken for a healthy heterosexual desire.

Most of the collages in SCUMB Manifesto follow the model of Höch’s Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser. They’re visually compelling and visceral, betraying their maker’s considerable artistic wit and intelligence. With plenty of nudity in the source material, Kurland’s combination of blade and glue serves to amplify the underlying lecherousness of so many of the books that were reconfigured. There is a list of the books’ titles at the end, in case as a viewer you’re curious about the source material.

While after a century of photomontage, the practice appeared to have mostly fallen by the wayside, SCUMB Manifesto demonstrates that in the right hands it has not lost its original revolutionary potential.

I personally don’t believe in an afterlife. But were it to exist, I’d imagine Hannah Höch being mightily pleased, seeing that the knife is still being put to good use: to cut down men to size.

SCUMB Manifesto; collages by Justine Kurland; essays by Marina Chao, Renee Gladman, Catherine Lord, Ariana Reines; 282 pages; MACK; 2022

Paris Nord Mon, 11 Apr 2022 14:55:54 +0000 Joerg Colberg

As Western societies get richer and richer under neoliberal capitalism, the accumulated wealth is distributed more and more unequally. The problem isn’t just that a relatively small number of people (billionaires) are hoarding money like modern-day Crassi. The real problem is that what not so long ago was referred to as the 99% is no homogeneous block.

Just look at how what used to be social-democratic parties are now organizations devoted to preservation and betterment of the relatively well off. Beneath those, there is a growing assembly of citizens that politically and economically are not represented by anyone any longer and that have been stripped of whatever few rights and little wealth they might have been able to accrue under previous social-democratic conditions.

As a consequence, those at the very bottom of the economic ladder have become outcasts, regardless of whether they are refugees from foreign countries, stateless wanderers, or the kinds of economic losers whose presence is necessitated by the collusion of billionaires and the clients of “reformed” (“centrist”, “third way”, …), previously social-democratic parties. Those that  advocate for the vast new underclass are now usually described as “far left” by the media that are solidly devoted to “centrist” ideas, and they often lumped together with the far right, as if social justice and fascism posed equal threats to democracy.

As can be seen in a large number of countries, this situation is toxic for democracy itself. If people are given the choice between neoliberal technocrats whose main focus is “the economy” (resulting in ever shrinking social services while taxes on corporations and the rich are lowered) and neo-fascists who offer a vision, as noxious and outright dangerous it might be, then in the long run the neo-fascists can only win, leading to the likes of Trump, Orban, Kaczynski, Le Pen, Bolsonaro, Modi,  etc.

It’s easy to see how this configuration poses a lose-lose situation for democracy. A neofascist victory typically results in the erosion of democratic norms and rules (if not their outright suspension as courts are being politicized etc.). To prevent that situation, many people feel blackmailed into voting for the “lesser evil”. But that erodes trust in the democratic process itself, given people are led to think that there is no choice whatsoever. This in turn feeds the neofascist narrative that liberal democracy is the problem.

How would one go about photographing around any of this? French photographer Myr Muratet‘s Paris Nord focuses on a number of aspect mentioned above. If I understand the publisher’s description of the book properly, the book combines a number of projects and intermingles them to arrive at a searing indictment of the very mechanisms that are driving more and more people into the margins.

(It is a coincidence that I am writing this article on the day of the first round of the French presidential elections that once again resulted in the choice between a neoliberal technocrat and a neofascist that openly supports Russian dictator Putin.)

There are a number of reasons why the book is extremely noteworthy. To begin with, it’s filled with a number of incredible, visceral photographs. Even as many of its ideas aren’t very new at all, every time I look through the book I can’t help but feel that this is a milestone of photography that shows me something I am familiar with in a new light, rattling the cage that most of us find ourselves in.

It’s strange: Photography originated in France. And yet over the past few decades, the country hardly has been at the forefront of contemporary photography, even as some of photoland’s most cherished events are happening there (Paris Photo and Les Rencontres d’Arles). These days it’s mostly artists from its central and eastern parts that are pushing the conversation forward in Europe. In some ways, France reminds me a little bit of Britain before the arrival of a new generation of photographers working in colour in the 1980s re-ignited the fire there. Will we be able to witness a similar revival in French photography now? Paris Nord for sure is a book that I hope will make its mark and stake such a new claim.

As an object — and this is something I have to get out of my system, the book isn’t particularly attractive. It’s a relatively large softcover with a clear plastic dust jacket and a paper that’s rather unattractive to the touch. It’s testament to the sheer strength of the photography that this hardly matters. Possibly, the book was made with costs in mind: on the publisher’s website, the book is listed for 25 €. That’s crazy cheap for what you get when you buy a copy. And potentially making more of a luxury object would run counter to what’s presented in the book.

Regardless, as you leaf through the book, you encounter an urban environment that is openly hostile towards at least some of the people who are trying to find a home there. Muratet is very adept at photographing Paris in such a way that the various contraptions created around its inner-city buildings designed to keep out people without homes resemble the fences and barriers around motorways or other areas that are not to be entered. The City of Love has thus become a mirror of neoliberal violence: if there’s love, it’s strictly kept from anyone who finds themselves at the margins.

There are many photographs of these people. After all, they have no choice but to try to make the city their home, regardless of whether they’re welcomed or not. Some of the most searing pictures show people sleeping in what essentially are body bags for bodies that are still warm: large sheets of plastic or maybe thin fabric that delineate the sleepers’ contours. These photographs show how much these people are worth to the French Republic in which they find themselves in.

If you find my read of these photographs too drastic, consider the case of René Robert, a Swiss photographer aged 85, who one night slipped somewhere in Paris and then spent a total of nine hours lying in the street helplessly before he died from hypothermia. Not a single Parisian bothered to check whether the main lying on the ground was OK or not. We only know of Robert’s fate because he had friends in well-off circles. If one of the people depicted in Paris Nord dies, we will never hear about it.

If it is sheer indifference that resulted in the death of René Robert, Myr Muratet’s should be seen as an act of resistance: Indifference is a choice, whether in the voting booth, on the street, or when walking around with one’s camera.

Paris Nord is an exceptionally strong photobook that you don’t want to miss.

Highly recommended.

Paris Nord; photographs by My Muratet; essay by Manuel Joseph (French only); 240 pages; Building Books; 2021

The Craft of Photography Mon, 04 Apr 2022 15:44:46 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Stephen Shore describes Modern Instances as “a subjective scrapbook of thoughts and impressions. An impressionistic memoir” (p.10). A memoir of sorts it is. It also is “a subjective scrapbook of thoughts and impressions”, even as I feel that this description is too modest. All photography is subjective, in particular when it aspires to be art. And given how carefuly considered and thoughtful the book is, to describe it as a scrapbook might seem a tad too modest.

There is something to be said for Shore’s modesty, given that he has served as an educator for a long time. He writes “I see my role in the classroom as that of a guide—leading each student to find their voice as an artist” (p.12).

As far as I can tell, to see oneself as a guide — as opposed to, say, a drill sergeant — speaks of two things: generosity and confidence. If as a teacher you want to guide your students, you need to be generous with your advice, knowing that teaching is not a zero-sum game where you students learn from you at your own expense. At the same time, you need to possess a degree of confidence in your own abilities: a guide might lead some but not all of the way.

Having read Modern Instances, I can’t help but feel that Shore must be an excellent teacher. The two qualities I spoke of — generosity and confidence — shine through very clearly in the book.

But writing a book of this particular kind poses a pitfall for the guiding teacher, especially one with so much experience: the risk is that you mistaken your reader with a student. A reader might in fact be a student — someone eager to learn more about photography. But there might be other readers, for example someone who is curious to know more about Stephen Shore as an artist or even as a person. I have the feeling that this latter reader might not get all the answers they would be looking for.

Modern Instances is subtitled The Craft of Photography. A Memoir. In a conversation, I once was asked to compare Shore with fellow photographer Joel Sternfeld. I came up with the idea that while behind the view camera, Sternfeld looked at America whereas Shore looked at the ground glass. “Both of these pictures are based on one-point perspective,” Shore writes about a pair of photographs made in 1974 and 1975, “with the vanishing point in the center of the image. The Los Angeles image is much denser; there is more information to organize. When three-dimensional space is collapsed into a flat picture, objects in the foreground are now seen, on the surface of the photograph, in a new and precise relationship to the objects in the background.” (p. 20) All photographs are information organized in a two-dimensional plane. If any photographer has spent a lot of time thinking about this, it’s Shore.

I’ve now arrived at thinking that American Surfaces is my favourite body of work by this artist. In his memoir, Shore describes it as an exercise in seeing. But I do think that there’s a sense of playfulness and looseness in these pictures that is absent from the later work where possibly because of the use of a view-camera those aspects had to fall aside. This has me thinking that the work might have been more than merely a study in photographic seeing. Maybe my own path as someone looking at pictures is the opposite of Shore’s as someone making pictures, moving from what is measured and confined to something that is freer, looser.

In the book, Shore connects his own photographic problem solving with examples of art made before him. In a section entitled Influences and Inspirations, he lists a number of them (there are others scattered elsewhere in the book). They include Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, a number of architectural spaces, and more. And then on page 117, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera makes an appearance, which almost made me fall out of my chair. While Shore focuses especially on the lyrics, Brecht’s caustic lyrics and Weill’s helter-skelterly music to me are the complete opposite of the spirit that runs through Shore’s photographs and writing, with its polite, measured, and carefully considered delivery. I suppose this only shows that whenever you think you know something about a person, there still are ample opportunities for them to surprise you.

Shore’s artistic references are mostly male, white, and Western. This makes him a good representative of the vast majority of American artists from his (and later) generation(s). It’s probably obvious to most readers how such a set of references is limiting for a large number of contemporary practitioners. But dismissing the book for that reason would be a mistake. To begin with, Shore’s work simply is too strong and masterful to be cast aside. There are ample opportunities to learn from his work and thinking, the latter of which is laid out in full detail here. Even if as an artist you don’t see yourself as a strict formalist, Shore overarching important lesson is most important: you will have to get your craft perfect.

What is more, to understand the history of photography involves immersing oneself in a lot of material that for any number of reasons one might be tempted to dismiss as not being relevant for one’s own work. In my own experience, I have now come to realize that there is almost no photography that does not offer an opportunity to learn something about what it means to use a camera. For better or worse, the very male and white world of artists that dominates the book has something to offer; understanding how it came about and relates with itself forms an important part of moving to something more diverse.

Stephen Shore is one of the very rare cases where a person combines being an excellent, groundbreaking artist with being a generous and open teacher, and a very good writer. With Modern Instances, we now get access to that universe. This makes for a unique opportunity to get access to something that too often is hidden: how a person developed into the artist they are, given the material and people they associated themselves with.

In my own teaching, I often describe photographs as gifts: they are given to you if you’re able to spot and then take them. This book is a gift. If this (or any other) article spotted it, all that’s left for you is to take it.

Stephen Shore — Modern Instances: The Craft of Photography;224 pages; MACK; 2022

Photography After Capitalism Mon, 28 Mar 2022 14:38:45 +0000 Joerg Colberg

One of the problems with capitalism is that inevitably, we have to deal with it from the inside, from being thoroughly embedded in it. As denizens of photoland, we can also say the same about photography: we often don’t or can’t see its many fault lines, given that we tend to look at the world as either something that is photographable or that has already been photographed. As a consequence, looking at photography, capitalism, and the relationships between them is difficult to understand in more ways than just one.

It is no secret that I have had an interest in the topic for a long time. My approach is old-fashioned in the sense that I see photographs as manifestations of capitalism (and other ideologies): I look for how they express whatever is embedded in them, reading their codes in ways that follow the tradition of Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes, while mostly ignoring more photo-specific details. For example, in Photography’s Neoliberal Realism, I argued that focusing on the photographic artifacts in the work of Annie Liebovitz, Gregory Crewdson, and Andreas Gursky is completely besides the point I was actually interested in.

But there are different ways to approach the larger subject matter, and these include expressly taking the way photographs are being made into consideration. This also includes the fact that larger parts of photography cannot really be considered in a classical sense any longer.

What is called computational photography focuses on the fact that photographs are no longer made only by the person pressing the shutter button (whether a physical one or some area on a smart-phone screen). Instead, photographs are increasingly being interpolated if not outright invented by computer algorithms that a) correct for known deficiencies of photographic equipment and b) work towards what the programming team has deemed to be the desired outcome by a target audience (I don’t agree with parts of this recent article about the latest iPhones, but it gives you a good idea of some of the topics that are being discussed).

Ben Burbridge‘s Photography After Capitalism is a recent book that looks into a larger number of such topics, with a focus on the relationship between photography and labour itself. After all, someone will have to press that shutter button (or take that screenshot) and potentially move through some space. That is a form of labour. Photographs don’t make themselves, and there are repercussions from this very fact.

What’s more, those at the other side of a camera are also part of the equation, even if this aspect is one that usually is being completely ignored by photoland. The topic came up in my conversation with Rob Hornstra who recently started to give subjects whose picture he sold to collectors a portion of the proceeds (see the interview for details). As Burbridge details in a chapter about this very idea — involving subjects in the financial aspects of picture making, selling, and/or distributing, things can get considerably more complex than in the cases discussed by Hornstra.

Possibly the most extreme case is the one of Renzo Martens whose Enjoy Poverty caused a huge stir a little over a decade ago. I got so intrigued by Burbridge’s discussion that I looked for more information about the project and its reception. I found Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens‘ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, a collection of reviews, articles, and interviews made around the project. With its 370 pages, there is much to chew on.

I don’t think I have been this engrossed in a book of criticism in a long time. If you are even only remotely interested in the photojournalistic industry taking pictures in a place like Africa, for sure you will want to read the book.

Enjoy Poverty encapsulates a huge number of aspects of photography under and as a tool of capitalism, with possible ways out potentially only being provided by the most breathtaking cynicism that, however, doesn’t even work.

In a nutshell, Martens went to Congo to help local photographers make money by teaching them to take the kinds of pictures outside photojournalists sell for a lot of money. The idea didn’t work, because nobody wanted to buy the pictures: stuck in poverty and misery, there’s no way out; and of course, some white guy coming to help just adds another layer of complication.

The beauty of Photography After Capitalism is that even where Burbridge’s examples are maybe not quite as interesting as the author wants to make us believe (for example, Mishka Henner’s rather pedestrian screenshots of oil fields are hardly as insightful as they are being made out), there still is considerable insight into either what is at stake or (and this part interests me personally more) how photographs can be connected to larger issues.

One of the problems writers and critics face who are trying to understand the effects caused by recent changes in the technological landscape of photography is the following. Often, things change so rapidly that the moment a book makes it into print, an example already is at least somewhat outdated or has been superseded by something more recent. The strength of Burbridge’s writing is that it typically spans a wider range (both in scope and time), meaning that the focus always is on the undercurrent and not so much on what currently floats on top.

Whether talking about snapshots or appropriation, Burbridge deftly ties together a number of recent and older photographers/artists. As a consequence, readers learn more about artists that are already part of (for a lack of a better word) the canon and very recent ones that might operate in seemingly very different ways. This approach not only yields in a lot of depth and insight, it also ensures that Photography After Capitalism is likely to be relevant in a day and age when, say, Instagram has become what Tumblr or Flickr are now. Unlike a lot of other books (especially those written about photography and social media), I suspect that this book will age very well.

In his final chapter, Burbridge notes that “[a]rt can be an important site for politics, but only if we remain attentive to the politics of art.” This statement sits at the core of parts of what I have focused on for a while. Given how deeply embedded photography is in capitalism, in effect there cannot be a photography without politics: even as capitalism attempts to convince us it has nothing to do with politics, the reality is the complete opposite.

Obviously, a lot of photolandians would rather not have so much to do with politics or think about capitalism. Doesn’t photography (or art) provide a refuge, where dealing with things larger than petty concerns provides solace? Well, sure. That is a valid and often valuable way of thinking.

However, Photography After Capitalism demonstrates its futility. In the day and age of computational photography, it is impossible to avoid looking into the politics of labour in the world of photography, regardless of whether it concerns those far away who mine the materials cameras rely on, those far away who moderate our content on social media (whether we actually want that or not), those who develop the algorithms that make our pictures look the way they look, those we see in front of our cameras, and, of course, ourselves, the usually unpaid labourers of our own work.

This doesn’t mean that we all now need to make work around these topics. But at the very least, we owe it to ourselves to become more aware of the undercurrents I spoke of earlier.

Ben Burbridge: Photography After Capitalism, 256 pages, Goldsmiths Press, 2020

Anthony Downey (ed.): Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens‘ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, Sternberg Press, 2019

The Beauty of the Body Mon, 21 Mar 2022 14:47:11 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I happened to look at Anne Morgenstern‘s Macht Liebe for the first time after having spent some time on Instagram. This made for a jarring experience. Larger parts of Morgenstern’s photographs would not be able to exist on Instagram simply because they run counter to what the company euphemistically calls its “community guidelines”: essentially a framework that permits complete freedom only to straight white men, some freedom to straight white women, and very little — if any — freedom to anyone else.

Obviously, we could all just leave Instagram. But the company and its app are not any more the problem than Donald Trump was. They’re merely symptoms of an underlying culture that values one particular type of body at the expense of everybody else’s and that equates nudity with sex. If for a reason that is pretty much entirely out of your control you happen to have a body that does not conform to the widely demanded norm, then, well, you’re out of luck.

You’re not only out of luck because you will be discriminated against in a number of ways (whether on Instagram or in our larger visual culture); you’re also out of luck because as a society we’re really bad at talking about bodies and what it means to inhabit one. If you’ve lived long enough it’s not difficult to conclude that almost every person has some problems with their body, and yet almost nobody is able to vocalize them. Instead, we all bottle them up. When someone attempts to do it anyway, let’s say on Instagram, we might double tap to “like”, maybe we leave a comment in some form, and that’s about it.

Open Macht Liebe and you’ll encounter a completely different universe. Or rather a version of our world that has shed all constraints and that embraces each and every body simply the way it is. Obviously, one of the reasons why the book is so good is because the photography itself is so stellar. Where Morgenstern’s previous books were already very good — you can find my reviews listed here, this new book feels like a quantum leap forward.

The photography feels contemporary — you can tell that the artist is very much aware of the current visual discourse. At the same time the photographs don’t feel as if they were made for the academy: that cliquish group of art photographers and curators who make work only for themselves, without any regard for the larger world — even as they very much pretend to do the opposite of that. Instead, these photographs are very much alive: they breathe, they’re open, they often are playful, and yes, they’re very beautiful.

The photographs cover a variety of people and objects. There are portraits (photographed with a sense of generous tenderness that is very, very rare these days); there are details of body parts; there are still lifes; there are photographs of animals; there are photographs that evoke snapshots without losing focus of the task at hand.

And there are bodies, large numbers of them, all kinds of shapes and forms and ages and sexual orientations and gender identifications and whatever else. It is the strong sense of acceptance mixed with playfulness that prevents the work itself from being didactic. As a viewer, you’re invited to look and become a part of what is on view, even as for sure every viewer will find their own limit to how far they might be willing to go.

In addition, the object itself, the book, embraces what can be done with this particular form and elevates it beyond your regular monograph. Each spread offers space for four vertically taken photographs, even as that space is not always completely filled. For example, the book opens with a spread of three pictures, followed by four, which are then followed by two. Occasionally, there is a horizontal photograph instead of two vertical ones, so the fourth spread shows one horizontal pictures next to two vertical ones.

While this might sound confusing when described with words, the experience of the book is the complete opposite of that. The combinations of the photographs and the effect achieved through the variations creates a very powerful visual game, in which each and every photography is made to work in some form of harmony with its neighbours. This is no mean feat, given the work that must have gone into constructing this sequence of groupings that, in turn, build up through their sequence to a very powerful whole.

I can’t think of another book that employs this method as successfully. After all, one of the possible drawbacks of this type of book building is that there is the risk of things becoming just much too cerebral or too centered on the bookmakers’ cleverness — instead of on the photographs and their overall message. It is possible that these photographs themselves prevent arriving at such a conclusion; but the edit and design team — the photographer along with designer Claudio Barandun — did an incredible job.

Macht Liebe feels like a welcome addition to Hartmann Books‘ usually elegant but also maybe a bit too predictable stable of books. Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of their books. But it’s wonderful to see a book break out of the usual a little bit too quiet restraint and throw something wild at you. Macht Liebe is wild — in all the best ways. Its German title is nifty. It translates as either “make love” or “the power of love” into English. As with all great books, it’s the small details that matter.

It’s impossible to know what the rest of the year will bring in terms of photobooks. It’s possible this book is just the first out of many great books this year. Or maybe it will remain that one book that at the end of the year made the biggest impression on me. Whichever it ends up being, Macht Liebe is absolutely brilliant — one of the best contemporary photobooks in a long time.

Highly recommended.

Macht Liebe; photography by Anne Morgenstern; essay by Danaé Panchaud; 192 pages; Hartmann Books; 2022

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

A Conversation with Rob Hornstra Mon, 14 Mar 2022 14:02:39 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Ordinarily, I would have simply introduced my conversation with Rob Hornstra with his history as a photographer, most notably his work with writer Arnold van Bruggen in the Caucasus: The Sochi Project. That work entailed a large number of highly successful self-published photobooks, all of them crowdfunded at a time when such an approach was only beginning to become more widely used. It ended up getting the pair being banned from Russia. There now is a new project, The Europeans, which follows similar ideas in a different setting.

But since 24th February 2022, The Sochi Project has taken on a completely new meaning and relevance, given Putin’s attack on Ukraine has brought the brutish Russian conduct in the Caucasus with its massive human-rights violations and innumerous war crimes right into the heart of Europe (Europeans had conveniently ignored them when Russia bombed hospitals in Syria and reduced entire cities to ashes).

The following conversation was conducted three weeks before the start of the war in Ukraine and for that reason does not include a discussion of it. It has been edited for clarity and length.

After the start of the war, Rob made copies of the book An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus available for sale, with all proceeds going to the Ukrainian Red Cross: “After previously selling 84 books within a week, our stock was exhausted. We donated 3,990 Euros to the Red Cross. Now our publisher Aperture has decided to supply new stock free of charge. Brilliant! The action continues! For every sold book we donate 47.50 euro to the Ukrainian Red Cross.” If you’re interested in a copy follow this link.

Jörg Colberg
The last time we spoke your partner and you had just had your first child, and you were teaching. You had also finished The Sochi Project, a massive project with crowdfunding and a lot of trips. With time passed now, looking back — how do you see that work?

Rob Hornstra
What we achieved — Arnold van Bruggen and I — is more than we expected when we started the project in 2009. Especially around the Olympic Winter Games and the months before, when we got banned from Russia, that’s when we had a tremendous number of articles and media coverage. I think the project truly managed to make an impact by shining a different light on the Olympic propaganda machine of the Russian regime. It was bigger than we ever expected. So the whole project itself… I’m still satisfied.

If you interview athletes before, let’s say, the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing they all say “it doesn’t matter if I win a gold medal, but I need to have the feeling that I did the best race of my life.” I feel that in those five years we did the best race possible. We couldn’t have done more especially when you consider the very limited financial resources we were working with. More exhibitions, more sold books, more articles, more than we expected. I don’t feel that we could have gotten more out of it.

I think at the time, and even now looking back, it was a cutting-edge way to work with photography and also an attempt to engage with an audience in ways that went beyond the usual ideas: here’s a photobook at a book fair that only photographers go to, here’s a gallery show. You tried to reach larger audiences. I want to talk about the photobook and photoland bubbles a little later. But do you think that you had a chance to at least expand that bubble a little bit or even break out of it?

We were mainly exhibiting in photo institutions, at photo festivals, not so much in contemporary art museums. From there, we also reached beyond the bubble with the help of traditional media: magazines, newspapers writing about our work, and then people being interested in looking it up. To give you an example, around the day we got banned from Russia, we had 100,000 unique visitors from Russia on our storytelling website. Alternative online news channels in Russia were reporting about it. So everybody was checking our website. That was definitely beyond art and photography circles.

Another example, Aperture published 4,500 books, and they were all sold before the Olympic Winter Games. Four thousand five hundred is quite a substantial amount of books. Now we have second edition that is running towards the end. We’re not talking about only 250 or 750 books or whatever the numbers might be these days. What helped tremendously was that the region where we worked was closed for journalists six months before the Olympics. So it was no surprise that many editors from major newspapers checked out the book and knocked on our door. When Le Monde or The Guardian publishes an article about it, then you reach far. All these big news channels in different countries were reporting about our project. And very often not in the art section, but in the foreign-affairs pages. There, you reach significantly larger numbers of readers. We always stipulated that there were references to our book or website. That helped tremendously with the visibility of our work.


And then you took a little time out. Or maybe I shouldn’t call it time out, because your old employer might get upset. But you went into teaching.

Especially during the last two trips to Sochi, I didn’t have any energy to once again approach people and have conversations. I was exhausted. So I felt that I needed to take a period off from being an active photographer. When the job offer arrived at my door step — co-head of the BA and MA Photography at the KABK Royal Academy of Art — I just decided to go for it. And it turned out to be a great experience.

Of course, this decision was also related to the fact that I just had had my first child, and the second child was coming up. I wanted to be more at home in those early years of my children’s lives. Having a steady income would be nice too for a while. The job gave me the ability to have a mortgage on a house, which is near to impossible for freelancers in the Netherlands. The moment I had a permanent contract after two years, I immediately bought a house. So there were advantages for a while. However, when I announced this temporary career switch, everybody warned me. From Martin Parr all the way to my mother saying “this is the end of your maker’s career.” I always replied: “No, I can combine it all.” But no. Unfortunately, it turned out to be impossible for me. Officially, I had a three-day job. But it was always double the amount of time and it made it impossible for me to sustain my maker’s career.

Anyway, I felt very privileged, I had a nice job at an ambitious academy with great students. I had permanent contract, a steady income, a mortgage and didn’t have to travel too much. I had a great life that I could continue easily like this for years. But after a couple of years, I told my colleague co-head: “It’s too bad, because being co-head absolutely is the second best job in the world. But for whatever reason I still want to be a photographer.” As a result I took an unpaid six-month leave of absence. Within a month after my return I told her: “This is not going to be half a year, this is going to be forever.” And I quit. That’s now one year ago.

It was a big step for me to find the courage to say: “Hell yeah, I’m burning down everything and I am going back to my insecure maker’s career.” But so far I’m very glad I did. Despite all the uncertainties, I think it’s just incredible to be a photographer and work on self-initiated long-term projects.

You decided to work with Arnold van Bruggen again. And you started the project The Europeans. I think the structure is very similar to The Sochi Project. But I think there are some differences. I don’t know if this is true, but I think you don’t work with galleries any longer. Can you talk about that?

I didn’t feel very comfortable working with galleries in general. You know and I know and every reader of your website knows that art fairs are hardly about content. They are about aesthetics and money. My work is humanistic and often about violations of human rights or poor living conditions. Seeing my work as a sales item at an art fair makes me feel uncomfortable. There also is the fact that the most marketable two or three works are usually displayed. I work in series — that’s why I like books so much, and if you only pull a few works out, the content gets blurred.

My students often asked me: “If you feel uncomfortable, then why are you a part of it?” The answer was very simple. Like every artist, I was hoping to make enough money to sustain independent projects. I did make money, but not so much that I felt that it was going to be the part that’s really sustaining my work. Five years ago, I decided to stay closer to myself and stop working with galleries. I know more photographers struggle with this, but few speak up about it.

Was that a smart decision? Most important, it feels good to no longer be part of this deeply conservative, capitalist art bubble. I’m not against selling work, as I also need to fund my projects, but the setting of an art fair just doesn’t feel good to me. Financially, by the way, it hasn’t turned out badly. I sell more work now than I did during my gallery times, directly to museums as well as to private buyers. Without profit sharing.

I read that, that the people in your pictures get a fraction of the money that you make from a print sale. Is that true?

Yes. What do we think about it? It’s true, but I’m still in doubt. I’ll explain after tell me what you think.

When I read this, I thought it’s actually brilliant. It solves some of the problems that I’ve had for a long time. I have a problem with the fact that a photographer goes out into the world, and often the people that are being photographed are poor people or disadvantaged people. The pictures are then sold to rich people, and the photographer makes a career out of that. That’s fine. But the people in the pictures don’t really get anything. Their pictures maybe hang in a museum, or their faces are well known. But nobody even knows their names. I’ve always wondered why they do not get anything other than an invitation to the exhibition or maybe a small print? So when I heard about your model I thought it was great. In some ways, you share responsibility for what you make. But I don’t know to what extent these thoughts were in your head when you came up with this.

Once I make a portrait of anyone and publish it in a book or in a magazine, I don’t feel uncomfortable. I see it as my calling to document the world. Including people. So making portraits is part of my profession. I honestly explain my work the best I can to everyone. People are free to participate or not, they sign a consent form afterwards. If a portrait is published, in a book, magazine or newspaper, I hardly ever make any money from it.

Once one of those portraits is being sold for a lot of money as an artwork in an edition, I become a bit uncomfortable. On the one hand, such transactions are necessary to generate enough income to continue my projects. On the other hand, I feel that is the time when the person portrayed may also benefit from the sale of work.

I never tell people in advance that they could possibly make some money from the photo. I’m afraid I’ll end up in a grey area, where people agree to cooperate because they hope to make money from it. Or that it affects their behaviour in front of the camera. In my practice, the chances of a portrait being sold as an editioned print are incredibly small, maybe one in every hundred portraits.

Out of the blue, they get a check from you in the mail?

The way this works is that 1/3 of the money goes to the person, 1/3 goes to me, and 1/3 to our project The Europeans. So yes, I contact them. It’s not a lot of money, usually just a couple of hundred euros. But people are surprised. I don’t have a lot of experience yet. The selling of editioned works from The Europeans has only just begun. I am now in the process of finalising the first transactions.

Honestly, I am a bit afraid of possible outcomes. What if this becomes more regular and more photographers are using this system? As a result, people might ask any photographer whether they get money from it. Whereas I believe that making someone’s portrait is not something that you should have to pay for. And of course, in my new system, that’s not what I’m doing. I’m only paying to someone if I sell the picture, based on the idea that sharing is an incredibly beautiful thing.

For every chapter within The Europeans, I’m portraying 300, maybe 400 people. Out of all these portraits, three, maybe four photos are sold as an editioned print. The other people don’t get anything. I don’t want to create a shady field where people are going to ask for money from photographers before they are portrayed. That’s my fear with this system. I don’t want to make it more difficult for photographers than it already is these days. Hence my doubts.

Another point of attention: What if the person in the image is — in my opinion — a really nasty person, let’s say, a Nazi guy? I don’t want to support those activities. That doesn’t feel good. Another thing, in case you portray children, you have to pay the parents. I hope that they put the money aside for later, but you never know. So I started something, and I thought I’d do good. But now I have my doubts about all these kinds of things. Actually, I really have no clue what I’m doing. But that’s always when you start something new, right?

I was just going to say that you did similar things with The Sochi Project already. You tried a lot of things just to see what happens.

Some things completely fail and other ones are successful. Fortunately for me, people generally only look at the success stories. I am seen as the photographer who has introduced new funding models for long-term photography projects and constantly questions the ‘conservative’ art and photography scene by using new forms of presentation, reaching beyond the intellectual elite. I am quite proud of that. But of course, many things I tried failed. That is less in the spotlight.

Here’s one other thing I wanted to talk about: the isolated world of the photobook and photographers staying in that bubble. I had the feeling that you have a lot of opinions about that. How do you see this whole thing?

The short answer is I share your opinion. Actually, I am always a little bit in doubt about how to talk about this. I am passionate about photobooks. I love photobooks, including photobooks that are being made without a real reason to make them. I think those books are sometimes brilliant. So it’s very difficult to be harsh towards this world where things are made with commitment, care, and passion.

But the fact is that not enough photographers think before they publish a book. Delphine Bedel, founder of META/BOOKS once asked: “Is your book worth killing a tree?” That’s a very important question. I think photographers nowadays have the obligation to think about the impact of a book. There are so many photographers producing wonderful and smart photography projects. But once they start thinking about presentation of those projects, it seems that 99% lose their capacity to creatively think. All they think of then is ‘book and exhibition’ without wondering what purpose that serves.

I really admire photographers who have the rare capacity to match the presentation of their work to the core ambition they had in mind. People like Rafał Milach, for example, making newspapers to hand out for free among protesters. To support them, to give them a voice, to make them visible to future history because the media ignores them, even to facilitate posters. Or Zoe Strauss, who presented her work under the I-95 highway to bring together different groups in Philadelphia. You really cannot find these different groups in a museum, no matter how hard they try to bring them in. Or Mark Neville who is sending out 750 complimentary copies of his new book Stop Tanks With Books to ambassadors, members of parliament and other policy makers. The aim is to put pressure on ending the war and withdrawal of Russian forces from occupied territories. These kinds of projects are far ahead of all those narcissistic photographers who would like to see their work reproduced in an expensive and beautifully printed book with their name on the cover. The annoying thing for photographers who explore new forms of presentation and appeal to different audiences is that the art world — which calls itself progressive, but in real is the opposite — often ignores such projects, while rewarding those expensive narcissistic book projects.

With your latest book, you explicitly tried not to make a posh, big book.

It is not really a book, we see it as an interim publication, an ephemeral and raw presentation to continue the local dialogue and elicit responses that are valuable for the continuation of the project.

For The Europeans, we produce work in different heartland regions. That’s where we also first want to present the work. It doesn’t have to be a presentation at an art institution. It can be a shopping mall as well. We try to connect to a broad local audience. And we have devised a strategy on how to achieve this. First of all, we work together with a local newspaper. And we create stories, portraits of local people for this newspaper. That’s working really well. We reach loads of people by publishing in a local newspaper. This is how we manage to connect local people, but increasingly also pan-European. The larger goal of our project is to counteract rising populism. We think that we will increasingly achieve this in heartland regions. Once we are finished in a region, we invite people to join us for a drink at the exhibition opening. So we collect reactions and feedback. There we also have our self-published publication, which is all about them and the region where they live and work. In those heartland regions, hardly anyone will buy a photobook that costs €39.50. So we decided that the accompanying publications cost €9.50. That’s why it’s not big and posh.

It’s not an overwhelming large book. It’s this sort of like unassuming pamphlet, which doesn’t telegraph “I’m so precious.” I think aside from the price, that’s really important.

Of course, these are not hardcover expensive books. Taking financial limitations into account and thanks to our great designers Kummer & Herrman, we think we really produced a nice publication. The selling price is a little below cost price. We solve that problem by wrapping part of the print run with a hard cover, including a print, and selling it for 120 euros. So the buyers of the hardcover edition are helping us target a broad audience with our project. And it works. That’s the nice part of it. When we have an exhibition opening, loads of locals are buying the publication. They bring it home and they really read it. And we receive feedback. It works perfectly.

So reaching a local audience works. Yet at the same time, we also try to anchor the work in the world of art and photography. Because, let’s face it, that is necessary to be able to benefit from funds and to sell work to private and institutional collections. We’re also looking towards The Europeans‘ final work, around 2030, with major exhibitions and a grand reference book that aims to still be on the shelves of libraries a hundred years from now. It is very challenging to reach both audiences — a local audience in heartland regions and a global art and photography audience.

The first problem we encountered with our super-cheap publication was that specialist booksellers were reluctant to sell the book. Simply because there is no money to be made. One famous online bookseller told me that he does not sell books under 25 euros. And frankly, I do understand. The conclusion is that if you make a financially accessible book, it will not be available in bookshops. And as a result, it becomes less accessible. We had not realized this beforehand.

We are now considering how to solve this dilemma. One option is to double the price to €19, but provide a 50% discount during local presentations, so the work still costs €9.50. Perhaps one of the readers of your blog has an idea?

All of that goes back to the original problem, doesn’t it? Of the art community being so removed from the rest of society.

In his essay The Barbarians: An Essay on the Mutation of Culture, Alessandro Baricco wrote about what could be described as a global shift in consciousness regarding high and low culture. The way we still largely experience art today is a relic of the Romantic era, when museums and theatres were built with entrance fees that were only meant for the elite. Within these walls — accessible only to the wealthy — art was displayed. Today, we still behave according to those unwritten rules. It is not for nothing that the vast majority of young artists want an exhibition in a renowned museum. When you have achieved that, you can honestly say that you are a real artist.

In 2006 , Baricco questioned this old-fashioned way of thinking. He argued — and I fully agree — that art will increasingly go beyond the walls of museums. Fortunately, this is already happening on an increasing scale. It was interesting to see the Turner Prize awarded to an architecture collective called Assemble in 2015. They won the UK’s most important art award for their work on the Granby Four Streets project in Liverpool. The project is a collaboration with the residents of a rundown council-housing estate to clean up the neighbourhood, paint empty houses, and establish a local market.

Reviewers and critics were in shock and stated that’s not real art. To those I would like to say: Wake up people! Things are going to change. The art world is in a major shift from the romantic era towards a new era. That’s fantastic. Why is an insanely expensive framed photograph by, say, Andreas Gursky considered more important in the art world than a free newspaper by Rafal Milach?

Buy this book. The entire amount (47.50 per book) will be donated to Red Cross Ukraine.

This is the 2nd edition of our book An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus (Aperture, 2015). On the cover we used the quote ‘This is the new face of Russia, our Russia’, from a propaganda speech made by the CEO of Sochi 2014, a Putin-supporting clown, during the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. The book — released in first printing before the Winter Games — extensively covers the blatant human rights violations under Putin and his regime. We regularly received a frowning look, wondering if we hadn’t exaggerated things. After all, it couldn’t be that bad in Russia, could it? Again and again we explained: The Putin regime violates human rights on a large scale, is corrupt, criminal and dehumanizing. Disguised as a democracy.⁠ Read about it in this book and support the Ukrainian Red Cross at the same time!

Tokuko Ushioda’s Family Photography Mon, 07 Mar 2022 14:28:58 +0000 Joerg Colberg

It might be a sign of a great photobook when many aspects of a viewer’s biography come together to superimpose themselves on the pictures in such a way that the work itself almost becomes secondary. Of course, it never becomes secondary — how could it? But if all art reflects some of the viewer back to her or him, great art does it particularly well. What is reflected back is a combination of the viewer’s biography, the circumstances around her or his socialization, the culture and society s/he grows up in, and an assortment of random other things or events, which under any under circumstances would never come up.

Tokuko Ushioda‘s My Husband immediately made me aware of this process the moment I picked it up to look at it. I had met the photographer and the husband in question, Shinzō Shimao, during one of my trips to Tokyo. Truth be told, even though they had both spoken about their work, it had been Shimao’s image that had stuck with me. After a presentation of his work, he had given a very underwhelming lecture about photography itself. While working on this essay, I found him being described as “a charismatic yet cynical artist”. This felt familiar.

None of that should obviously matter, given that in the end, all I have now is the book. Still, when I see Shimao glare at me in some of the pictures (well, not me, his wife’s camera and maybe, by extension, his wife herself), I see a younger incarnation of the same man who almost four decades later would deliver his thoughts around photography. I’ve tried many times to forget the impressions from that encounter. But the more you try to un-remember something, the more the opposite happens.

Interestingly, while the book (or rather books: there are two — more on this a little later) are entitled My Husband, I’m thinking that this might mislead a viewer. After all, the photographs speak a lot more of Ushioda’s own life at the time when they were made than of only the husband. In fact, Shimao is included in only a relatively small number of them.

There also is their impossibly cute daughter Maho with her big, big eyes. She is referred to as Maho-chan, where “chan” is a Japanese honorific used for people one is close to that has no equivalent in English. Maho-chan also happens to be the title of a book Shimao published in 2004. Lastly, there is the house they lived in, an old Western-style house, the living room of which featured very large windows (ideal photo light).

More often than not, family photography depicts the vibrancy of life in a group of close relatives. Where it does not — think Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home, it’s usually a combination of the tool (the camera) and the underlying conflicts that freezes things into stasis (unfortunately, this sentence would make more sense for a reader who is familiar with the book I’m currently shopping around; I’m hoping that at some future stage, my thoughts on Sultan’s work — as well as Fukase’s, Billingham’s, and Epstein’s — will be accessible for a wider audience).

Here, there is a curious absence of vibrancy. Maho-chan happens to be at an age where children are very active, but somehow she is not — at least not in the pictures. It’s the mother taking the photographs, which offers an immediate explanation: from what I’ve been told, as a photographer and mother, your choice always is to be one of them at any given time, not both. Ushioda’s choice is clear from her work.

This brings me back to the thoughts I started out with. At the end of the (first) book, there are two essays. The first was written by Yuri Mitsuda, an art critic. The author of the second essay is photographer and writer Yurie Nagashima who might be familiar to regular readers of this site. In my interview with her, Nagashima spoke in detail of the struggle of being a photographer and a mother, in particular in a country such as Japan where men traditionally don’t do any housework (it’s obviously not much better in most other countries).


There are too many details to repeat them here. Nagashima’s essay is a masterclass in learning how the background against which both Ushioda and herself had to live as mothers and photographers informs numerous details of the work. For example, the quietude of the pictures simply arises from the aforementioned fact that doing two jobs at the same time is impossible. It was the ends of the days when there was time for photography. If you look carefully, you can actually see this. There are those huge windows that allow in a lot of light. Yet in many of the pictures, available light comes from lamps or candles.

Even the camera choice might have something to say. Nagashima wonders “if her choices about the techniques and cameras she used were informed by her being a woman.” Recounting her own experiences in the 1990s, she writes that “Ushioda-san would perhaps deny this was the case, but as a woman traversing an androcentric world, photographs with a 35mm SLR would seem more likely to be dismissed for no good reason.” (p. 129; “san” is possibly the only Japanese honorific familiar to Westerners, roughly the equivalent of “Mr.” or “Ms.”)

As I already briefly mentioned, there are two books. They are divided into camera formats. The first, more expansive book (a hardcover) showcases square-format photographs taken with a Bronica S2 (source). The second book (a softcover) contains photographs taken with a 35mm SLR. As a set, the books are combined with a belly band (“obi”) that wraps around the first books’ front and second book’s back cover (obis typically advertize the books; they often include a quote by a well-known photographer).

There is considerable overlap between the two books (how could there not be?). In the second book, there are many quiet observations made when there was time, when there was rest. But this camera, the 35mm one, also left the house, and it was used in more fluid, social situations. To me, the stepping out of the zone of quiet contemplation feels somewhat welcome, even as ultimately the strength of the work lies exactly where it remains quiet.

I imagine that this aspect might have posed more than one conundrum for the editors of the book who were given access to prints and negatives that had been stored away for decades: their task was to locate the spirit of the work without having it stray too far from the person they know , Tokuko Ushioda. After all, how do you go about bringing out the artistic strength in a body of work while acknowledging the maker’s vulnerability — without having the scale tip too far into either direction?

As someone who has edited two books of photographs recently that could be situated in exactly this spot, I can only applaud the editors for having done an amazing job. The photographs sit right at that sweet spot that, and this is something we as viewers should try to keep in mind, might not quite be as sweet for the artist herself. We don’t know, and we might as well also acknowledge that we don’t have to know.

My Husband is a revelation in more ways than one. To begin with, it gives exposure to a Japanese photographer who is barely known (if that) in the West (photobook collectors and those who looked at the recent What They Saw carefully might remember the earlier Ice Box book). This is a most welcome fact, given that the Western discourse around Japanese photography is still so centered on the mostly male (and very macho) usual suspects (Rinko Kawauchi being the one notable exception). Every step towards allowing Western audiences wider access to the very rich world of photography from Japan is so important.

Furthermore, as I indicated above, these are family photographs (a rich genre) by a woman artist. But in many ways, while ostensibly centered on the home, the young child, and the husband, the photographs really focus on their maker. To some extent, this observation is a lazy truism — all photographs say at least something about their maker; and yet some photographers allow more of their own lives enter into their work than others. More often than not, a photograph speaks of Ushioda’s desire for quiet respite, especially in the first book.

For sure, I wouldn’t want to overinterpret what I take away from My Husband — I have no children, and I’m also not a woman. But I can’t help but feel that what Yasujirō Ozu centered on in many of his movies can also be found here: the impossibly quiet and fraught drama of family life.

There is something uniquely Japanese about Ozu’s movies, given the height the camera is placed at — it’s right there in that social space near the floor where people’s eyes meet when they sit together. In her own ways, Ushioda achieves a very similar effect with her photographs. Time slows down, and the small idiosyncrasies of family life as seen by a mother/photographer are brought to the fore.

Highly recommended.

My Husband; photographs by Tokuko Ushiuoda; essays by Yuri Mitsuda, Yurie Nagashima; two volumes, book 1: 122 pages, book 2: 76 pages; torch press; 2022

Stand With Ukraine Mon, 28 Feb 2022 14:32:02 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Three weeks ago, I reviewed a book of photographs taken in Eastern Ukraine from 2013 until last year. When I wrote the article, I had a bad feeling about where things might be heading in the country. However, even though I’m generally a pessimist (I’m German), I didn’t think there would actually be a large-scale war such as the one that has now erupted.

My interest in Eastern Europe is limited in scope because of where its origin. I know a quite a bit about some countries, and very little about others. As I’ve looked into the history of the country I was born in, places like Ukraine played a large role. I’d like to think that I now know historical facts relatively well, in part because of a number of books I’ve read. These books include Bloodlands by historian Timothy Snyder, which covers the swatch of land where you can find Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic Republics. Snyder has also covered more recent events in Ukraine on his mailing list.

Last week, I published an article that from what I can tell garnered some attention, with agreement as much as disagreement. As I wrote in that article, the question of photography’s role in the world has been on my mind for a while. Unlike many people, I do not see photographs as separate from people, regardless of whether it’s their photographers or their audiences. I wrote that “something can be more than one thing: a piece of art and a part of a larger societal or cultural or political context.”

The same is true for people. You can be a photographer and artist, yet at the same time, you’re a member of a society, of a cultural context, of a political context. These environments are not necessarily of your choosing (even though they can be, at least in parts). But from these environments results the necessity to figure out what you’ll do with that.

Obviously, what you decide to do depends on yourself and your environment as much as on what you’re facing. Whether it’s the pandemic, global warming, systemic racism, the war in Ukraine (or elsewhere), the onslaught of bad news has been relentless during the past decade. It feels as if all of these topics are much too large for a single person to even engage with.

What is more, neoliberal thinking has managed to put us into a very unpleasant situation. On the one had, we feel compelled to do something. On the other hand, we’re trained to see what we do as essentially futile. And then, when we decide to do something we already know that someone will point out that it’s just futile or an exercise in feeling good. I’m no psychologist, but I’m wondering if the concept of learned helplessness has already been applied to social media (a quick Google search yields a first result — there might be more).

I’m going to be honest: I don’t have a solution for this other than trying to do what feels right and just to me, knowing full well that I will be falling short and, potentially, ignoring other problems that are just as important. It’s an approach that has been fruitful in my own art making as well.

I do not share the wide-spread cynicism that anything you might do on social media is just a feel-food exercise for yourself. I can’t help but think that this criticism (if we want to call it that) is not so far from the kinds of accusations lobbed at people who take selfies. Supposedly, that’s just a vapid feel-good exercise. Until the president of Ukraine publishes selfie videos and stuns the world with their power. If you haven’t seen the first one, yet, have a look.

Whatever misgivings I have about social media, I simply don’t believe that expressions of solidarity are only one of two things: actually felt expressions of one’s feelings or exercises to project a sense of virtue. In all likelihood, they’re both at the same time. Maybe I’m a bit naive about this, but I also think that it’s up to us individually to determine where most of the weight falls.

Coming back to this site, I had a review of a book in mind for this week. Unfortunately, right now I am unable to bring up the mental energy required to do so. Furthermore, I also am unable to justify doing it. At this particular moment in time, for me normal programming doesn’t feel right. If this disappoints you, please check back here next week.

For his mailing list, Timothy Snyder wrote two emails that listed organizations to support in case you want to do something for Ukraine. He wrote “A little money, sent in the right direction, can make a meaningful difference. And it might give you a sense that you have done the right thing, at least in a small way, at the right moment.”

The first email contained a list of charities and organizations that possibly rely only on bank transfers. In the second email, Snyder listed charities and NGOs that accept credit cards. There also are a number of organizations provided in this list put together by NPR. From my own experience, I know that some organizations also accept payment systems such as Paypal (I wouldn’t know about Venmo, given that I’m not using it much).

Like I said, each and every one of the massive crises we’re now facing provides yet another opportunity to think about our place in the world. There’s no good way to approach this other than the one that’s right for each and every one of us individually. Plus, it’s like what they say in those safety messages on an airplane: put your own oxygen mask on first, before you help others.

See you back here next week.

What do we give back? Mon, 21 Feb 2022 14:37:46 +0000 Joerg Colberg

In a post on his Instagram account, Brad Feuerhelm wrote about a book by Robert Bergman, noting that (I’m paraphrasing) he was torn about the work. I own a copy of the book, and I know exactly what Brad is talking about. Photographically, the work is very alluring; yet there is the problem that many of the people portrayed in the book are not only underprivileged, the circumstances of their lives also show very prominently. Obviously, as Brad and others note in the comments there are many other photographers who have made their careers out of taking the same kinds of pictures. Brad extracted the comments and included them in a (free) Patreon post that you can access here.

If you’ve read this site for a while, you probably know that I’m very sympathetic to talking about the ethics of photography. Even as you might not realize this when you buy a camera or a smartphone, the history of the medium comes attached to your device. The moment you take a picture, you’re tied to that history — whether you want it or not. There currently are more and more discussions around the many problems of photography’s history, discussions that have spread so far that they now have generated their own backlash (a backlash that’s curiously similar to how members of the conservative and especially far-right side of the political spectrum engage with such discussions).

Even as I think that we should be talking about specific bodies of work, there is something unsatisfactory about many of such discussions on social media. Ignoring trolling and bad-faith arguments, by their own nature, such discussions inevitably result in often dozens and dozens of subthreads that are very difficult, if not outright impossible to follow. There is a lot of energy present (which is great), but that energy then dissipates into every possible direction, leaving behind… well, what? You wouldn’t have the same problem if you simply had people in the same room and initiated a group discussion. Obviously, social-media companies live off that: making sure there’s a lot of energy (“engagement”); at the same time, there is no business incentive to allow people to channel the energy into something more productive.

Somewhere in the comments, Brad wrote something that resonated with me very much, because I have spent a lot of time thinking and occasionally writing about it. He wrote “I do believe photography often takes more than it gives back to humanity, and we then ask questions about what that relationship exerts on the world at large.” I personally would phrase this even more strongly: I absolutely believe that photography takes more than it gives back to humanity.

While I am very supportive of discussions of the merits of individual bodies of work and their possible (or very real) problems, addressing this very question — what does photography give back to humanity? — ought to be discussed as well. In many ways, the question sits on top of whether some body of work is problematic or not: after all, you need criteria with which you can evaluate what is going on.

At the same time, every photographer can — and I would argue: should — ask themselves that question before going out into the world to take pictures. You go out to take your pictures — what exactly do you give back?

You hunt your pictures (or even your subjects — this language is being used) — what about the hunted?

This is a question that every photographer can engage with on their own. Unlike in the case of ethics, there is no larger discussion to connect to. I think that the problem with discussions around ethics in the world of photography stems from the fact that many people have never thought about this aspect: if there is no larger goal or if that larger goal is very amorphous, how can you consider any of the aspects that go into the taking of photographs?

When I taught at an MFA program, I often asked my student questions what they actually wanted to achieve with their work or where they envisioned seeing it. Usually, I was baffled by the fact that the white-cube gallery and photobook were the only outlets that were considered. It’s not that I think those two options aren’t valid — they clearly are. But when they are the only options for the vast majority of photographers, then we should not be surprised that photography has arrived in exactly the position it is in now.

Large numbers of people take photographs on a daily basis with their smartphones. Interest in photography is huge. In fact, photography arguably is the main currency of the current internet. Yet art photographers or other professional photographers have a hard time getting all these people interested in their work. For example, the people who buy photobooks are mostly a small group of wealthy collectors and other photographers.

If you think about it, that’s a really baffling situation: essentially, all those people who are so interested in photography don’t think that art or professional photographers produce something that’s interesting. Even as the number of people reading literature appears to be in decline, many more people buy and read novels than photobooks. In the larger cultural consciousness, photography is everywhere — yet most of its professionals simply don’t exist. That’s crazy.

I do think that this is an entirely self inflicted wound. For too long, photographers have been too eager to make work for other photographers without considering other audiences. Instead, the question of what is being given back to the world has been turned into how to get access to the world of art.

One sad aspect of this is that the question whether photography can be art was essentially resolved once Duchamp put an inverted urinal on a pedestal. If readymades can be art (for what it’s worth, I don’t have a problem with that) then obviously anything can be art. The case for photography as art should have been closed in 1917.

And yet a little over 100 years later, too many photographers are still attempting to define themselves as artists at the expense of getting their own work out into the world, or maybe I should say: the real world. It’s not even that I have a problem with photography made in and for the academy. That’s fine. But if as I noted above, if the end goal of photography is either the white cube or the photobook (that maybe sells a few hundred copies), then the real promise of photography remains unfulfilled.

All too often, the idea of art is used as a smoke screen to avoid dealing with the consequences of one’s work. OK, fine, call your photography art and have it cater to that tiny niche crowd that you might reach, while consoling yourself with the idea that there is some greater good you’re working towards. I’m perfectly fine with that. But the moment you point your camera at, let’s say, an underprivileged person, to make a beautiful portrait (that you then hope to sell to rich people), there’s no escaping the fact that just talking about art simply doesn’t cut it.

Contrary to what many people seem to believe the idea of art is not the equivalent of a “get out of jail” card that magically absolves whatever you might be doing. If your art comes at the expense of other people — for example in the form of their dignity being diminished, then you might have created art; but there still remains the fact that it comes at other people’s expense. I really don’t think that you can just brush that aside: the justification of diminishing someone’s dignity so that art can be made often merely is an expression of privilege.

What is more, there exists plenty of art that actually engages with the larger world, even as it has a foot in the world of art. Consequently, the idea that art is only done for its own sake reduces art to only a part of itself, and it ignores the larger potential of what art can do. Contrary to what many photographers seem to believe, something can be more than one thing: a piece of art and a part of a larger societal or cultural or political context. To give one relatively recent example, some of the founding members of Pussy Riot went to jail because of that.

Another world is possible. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Poland’s Archive of Public Protests. If you ask any of those photographers what they’re giving back to the world, you’ll get a very clear and passionate answer.

This is not to say that all photographers should become overtly political and distribute free newspapers (even though I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more). But in a day and age where a global pandemic is being prolonged in part by people insisting only on their own freedoms (at the expense of everybody else’s), I think it should have become obvious what is at stake if we all individually insist on focusing only on our own private worlds and goals.

Circling back to the many discussions about problematic or abusive bodies of work, if there is no connection to the larger world other than the idea that it simply is a repository from which to take pictures, then we ought not be surprised if many of the discussions remain what they often are: academic exercises that do not actually result in any meaningful change.

As members of this hermetically sealed world of photography we have to realize what’s at stake and break it open. Otherwise, we’ll never learn how to take better pictures, pictures that tell us something that we don’t know; we’ll never learn how to move past tiresome and hurtful photographic tropes; and we’ll never move beyond exhibitions and photobooks that are only seen by our friends and family.

All of that, I would argue, starts with a very simple question: what do I give back to the world that I take my pictures from?

If you enjoyed the piece and want to support my work, you can. I maintain a Patreon page that at the time of this writing centers on photobooks. Over the course of the next few weeks, I will expand the scope of what I cover there.

For twenty years, this site has remained free and ad-free. It’s all just me: no staff, no interns, no budget. If what I’ve written has enriched the way you look at photography, please consider signing up for my Patreon. Thank you!

A Game of Photos Mon, 14 Feb 2022 16:08:13 +0000 Joerg Colberg

There are many artists working with found/vernacular photographs. At this stage, it would probably be possible to compile a rather large book around the topic. While I enjoy looking at vernacular photography, I don’t think that most of the art produced around it is all that interesting. The main problem is that the source material already is so interesting than adding anything on top or doing something with it is really difficult. An image or two typically might look interesting — whether it’s some graphic-design exercise or some embroidery on top. However, once you’ve seen more than a handful, the “oh, I get it” factor kicks in, and whatever was layered on top of the source material turns into a shtick.

If I had to pick an artist as an example who doesn’t fall into this trap it would be Cai Dongdong. In a number of ways, the Chinese artist has more in common with, let’s say, John Baldessari than with any of the other artists working with vernacular photos who have made a name for themselves. Much like Baldessari, Dongdong is smart and often very witty in his work. Whereas other artists are content with assembling large sets of vernacular photographs, the collection of such pictures is his jump-off point. Just like in he case of Baldessari, the occasional designs that are being constructed with or on top of photograph are means to an end — and not the end itself.

There are a number of strategies employed by Dongdong. One of the most Baldessarian is to use part of a source photograph’s element and to amplify it in some fashion. For example, a photograph of a group of young men engaged in a rope-pulling contest is framed and then hung on a wall with a rope in such a way that the rope in the picture and the one in the gallery appear to connect. This example includes another element, namely the use of space and the photograph as an object. Often, the photograph’s content is made to extend out into the world (such as when in front of a photograph that shows some rocks, there is a small platform with little rocks placed on it). Alternatively, the fact that what we are looking at is a photograph is driven home in some way.

Photography as a way of looking and of creating an image is another very prominent strategy. Camera lenses appear both as added (Photoshopped) elements of photographs themselves, or they are added to a photograph. For example, one source photographs shows a naked man and woman in bed. The scene must have been photographed by the men, who is looking down towards his crotch. The woman is holding his erect penis, which has been replaced with a camera lens.

In many of his works, Dongdong essentially connects many of his photographs back to the world from which they were taken. Whoever is depicted in them is brought back into our three-dimensional world. Our and their looking are connected. Staring into that camera lens grabbed by the naked women makes for a strange experience: how can the picture (or maybe the penis) stare back at us? Or maybe observe us observing it?

In all of these cases (and much like in the case of a lot of Baldessari), it would be asking too much to read a deeper, more profound meaning into the work — a meaning beyond what the work itself gets at. The wit is the point; the amplification of what a camera does (and all of the consequences arising from that) is the point. It is not for nothing that a new catalog of the work is entitled A Game of Photos.

Much like how Baldessari played with conventions of film and photography to make us look at what we actually believe in and how we tell stories, Dongdong uses a similar approach to have us look at what photographs do on their own. The childish delight in both artists’ work appeals a lot to me. Much like children, both are not afraid to employ serious photographs for decidedly unserious means. But that is exactly the strength of these two artists, in particular given how devoid of humour the world of photography is and how seriously it takes itself.

But the interventions of looking also remove the source photographs from — for a lack of a better word — the history to which they seemingly are confined. We are used to looking at photographs as these entities that show us people or things that were and now are not any longer. Breaking this idea gives the photographs, and by extension the people in them, a strange power that ordinarily we don’t expect to run into when looking at photography.

In the Baldessarian sense, this results in the ideas and thoughts we have about photography being broken, to have us re-engage with pictures. In some strange and rather light-hearted sense, this is a form of critique, whose target is the audience — and not the original photographers (whoever they might have been). Seen that way, there is considerable profundity behind all the visual mayhem after all.

A Game of Photos; photographs and installations by Cai Dongdong; essays by Karen Smith and Cai Dongdong; 214 pages; self-published; 2021

NB: I haven’t been able to find a link for the book. I will add one if I can find one later. The book lists the artist’s studio email — if you’re interested in the book try it.

In Limbo Mon, 07 Feb 2022 16:02:58 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The world of the photobook roughly divides into two camps. The first sees the photobook as a container for photographs whose purpose it is to showcase them. The second sees the photobook as a fully fledged medium in its own right that goes beyond what photographs on their own can do.

While both camps have existed for as long as there have been photobooks (meaning pretty much ever since photography was invented), over the course of the past two decades more attention has been paid to the second camp. There had been regional pockets of a heightened awareness of the medium photobook — Japan and the Netherlands can serve as good examples, but now most of the rest of the world has been trying to catch up.

I couldn’t say that I prefer one model over the other. Some photography is served very well by what I called a “gallery show on paper” many years ago: the container model. The format itself is — let’s be honest — really boring; but if it’s done well, the photographs command enough attention for the whole package to work.

But I think the successes of the second model have raised the stakes for the whole industry. There are now so many cutting-edge publishers that what can be achieved with a photobook has become more widely known. If you’ve spent enough time looking at photobooks, you know what a good designer can do; you know of the importance of paper and good printing; you know how the binding itself can be very important.

Consequently, even if as a publisher the container model is your go-to solution, you don’t easily get away with books any longer whose format itself is boring and that look as if they had been produced with little, if any attention being paid to what they look and feel like. Whichever model you prefer, a book produced in 2022 should look and feel contemporary — and not like something straight out of the, say, the 1990s.

I had to think of all of this when Florian Bachmeier‘s In Limbo arrived in the mail, produced and published by Buchkunst Berlin, a somewhat recent addition to the world of photobook publishing. The photographs in the book were taken in Eastern Ukraine, the region that was occupied by Russian forces that *wink wink* supposedly are independent entities. Given Russia has currently amassed large numbers of weaponry at Ukraine’s border, possibly looking for yet another attack on its neighbour, the topic has now re-attracted a lot of attention.

The photographs in In Limbo are photojournalistic in nature, and it would have been so tempting to produce a classical book along those lines. Thankfully, that’s not what happened. Instead, its makers decided to violate a number of cherished tenets of photojournalism. There are captions, but they’re all way in the back of the book, instead of underneath or near the photographs. What is more, a large number of photographs wrap around the book’s fore edge.

A little important production detail: note the hinged construction at the spine. This construction allows the spine of the text block to arch when the book is opened. Consequently, the book is easier to open, and the spine is less likely to crack (because there is less stress on it).

In addition, the book was printed on thin paper that was folded in half and then bound using perfect binding, resulting in what a bookbinder friend of mine told me he refers to as pouch pages. Maybe the most well known recent book that uses this technique is Rinko Kawauchi’s Illuminance (I should note that I only know the original edition and not the recent reissue).

Obviously, if you wrap photographs around the page, you essentially cut them into two pieces. This creates a problem because the two parts ideally should make at least some sense on their own. You certainly don’t want to randomly separate a photograph into two parts that each don’t work photographically. The makers of the book solved this problem very well to make sure the construct works (see the example below).

As a consequence, the viewer is taken through the book almost in a filmic way. The book propels itself forward. It’s a very effective device that creates a completely different experience than your usual photojournalistic book. In addition, the book itself — the object — is beautiful. It’s very well produced.

While Buchkunst Berlin’s books up until this one were on the very conventional side, it would seem that somehow, they decided to be a lot bolder and try something new. Good for them: the gamble is paying off handsomely.

I suspect that especially the wrapping of the photographs around the pages will cause much griping in the most conservative parts of an already pretty conservative photoland. Purists will insist on the sanctity of the photographs, claiming the device makes it impossible to see them. I would argue that the exact opposite is the case: not only does the production of In Limbo elevate the work out of that vast ocean of photojournalistic sameness, it also potentially opens up new audiences.

For sure, it had me engage with the work a lot more deeply. If this had been some generic photojournalistic book, I probably would have looked through it once. Here, I found myself coming back to the book because there is more to discover than a collection of photographic facts.

In Limbo; photographs by Florian Bachmeier; text by Kateryna Mishchenko; 180 pages; Buchkunst Berlin; 2021

Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 4.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 4.0

The Hotel Mon, 31 Jan 2022 15:10:10 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I don’t know what I was thinking. When I saw the announcement for Sophie Calle‘s The Hotel, I knew that I was familiar with the work, having seen it in Double Game. But I didn’t realize that that earlier book contained the entirety of it, meaning that when I received the new book in the mail and read “originally published […] in Double Game” I felt that I could (should?) have been paying more attention. The Hotel is a handsome production. But in a number of ways, it doesn’t quite reach the quality of Double Game: the latter’s paper feels like, well, paper and not like sheets of plastic, and the overall layout and design of the work — condensed, with the photographs being rather small — works in its favour as well. Thus, if you own a copy of Double Game, you don’t need this new book.

Maybe I remembered The Hotel from the earlier book only faintly because situated next to The Chromatic Diet, The Striptease, or Suite vénitienne, The Hotel feels weak. It lacks the droll artistic wit showcased in The Chromatic Diet. Unlike in The Striptease there’s absolutely nothing at stake for its maker. Lastly, The Hotel results from removing everything that makes Suite vénitienne so interesting, to leave behind a rather uninteresting core.

At this stage, I should probably note that in general, I am a big admirer of Sophie Calle and her work. If I had to describe Calle in just a few words, I would say that unlike any other artist I know, she has managed to tie her own vulnerability to her audience’s, implicating both (!) for their respective failures to lead a more meaningful life — and this means: a life less governed by artificial, societal conventions that only serve to suppress our shared humanity.

This description points at how I view any of Calle’s books (it is the book, after all, that is this artist’s perfect medium). My description is not intended to imply that the relationship between herself and her readers is always one of equals — quite on the contrary. A larger number of the artist’s works centers on the gender imbalance between men and women. (Last year, Alice Blackhurst wrote about the problem posed by the fact that Calle’s work is centered in a very bourgeois hetereonormative setting. That is a fair and timely commentary, which points in a different direction than the one I intend to make below.)

In many of her works, Calle subverts the power dynamic between men and women, at times directly or indirectly making the male gaze her subject matter. The Striptease documents work she did as a sex worker, work almost custom made for the late John Berger’s description of the male gaze: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. […] The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” (quoted from: Ways of Seeing) Suite vénitienne had Calle turn the tables by doing what (heterosexual) men typically do when they are “on the prowl”: she followed a man to Venice and tried to find out as much as possible about him. In The Address Book, she does the same with another man, albeit in a different fashion.

Referencing surrealist André Breton and the artists of the Situationist International, Stuart Jeffries writes that “traces of these avant-gardists’ loathing for bourgeois values, and their strategies to escape the tedium and uniformity capitalism imposes on those who live under it, are echoed in her work. […] Yet,” and this is where it gets interesting, “there is no sense in her work that there is a more authentic way of being. Her art is critique rather than search for utopia beyond the dystopia of today.” (quoted from: Everything, All The Time, Everwhere; Verso 2021) One might ask whether it’s an artist’s duty to do that, to “search for utopia beyond the dystopia of today.” I am more and more tempted to say that it is, but your mileage might vary.

Ignoring this aspect, there is the other major one, especially concerning The Address Book and The Hotel: privacy. “[P]rivacy itself,” Jeffries writes, “might be thought of as akin to property — a commodity amassed and defended most assiduously by the powerful, whose loss provokes the biggest outcry from those who have most invested in the existing late-capitalist order. From this perspective, which I suspect is the perspective of Calle, Proudhon was right to say property is theft, but he should have added: privacy is theft, too.” (ibid.)

When I read this against the context of Suite vénitienne and The Address Book (the context used by Jeffries), I found myself agreeing. But now that I’ve (re-)looked at The Hotel, I’m not so sure any longer. Or rather, maybe it’s the setup of this work that has me ask for something a little bit deeper. I suppose it’s one thing to have a woman artist pit herself against a man and openly violate what society has been taking for granted. Even decades after those works were made, they still feel relevant, mostly because as far as I can tell, the situation of people who are not straight men has not dramatically improved in my life time. In fact, completely new entities that didn’t exist forty years ago now replicate the very same power structures that would have been very much familiar back then (just look at how social media’s “community guidelines” cement the status of white, heterosexual men at the expense of everybody else). It is when that aspect falls away that things get iffy for the French artist.

“On Monday, February 16, 1981,” Sophie Calle writes at the beginning of The Hotel, “I was hired as a temporary chambermaid  for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. […] On the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed, through details, lives which remained unknown to me.” The book’s structure is simple. Rooms are covered for the duration of (a) guest(s) stay. This begins with room 25, February 16-19, with a man occupying the room. Calle photographs some of his belongings and reads (quotes from) his diary.

This sets the stage for the rest of the book. One room, some period of time, a guest or, frequently, a couple staying in the room, the artist rummaging through their belongings, occasionally picking up spoken words. Ignoring the ethical problem of the rifling through personal belongings for a bit, one might imagine that this would result in at least something of interest. But no, for the most part, Calle encounters the mundane. As time passes and the reader makes her or his way through the book, s/he can’t help but feel how the artist herself got disillusioned by the paucity of the assembled material. As a reader, I found myself turning the pages faster and faster. That’s never a good sign for a book.

Of course, my reaction is based on an expectation (even if I wouldn’t necessarily want to admit this to myself): obviously, I’m wanting to come across some major revelation or at least some form of excitement. But it turns out that other people’s lives are just as ordinary as mine. In fact, I suspect that if someone were to rummage through my belongings in a hotel room, they might find more interesting material: the occasional rare art book, for example, a bunch of vernacular photographs or magazines picked up at some flea market… Or maybe I’m indirectly thinking my own interests are more interesting that other people’s? Obviously, I would not want anyone to rifle through my stuff any more than, I suspect, the people who stayed at that hotel in early 1981.

Still, I like my art to be on the subversive side, regardless of whether it’s the one I look at or the one I make. But what exactly is subversive in Calle’s endeavour? Part of what bothers me about The Hotel is that its equal-opportunity subversiveness, where each room is being investigated, regardless of who occupies it. It’s questionable how subversive equal-opportunity subversiveness really is: it’s not at all the same thing, but would we call a toddler in their “no phase” subversive? I think not.

Furthermore, the blanket invasion of privacy demonstrated in The Hotel has not aged very well in light of the drastic decrease of privacy afforded to us today. If I were to imagine a Sophie Calle going about her hotel-room work today, she might find out a lot more if she were to simply monitor the guests’ social-media profiles and paid a little money to get access to data stored by data-mining companies. Obviously, this is not to defend the fact that corporations have trashed our idea of what privacy means, and it’s also not to excuse the fact that many people share more on social media about their lives than is actually healthy for them.

It’s also where Jeffries’ comment about privacy fall short, given that he notes that a person’s ability to voice her or his displeasure about a reduction of privacy (a voice that in our societies is tied to wealth and status) says something about the general populace’s approach to the topic. If poor people (literally) can’t afford access to more privacy that doesn’t mean that privacy itself is a bourgeois entity — it just means that our societies are stacked in favour of the wealthy and powerful (more often than not, this includes photographers). Furthmore, unlike property, privacy cannot actually amassed. This is one of the few, relatively minor details in his otherwise excellent book where I found myself in disagreement with the author.

If, as Jeffries wrote, Calle’s art is indeed supposed to be the “critique rather than search for utopia beyond the dystopia of today”, then I don’t think that this idea applies to The Hotel: where exactly is the critique? There’s no utopia, and there’s no critique. What is there? I’m reluctant to spell it out: Instead, what I’m left with is what I’d consider an at best minor work by an artist that I have a lot of respect for, a work that might have been better served had it not been reissued.

I suppose that some pieces of art age differently than others. This bums me out, even as I console myself with the fact that there is all of Sophie Calle’s other work that I can (and will) still enjoy.

Sophie Calle — The Hotel (Siglio, 2021)

A Conversation with Anne Schwalbe Mon, 24 Jan 2022 15:03:17 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Anne Schwalbe is one of those photographers who have created their own niche. Where other artists’ Instagram accounts showcase prices they won or books they’ve published, Anne fills hers with photographs of gardens, information about all kinds of plants that apparently are perfectly edible, hand-sewn clothes, and living in and renovating a house that looks as if it were part of an open-air museum of traditional village life. Her photography summarizes this kind of sensibility very well, and I had wanted to talk to her about her work for a while.

In late December 2021, we connected via Zoom. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and it has been translated from its original German.

Jörg Colberg
How did you get started with photography?

Anne Schwalbe
I had been interested in photography for a very long time. In sixth grade already I had a black and white course in school. During the application period for my high school diploma, I applied for a photography apprenticeship at a passport photo studio and at Lette Verein. But neither of those worked out. Afterwards, I thought I couldn’t take pictures, so I didn’t take pictures for a long time.

I then started a voluntary ecological year but dropped out because I was training to be a publishing-house clerk. I thought that would be a great and safe job, but I dropped out again because it was totally boring. Afterwards, I studied German and Cultural Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin because I still didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t have the confidence to do the things I wanted to do! I finished my studies because I wanted to get my degree. But after two years, I realized that it wasn’t my thing either, because I’m not a theory person. I prefer practical work. The whole time, I had a part-time job in a flower shop. I was very happy about that because I was able to work with my hands.

I somehow got through my studies, with half a year in Belgium. During my studies, I learned black and white enlargement in a media workshop in Berlin. Starting in 1999, I had been photographing more, and I did a lot of photography in Belgium, always using black and white and 35mm film. I saw an article about the school Fotografie am Schiffbauerdamm, the predecessor of Ostkreuzschule. It had been co-founded by Arno Fischer. I applied with my black-and-white pictures, had an interview with Werner Mahler and was accepted. I can still remember the interview very clearly. Werner Mahler looked through my portfolio twice, which gave me hope. Werner Mahler then did not stay at the school and half of the class left with him. We had half a year of private lessons at Ute and Werner Mahler’s home, which was great. Soon after, the Ostkreuz School of Photography was founded, and we were the first class to graduate from it.

Black-and-white 35mm film is rather different than medium format, colour. How did things change?

Early on, I continued to work with 35mm black-and-white and also colour film. At some stage, Werner Mahler said, “It’s all much too perfect. Every picture is much too perfect. There’s a break missing. There are no breaks. Why don’t you try a different format?” A few people from my class looked into which good, inexpensive medium-format cameras were available. Someone found the Yashica Mat 125G, and we bought it. Since then, which was about 2004, I’ve been shooting medium-format, colour film always with that camera.

And everything using colour film?

Yes. The analog process in the lab is very important to me. Colour is not easy. In the end, it is quite time-consuming to get the right set of filters that you want. I know there are people who have a printer and process the image on the computer. But I’m just not that good with the computer. I could learn to do it, but it would be a completely new process. I would have to spend an insane amount of time and money to get into it. I’m simply used to the analog process.

In the lab, I deal very intensively with the image. I can decide much better whether I like it or not, how I want the colours, the brightness… I imagine this to be much more complicated on a computer with a printer next to it.

I am a member of the PS15 laboratory community in Berlin-Neukölln. We have a Colenta enlarger with 60cm inlet width and share rent, chemistry costs, etc.

Personally, I find that lab prints have more atmosphere. I can’t remember any artist whose inkjet prints impressed me. They’re always so impersonal. They all look the same. On the other hand, I’m not interested in the cult around the lab.

I like the end result of the process. I’m happy about that. The process itself is also exhausting. You stand in the dark lab for hours, make test strips… Then the machine doesn’t work, there’s a problem with the chemistry, something is wrong with the lens… It’s not like I stand in the lab and think, “Hooray, I’m back in the lab.” I’m mostly happy about the results. I think the process itself is very important. I also think that analog photographs have much more atmosphere. The whole process behind it is probably noticeable. But I also hang newspaper clippings on my walls.

In your online store there are also cheaper prints made on cardboard, right? Maybe for people who don’t necessarily have the money to afford a large print?

Yes, I thought that was a good thing to do. I have the impression that my photographs don’t appeal to people who put conceptual art into their drawers. Instead, people buy them who really want to hang them on a wall. So I thought it was good to have cheaper things to reach more people.

I had the same experience with my first book Blindschleiche und Riesenblatt, which reached a lot of people. I’m happy when the pictures hang somewhere and don’t lie in a drawer. All in all, my books are very important. I have reached many people through them, and a lot of things have happened because of my books. Currently I have ideas for five more books. I hope I can make all of them happen.

You studied literature. Do you feel that has had an influence on how you see photography?

I wouldn’t necessarily study it again, but somehow, it certainly helps me. After all, I spent five years writing and researching and writing and thinking about texts. It certainly has an influence, without me being able to say anything concrete. Language is still very important to me. I always think very long and hard before I write anything. I really strongly dislike platitudes and exaggerations. I’m very sensitive to that.

How would you describe your photography?

I find it hard to describe. I know that you say that every photographer should be able to describe their work. I’ve tried many times to find something for submissions to competitions, but I still find it complicated. At some point I came up with a few sentences that work for me: “I reduce reality to what is essential for me. This results in very calm, powerful images. I always work very intuitively, without using fully developed concepts.” I don’t think that’s all that wrong. I also photograph mainly nature.

There is a text about my work that sums it up very well: “Schwalbe photographs her surroundings intuitively, with no preconceived ideas. Compiled in a publication or hanging together in an exhibition, the photos become the lines of a poem. Anne Schwalbe visualizes stillness, providing another voice and a welcome change from the contemporary visual bombardment. With no reference to location or other narrative aspects, she reveals what has caught her notice, or the things that fascinate her. (…) each image has its own strength and tells its own story in the mind of the viewer.” (Foam Museum for Photography, Amsterdam)

I thought of two things about your work. I don’t know to what extent you would say they apply. On the one hand, I see a meditative element in your work. And the images are relatively simple. I mean that in a positive manner, not at all as a criticism. They are very quiet. What do you make of that?

Yes, definitely. I like simple things a lot. Simple is totally positive for me.

I also find simple very beautiful. Simple is always the best. That’s one of the most difficult pieces of advice when I work with photographers: in the beginning, keep it simple. You can make it more difficult later. But simple itself is really not so easy. For you it seems relatively easy, though.

When I’m taking pictures, I’m completely immersed in the process and in the picture, more concentrated than anywhere else. I am very focused on the picture. Most of the time I see the framing very quickly. I feel that this is almost like a form of communication with the object or the plant. Sometimes I take a number of frames, sometimes only a single one. For the Japan series, there often is only a single frame.

Recently, I photographed sheep on the island of Rügen. That made a lasting impression on me. I had a few hours alone, and I was fully concentrated in the company of about 400 sheep. I find the photographs incredibly calming. It makes me look forward to the process in the lab, enlarging them.

But I also think that achieving good simple things is very complicated. For example, when I wanted to make my first book, I approached designer Birgit Vogel who had done Ein Magazin Über Orte. I liked that so much. It was incredibly plain and simple, a very simple design. But that is precisely what is so complicated. I’m not a graphic designer myself. That’s why I asked her because I wanted my book to be just as simple and straightforward.

Is it possible that this is where your affinity for Japan comes from? You photographed there as well.

It’s possible. The Japanese have an incredible talent for simplicity… You might find the branch of a plant somewhere in some space — and it’s perfect. Anything else would be too much. I often walked through stores or spaces and asked myself, “OK, what’s different here? Why does it look the way it does? And how can they create such an atmosphere with so few things in a way that you can’t find anywhere else in the world?” Of course, there now are stores in Berlin where you can see that. But in Japan it’s much more common. There seems to be a natural talent for it there.

I was also very impressed by an open-air museum near Tokyo that has 20 to 25 old Japanese wooden houses. I’ve been to Japan twice. Both times, I went there. They have wooden houses from different areas that were rebuilt there. They’re just empty rooms. And these spaces have such great vibrancy and impact. The museum is called Japan Open Air Folk House Museum. I highly recommend visiting.

I also think that Japanese people are much more sensitive than, for example, Germans. There, no one bumps into anyone else, even when it’s really busy. They seem to have more antennas and more sensitivity. This is one of the many other aspects that I find very interesting in Japan.

Speaking of wooden houses, you bought your own old house in the countryside, didn’t you?

Yes, at the Elbe river, right in the middle between Berlin and Hamburg. I first came there in 2003 for an Ostkreuzschule trip. We went there as a class and immediately liked the place a lot. We were able to stay in a very nice house owned by a restorer and decided that as a class we would do a project there. We photographed for half a year, collected sponsorship money, and made an exhibition and a book. I learned an incredible amount about how to make a book, how to make an exhibition, how to raise money. Also about photographing… [laughs] That’s how I got to know this beautiful place.

What I see on Instagram of course is not Japanese. But in some ways, it’s also reduced, a bit simpler. Maybe a bit like pre-modern life.

The house needs to be renovated. I want and need to do a lot there this year. The foundation has to be redone. The floors all have to be insulated. Now, I’m there very often and enjoy it very much. I also take a lot of pictures there. More than half of my pictures were taken there. I often think about it.

At the moment, daily life begins with me getting up and heating the kitchen stove. Sometimes, when there’s no fire wood the very first thing I have to do is to chop wood. Then I heat water on the wood stove or sometimes with a kettle because there is no hot water in the house, yet. Sometimes, I go for a run across the meadows. When I come back, the water is hot and the kitchen is warm. Then I go and take a shower in the yard: first a bowl of hot water, then a cold shower. Cold showers are much easier outdoors than indoors! And I feel great afterwards!

Of course, sometimes I also want to have warm water available. Of course, I like taking a warm shower. I’m trying to figure it out. But I also somehow find the slow steps very pleasant. Everything falls away. Here in Berlin I also heat water, but I do it on the gas stove. Then I take a shower, which is immediately warm. There, it all falls away. Everything takes a very long time, much longer than in this “normal” life. At the same time, there’s something calming about it.

I’m a big fan of manual labor: washing dishes, chopping wood, sewing, cracking nuts… I find all of that very enjoyable. I think that’s why I like it there so much. It’s just calming. But sometimes it’s annoying. I don’t want to romanticize it. When the kitchen is cold and I don’t have hot water right away, or when I have to chop wood…

I think about what it does to you when you have these quiet, slow, elaborate processes.

You also have a garden and a column in ZEIT magazine. For that, you talk to people who do garden work. I don’t want to put too much meaning on this, but somehow that has something to do with the meaning of life, doesn’t it?

Yes. In this week’s edition of ZEIT magazine, there is an article about the meaning of life. What I like about my garden column is that I can photograph what I’m interested in — gardens and plants. I also enjoy the conversations with gardeners a lot. I always learn something new and get to know great people.

Do you write the texts yourself?

The texts are a collaboration with an author from ZEIT magazine. I call or talk to the gardeners on site, ask them questions, and then I write a draft, which the author edits. The column came about through my garden and the many other gardens along the Elbe river. Of course I also take photos in other areas. I suggested to ZEIT magazine to do the column. For a while, I had been wondering why the topic of gardens, which interests so many people, had not yet appeared in ZEIT magazine.

As an artist, you’ve created an amazing niche for yourself. I can’t think of anyone else who works the way you do and whose sensibility for photography is the same in Germany. If I gave your name and said you live in Berlin, people would certainly not expect your photos to look the way they do. When you look back, how do you see your path? And what do you envision for your future?

The last ten years were incredibly interesting. Before, I had been searching for my thing for ten years, and I was always dissatisfied. I remember how I felt between my 20s and 30s. I spent ages looking for something I enjoyed doing. In my early 30s, I was at a point where others are when they’re 20. So things were interesting and varied. But it wasn’t a piece of cake, either.

It was a long road that was very interesting and varied — but not easy.

Should we talk about that as well?

[laughs] The things that weren’t easy?

We don’t have to, but no one ever talks about it. It’s an important aspect that we can talk about if you like. Photography is not easy: making ends meet, selling pictures…

Yes. A few years ago, I wanted to quit photography and get a steady job. I was annoyed. I had a lot of work and little money. Too often people assume that artists work for free. It’s so much work to produce exhibitions! What carpenter would work for free to get his or her table into a good space? If you like an artist, you can always support them by buying their pictures! It’s that simple. Fortunately, my applications for a full-time job were not successful and I continued with photography.

People still ask me regularly if I can make a living from photography. I think this happens to all other photographers, too. Well, maybe not all of them. Famous people are certainly not being asked. But even for them it’s not easy. I was once told by someone who is already very well known that it is not always easy for him, either. Sometimes a year is good, sometimes a year is not good. I find the question interesting. I often ask myself what people live on and how they pay their rent, whether they have inherited money, whether they have a side job, or just do a lot of jobs.

Here in Germany we have the Künstlersozialkasse, a low-cost health insurance fund for artists. It’s quite important. Cheap housing is important. I am happy that I am in the Künstlersozialkasse and that I have a nice and cheap apartment. I think the massive and unjustified rent increases that ordinary wage earners can’t afford are criminal. They’re really criminal! They destroy so much, not only in the artistic field. People always pretend as if “the markets” are independent beings that cannot be influenced! I think “politics” has to intervene much more!

I wouldn’t even know how to do a part-time job to make money, given everything I’m doing already. Time wise, I wouldn’t be able to manage it. My impression is that there are more and better scholarships in other countries. I don’t know if I’ve heard this correctly, but in Holland there’s a scholarship for three years after graduation so that graduates can find their own way. This makes a lot of sense. In Switzerland there are many scholarships and not many artists. Someone once said that she was told, “apply, we haven’t spent the money yet.” In Belgium there is a kind of basic artist income from the state. You can apply for it if you are serious about your artistic work.

In my case, everything is made up of many different things. My online store and my own sales are actually becoming more and more important. My online store has provided important financial support, also during the pandemic.

How do you advertize this? Do you use Instagram?

Yes, a lot is on Instagram. This makes for a nice exchange with people. I’ve already met some interesting people in other countries. Since 2010, I’ve been going to book fairs and I’ve collected email addresses that way. That has become less common now. For over ten years, many people wrote their email addresses on my list. Three or four times a year, I send out an email. Instagram is fun for me. But every time I want to send out an email it’s… I need to work on that, but it’s difficult. I tend to think, “Oh God, now I’m going to bother people by sending an email. I’m about to get another unsubscribe email.” But a lot of good things happen because of that.

There are also people who bought a book from me years ago, and now they’re buying a photograph.

All in all, I’m happy with what I do and how varied and diverse my life is. I am very grateful for that.

Art and Politics Mon, 17 Jan 2022 14:09:52 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Walter Benjamin‘s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is frequently evoked in the world of photography. One of its key concepts is the idea of “aura”. In a nutshell, Benjamin argues that the psychological presence of an object disappears once it’s mass produced. Benjamin focuses mostly on pieces of art, but we could easily extend the idea to any object. in light of the fetishization of certain mass-produced objects, we could ask whether this is in fact correct: it is true that, to pick two examples, an iPhone is hardly comparable to a painting. But some consumer items — whether iPhones, Leica cameras, or other luxury items — derive part of their power from what we could call their aura, even if this aura exists in mass-produced form in many thousands of identical objects. But I digress.

There is a reason why Benjamin concerned himself with what he called “aura”. He wrote his essay in exile in 1935. Having lost his home in Germany after the takeover of the Nazis in 1933, Benjamin and most of his peers (associated with the Frankfurt School) lived and worked abroad. The threat of fascism that they had lived under for many years had become very, very real. Having spent considerable time trying to figure out why communism had not taken hold in Germany (which unlike Russia had been widely seen as the most obvious location for a communist revolution), they now also tried to understand what drove fascism and, crucially, what strategies might be available to deal with it.

You could understand Benjamin’s aura as the hook he needed to get politics into art. Before mass production, he argued, pieces of art had possessed an aura, which, in turn, tied them to what he calls ritual. This idea is probably easiest to see if you imagine a painting that hangs, say, in the Vatican. Mass production had severed art’s connection to ritual:

‘[F]or the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense.’

After all, in principle it’s rather difficult to assign specific value to something that exists in the form of any number of clones (Benjamin didn’t live to see the world of photography’s embrace of “editions”, let alone “NFTs”). Consequently, with ritual severed, a possibility opens up. He continues:

‘But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice — politics.’

There it is, politics. For Benjamin, photography and especially film offered enormous potential, given the way they worked and given that unlike traditional art, they relied on machines and mass production. The machines served their purpose:

‘[F]or contemporary man the representation of reality by the film is incomparably more significant than that of the painter, since it offers, precisely because of the thoroughgoing permeation of reality with mechanical equipment, an aspect of reality which is free of all equipment. And that is what one is entitled to ask from a work of art.’

There are many seeds in Benjamin’s piece why the potential of art that is mass produced might end up fall short. The writer did not get to see the day when this would become abundantly clear (Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer would later write about what they called the Culture Industry). In 1935, photography (and film) still had potential for Benjamin. Addressing what he was witnessing in Nazi Germany (and elsewhere) and expressing the way out he wrote

‘Mankind[‘s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.’

Walter Benjamin didn’t live to see the fall of Nazi Germany. After the invasion of France, he died while trying to escape to the United States. Horkheimer had arranged for a travel visa for him, but Benjamin got stuck at the Spanish border and took his own life.

Almost 30 years later, it had become clear to Frankfurt School scholars that art would not be able to fulfill these hopes. In One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse wrote

‘The two antagonistic spheres of society have always coexisted; the higher culture has always been accommodating while the reality was rarely disturbed by its ideals and its truths.’


‘The works of alienation [pieces of art produced in opposition to the status quo — JMC] are themselves incorporated into this society and circulate as part and parcel of the equipment which adorns and psychoanalyses the prevailing state of affairs. Thus, they become commercials — they sell, comfort, or excite.’

Benjamin’s and Marcuse’s positions outline two extreme positions for art to exist in. Note that Marcuse’s position is more or less identical with what Adorno and Horkheimer had outlined earlier. The latter position appears to shut down the former: if, as Marcuse et al. believed, art ultimately will always only be commodified dissent (to adopt a more recent phrasing), then what is the point of being a political artist?

Philosophy is one thing, and one’s lived reality is quite another. I suspect that the world we live in now would look familiar to Walter Benjamin. Rampant economic inequalities, stagnating democracies, neo-fascist movements on the rise, dictators holding international partners hostage over whether or not they will invade their neighbours — he witnessed all of that during his life time. If there is one truly different aspect of the world, it’s the fact that now, we’re staring into the abyss of climate change, an abyss that — and here it’s not hard to imagine the Frankfurt scholars letting out a collective “of course!” — we have created ourselves (lest you wonder about the pandemic, Benjamin lived through one himself).

The other day, someone felt compelled to tell me on Instagram that (I’m paraphrasing) art shouldn’t be political because it should concern itself with beauty. Politics would only ruin art. It’s a thought that Benjamin addressed implicitly in his essay:

‘With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography, simultaneously with the rise of socialism, art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later. At the time, art reacted with the doctrine of l’art pour l’art, that is, with a theology of art. This gave rise to what might be called a negative theology in the form of the idea of “pure” art, which not only denied any social function of art but also any categorizing by subject matter.’

This for him was the enemy, an enemy that the medium itself had the potential (he might have phrased it as: the calling) to overcome. It’s not necessarily my idea to tell photographers what to do. In the end, every photographer has to come to their own conclusion about how to go about what they do.

I can’t help but think, though, that with the number of crises we are facing, an insistence on art being “pure” is increasingly looking like a luxury position, a position of extreme privilege. There obviously is no guarantee that one’s photography will change anything on a larger scale. But is remaining silent the better alternative?

If you look at the history of photography, it’s filled with artists being political. You could start with Robert Frank’s The Americans. If you look at those photographs as merely the outcome of a set of road trips, you’re likely to miss the various points that are very clearly being made. This is not a celebration of the country. The photographer’s disdain for what he encountered — inequality, institutionalized racism, phony opportunities — drips off the book’s pages.

Or look at Carrie Mae Weems’ The Kitchen Table Series. Its conceptual underpinning and the resulting formal structure are not intended to make you think about the table or about how people might sit at it. Instead, the specificity of the setting only points at the universality of its overall idea, which centers on domesticity, the role of women (vis-à-vis men), and Blackness.

More recently, look at, for example, Jess Dugan’s portraits. On a very surface level, Self-Portrait With Mom has a lot in common with selfies on social media. Ignoring the fact that it would be impossible to show these photographs on Instagram (the site’s so-called community guidelines express the company’s politics), there is so much more in these photographs that, again, speak of the world beyond the walls in which they were taken.

Possibly with the exception of The Americans (which already has been written about ad nauseam) each one of these examples deserves a much deeper discussion than what I’m offering here. What I’m after here is to point out that many artists have already put a lot of politics into their work, and that inclusion does not diminish the value of what they have achieved. In fact, the inclusion propels the work forward, confronting us with what many of us would rather not see.

Crucially, as has been demonstrated by Poland’s Archive of Public Protests, for art to be truly effective it has to leave the white cube (I wrote about this here). This is not to diminish the achievement of these photographers at all, but the idea of making free newspapers and handing them out in the streets is not super original. I think it says much about the state of photoland that a solution as simple as that is such a radical outlier.

If as an artist you insist on not having politics enter your work that’s fine. My question would be: what exactly would it take for you to change your mind? At what state would you realize that you might be an artist, but you’re also a member of a society, a society whose openness and freedoms to a large extent underpin what you’re able to do? After all, once stormtroopers are marching down your street, it might be a tad too late to speak up, right?

Polemics aside, I’m tempted to think that as much as we all enjoy the comfort of our own existences (some people obviously a lot more than many others), the idea that in this day and age art and politics are to be kept strictly separately not only speaks of privilege. It also points at an internalization of neoliberal thinking, which places the individual and her or his freedoms at the center or everything.

I believe that more of us should feel compelled to embrace the tradition outlined by the artists I mentioned above and by of all their other peers for whom the mix of art and politics has not been an anathema. The defenders of l’art pour l’art would want us to believe that inserting politics into one’s art automatically results in clumsy agitprop with vastly diminished value. That’s a convenient claim that, however, is at odds with the sheer power of art that does not shy away from being upfront about its makers’ politics.

Yaga Mon, 10 Jan 2022 15:52:02 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Yaga is for me a loving manifesto,” writes Agata Kalinowska, “[i]t contains my ridiculousness. Ridiculousness is a language of friendship and intimacy. Sarah Silverman […] said that there is a gap in our lives which can never be filled. […] I think we need to do brave, stupid things in order for that gap in us not to go rotten.” (from the afterword of the book)

A little further down the text, the artist adds these lines: “When the desire for autonomy, for the freedom to choose and decide about our bodies and where we are going in life, encounters barriers in the form of fixed gender templates and oppressive cultural stereotypes, we witness the appearance of combative energy and violence, including economic violence.”

I suspect that these words resonate all over the world. But in a country in Poland, held in a double chokehold by a societally very dominant branch of the Catholic Church and by a neo-fascist government one of whose recent acts was to ban abortion, no doubt there must be heightened awareness of the very unequal power balance between straight men and everybody else.

At the very beginning of Yaga, a young woman is seen as emerging from the sea. It is dark, and the water is clear and calm. With her arms being outstretched by her side, it’s hard not to think of religious imagery. Given the mastery of the book’s editing and sequencing, this cannot be a coincidence. Its makers have a story to tell, and they do it with pictures (Kalinowska co-edited the book along with Łukasz Rusznica).

Over the course of the following pages, the viewer encounters a world that initially is only inhabited by women. It’s a world that is filled with harmony, compassion, and care, even as there are a few surprising — and for some viewers possibly shocking — elements (such as, for example, a used, bloody tampon). But none of these elements actually disturb the order of things — instead, the book offers an alternative world where what now often is hidden and frowned upon simply is out in the open and accepted, where queerness is an accepted part of life.

At some stage, there is a photograph of a young woman lying on the ground who is being tended to by two others. This marks the transition into the next “chapter”, which is filled with partying and its consequences. Here, men make their first appearances, albeit only in passing here and there. The world still is overwhelmingly female, and it is uninhibited: expressions of passion and sexuality are being allowed to run their course.

This section culminates in a photograph of a naked woman who is lying in a bed that is surrounded by colourful balloons. The photograph would have been taken horizontally, but here it is used in a vertical form. As a consequence, a powerful feeling of freedom and sexual ecstasy is conveyed.

But then, upon turning the page, the viewer encounters yet another partying woman — she is pulling up her top to reveal her bra (while hiding her face). Next to here there is a man leering at her breasts while pulling up his own t-shirt to reveal a hairy belly that clearly has been nourished with too much bad food and/or beer. Thus starts a section of photographs of men and all things male, a veritable horror show of crass, unappealing, and violent types.

A bottle is smashed on someone’s head, a younger woman sits uneasily next to an older man who for possibly all the worst reasons has his sausagy fingers running over the back of her neck, and in the middle of all of this, there’s a photograph of a statue inside a church showing some male priest or saint (who knows), his hands folded in the type of fake piety that is all too common in organized religion.

It all ends with a photograph of a young woman with a black eye. Given the nature of Kalinowska’s photographs — they’re essentially snapshots, comparisons with Nan Goldin are inevitable. There are many parallels, this particular photograph being one of them. The most obvious difference I would see between the two artists is that unlike Goldin, the Polish artist does not rely on the seductiveness of her photographs.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a marvelous book. But I’ve always thought that the fact that the photographs often are visually so pleasing is maybe its biggest shortcoming. I truly love the book and its photographs, but I feel that it makes it too easy to appreciate the photographs because of their inherent beauty. In contrast, Kalinowska’s photographs look and feel a lot more like actual snapshots to me. Consequently, I personally feel the urgency of Yaga‘s message more than Ballad‘s.

The final section of Yaga circles back to its very first, and the book ends with a number of portraits of young women. Here, unlike in Ballad, the future is entirely female; and the idea that despite their many flaws, men are simply a part of the world is being negated: no, they’re not. Bravo!

In many ways, this is a spectacular book that deserves to be seen widely beyond its native Poland. I already mentioned its very masterful edit and sequence (it’s so good that educators could use it in class). There are a few other little tricks that are being used, such as, for example, photographs that would go across the gutter being cut into two separate parts (I’m obviously partial to this trick, given that I used it in my own Vaterland), or the orientation switch of the photograph I discussed above.

I’ve written this before, and I’m happy to reiterate my point: Poland currently is becoming one of the main powerhouses of contemporary photography in Europe, with a number of locations other than Warsaw being very active as well. Yaga comes out of Wrocław. If you’re at all interested in the world of photography, pay attention to photographers in Poland.

Highly recommended.

Yaga; photographs and text by Agata Kalinowska; 176 pages; BWA Wrocław Galleries of Contemporary Art; 2021

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 5.0, Edit 5.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 4.4

Eikoh Hosoe Mon, 03 Jan 2022 16:05:01 +0000 Joerg Colberg

The first picture of (not by) Eikoh Hosoe in the recently released eponymous catalog of his work shows a middle-aged man one could easily mistake for a tourist who somehow had found himself in a very nerve wracking situation. The photographer is seen holding his camera tightly (and close to his chest), peeking at whatever he might be confronted with through the thick frames of his glasses, a bright cap adorning his head.

Three pages later, that same man is depicted in hot pursuit of a person in a kimono running across some field: his camera is now in front of his face, and he is being captured in mid-flight, his right leg high up in the air, as if to clear an invisible hurdle.

On the following page, the timid man is back, here in the company of some of Japan’s most celebrated photographers of the 20th Century: in a picture from c. 1974, Daido Moriyama looks like an aging hippie who is wearing a floppy hat indoors, Nobuyoshi Araki exudes his usual degree of perviness, Masahisa Fukase seems ready to get into a fist fight with the person taking the photo, Shomei Tomatsu and Noriaki Yokosuka have clearly seen it all and hide behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, and with his white shirt and dark tie (the typical salaryman’s uniform) Eikoh Hosoe looks like a bank teller or middle manager who somehow has stumbled into the company of this motley crew.

Who is this artist whose work is presented in expansive form in this groundbreaking catalog that has been edited by Yasufumi Nakamori, senior curator of international photography at Tate Modern?

Taro Okamoto, Artist, 1965

“A single bomb had killed tens of thousands of people,” Hosoe says, remembering the time when at age 12, he spent time in the countryside, to be safe from Allied bombs during World War 2, “my youthful bosom was filled with a powerful fear and hatred toward atomic bombs, with their capacity to concentrate such enormous force in a single bomb. Those feelings have remained, to this day, settling deeply in my heart. […] In 1968, I published the photobook Kamaitachi, a record of my memories from when I was evacuated during the war. That work, too, reflects at a deeply psychological level the impact of Hiroshima.” (p. 21) Who would have thought that what looks like a piece of dance-performance art in a very traditional Japanese rural setting had its roots in the photographer’s trauma, caused by World War 2?

Fittingly, Eikoh Hosoe begins with a chapter that contains the artist’s work in and around Hiroshima, showing, for example, photographs of peace demonstrations near the Atomic Bomb Dome (please note that here and in the following, the name in italics refers to the book). Hosoe’s life work would play out differently than Kikuji Kawada’s. But the beginnings speak of the shared trauma that both artists would weave into their work. In 1970, Hosoe would turn his photographs from Hiroshima into Return to Hiroshima, a book coauthored with Betty Jean Lifton. A Place Called Hiroshima followed in 1985. The books, he notes, were “written with young Americans in mind as our audience”. (p. 21)

Here, and in the following chapters in Eikoh Hosoe, the selection of the photographs evokes a somewhat different feel than the original books. In part, this is because any selection from a larger whole can only hint at how the work might function in its own context. Thus, the catalog’s viewer will arrive at a different impression of any of the different parts than when looking at the original books. I would argue that the selection and presentation in the catalog is more photographic than the books. By this I mean that more focus has been placed on the particular qualities of individual images.

Kamaitachi #14, 1965

Consequently, a very clear picture of Eikoh Hosoe as a photographer emerges that, however, somewhat obscures the impact of the photobooks, whether it’s Return to Hiroshima, Kamaitachi, or any of the other ones. I do not intend to have this observation seen as a negative criticism of the catalog, though. To begin with, photobooks cannot be accurately presented in any other form as their totality. What is more, drawing out connections between separate bodies of work by an artist often is a lot easier when working from the photographs themselves. Anyone who is more deeply interested in Hosoe would be well advised to study both the catalog and his photobooks.

After a chapter entitled Early Work that showcases photographs taken in the early 1950s — charming work that betrays a competent photographer who has not yet found his own voice, the catalog moves on to Hosoe’s first claim to fame, Man and Woman. This was the first project that involved butoh dancer and frequent collaborator Tatsumi Hijikata, the man he is depicted as chasing after in the photograph I discussed in the beginning. After meeting Hijikata, Hosoe decided to “create a photographic drama” (his words, p. 87) in his studio, involving him and a number of other dancers. “However tiny a gesture”, the artists writes, “it constituted my only transgression against the era. […] a response to the shouts of protestors heard outside the studio: ‘Down with AMPO [the US-Japan Security Treaty]!'” This seems rather implausible, maybe even to Hosoe himself. He continues that “[m]ore than anything, I was consumed with a burning desire to explore ‘sexuality.'” (p. 87)

Man and Woman #20, 1960

Roughly ten years later, Hosoe would return to the theme depicted in Man and Woman with Embrace, inspired by Bill Brandt’s Perspectives of Nudes, the appeal of which has largely escaped this writer. Where Man and Woman manages to sizzle with transgression and sexuality, Embrace is little more than a very competent exercise in form, ultimately as limp as Brandt’s nudes.

Yukio Mishima, an incredibly talented and multifaceted artist who also happened to be a rabid nationalist, wrote the Preface for Embrace, which appeared after Mishima’s suicide. Eikoh Hosoe includes it and a large number of texts written by people directly involved in the work. These added texts contribute massively to the value of this catalog.

In Hosoe’s work, Mishima detects what he calls “an undercurrent of darkness.” “This darkness,” he writes, “is a characteristic element of Hosoe’s photographic artistry, as well as an isolation born from a rejection of salvation.” (p. 123) One cannot help but think that Mishima might have in part projecting his own thoughts onto his fellow artist’s work:  could not his cartoonish pseudo-putsch and subsequent suicide in late 1970, many years after it had become obvious that Japan had embraced its democratic order, be seen as a similar rejection?

A few years earlier, Mishima had found himself in front of Hosoe’s camera for Ordeal by Roses (this is the English title used in the catalog; Killed by Roses is used just as widely). Hosoe photographed the writer in a number of settings with a large number of props, often verging into surrealist territory. “One day,” Mishima writes, “Eikoh Hosoe stopped by and whisked me away to a mysterious world. I had previously seen magical works produced by the camera, but Hosoe’s works did not suggest magic so much as they displayed a quality of mechanical wizardry, as he used this civilized instrument of precision to its utmost against civilization.” (p. 199)

Ordeal by Roses #32, 1961

Thus, the writer finds himself cast into a world that was “alien, contorted, derisive, grotesque, barbaric, and dissipated”. (p. 199) These words can serve as good criteria to divide Hosoe’s work into the artistically successful bodies of work (such as Man and Woman or Kamaitachi) and the ones that, like Embrace, while well crafted are little more than formal exercises. For me, Ordeal by Roses somehow unsteadily wobbles in between these two poles, which might be an editing problem more than anything: curiously, the more straight photographs are visually powerful, while the surrealist abstractions feel overwrought.

And then, of course, there’s the magnificent Kamaitachi, another collaboration with Tatsumi Hijikata that finds both men return to the area they were from to inflict photographic mayhem on the countryside and its unsuspecting inhabitants who ended up playing along (because it was, one must assume, the polite thing to do). Mishima called the work “humerous yet also cruel” (p. 123), and it’s not hard to see why. “I had a hunch,” Hosoe writes, “that if we went to his hometown in Akita I would be able to shoot his butoh as it had never been seen before.” But the photographer also describes the photographs as “a ‘record’ of my own ‘memories,’ both nostalgic and sad, of having been evacuated as a schoolchild during WWII.” (p. 155)

For Tatsumi Hijikata and Yukio Mishima, two such incredible artists in their own rights, to not only submit to Eikoh Hosoe’s lens seemingly without doubt, to afterwards praise the resulting work in the highest terms (“Eikoh Hosoe made me famous,” Hijikata wrote in 1969, p. 351) must mean that, no doubt, this particular photographer is one of the great Japanese photographers of the 20th Century. One can only hope that this catalog will serve to establish and cement that reputation outside of Japan as well.

Highly recommended.

Eikoh Hosoe; photographs by Eikoh Hosoe, edited by Yasufumi Nakamori; essays by Yasufumi Nakamori, Christina Yang, Eikoh Hosoe, Nobuya Yoshimura, Yukio Mishima, Shuzo Takiguchi, Tatsumi Hijikata, Donald Richie, Satoru Yusawa, Mutsuo Takahashi, Mamoru Maruchi, and Kenji Hosoe; 400 pages; MACK; 2021

Full disclosure: MACK is the publisher of my book Photography’s Neoliberal Realism

Against Illusionism Mon, 27 Dec 2021 15:26:00 +0000 Joerg Colberg

“Art functions by creating highly visible exceptions to the status quo,” Renzo Martens writes, “placing love, critique, and singularity outside the circle of exploitation and violence. […] While war and economic segregation pay the bills, love, critique, and singularity are reserved for the audiences of the white cube. Providing this exception for an audience that already lives the beautiful exception is not critical; it is make belief. Illusionism.” (quoted from: Renzo Martens: Art for the Post-Plantation, in: Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, ed. Anthony Downey, Sternberg Press, 2019, p. 330)

The world of the photobook is not one we associate with the white cube — photobooks are typically enjoyed in the privacy of one’s home. Yet it is not hard to think of a photobooks bringing the white-cube mindset to people’s homes, one book at a time. We might replace a few words in Martens’ statement — “photobooks” for “art,” say, to arrive at a valid and searing indictment of much of what ills the world of the photobook as well.

Most photobooks dabble in illusionism.

This illusionism is caked into the larger world of art, of which photoland has become a niche. Things are said and shown one way, yet they really mean something entirely different when seen in the contexts in which they are made to appear.

The very first advertising in the most recent edition of Aperture‘s magazine (#245), a colourful double-page spread, presents Gucci, the luxury fashion house. Assorted other luxury brands (incl. Leica) follow. So when viewers then see a photograph by William Camargo entitled We Gonna Have to Move Out Soon Fam! (Anaheim, 2019), showing a person holding a large sign that says “THIS AREA WILL GENTRIFY SOON”, what are they supposed to make of it?

Of course, this is a Gedankenexperiment on my part, because the ads don’t target the likes of me who begrudgingly shop at Walmart, given their limited economic options.

What does the latter have to do with the former? Martens explains: “If art takes responsibility for its entanglement with circuits of capital and exploitation, then it goes beyond the production and display of mere images.” (ibid.)


How would you go about your “entanglement with circuits of capital and exploitation”? For sure, it’s not by making photobooks with over one thousand images that sell for hundreds of dollars or Euros, that, in other words, are luxury objects themselves.

“The photobook world is in danger of imploding,” Russet Lederman told me a little while ago, “It’s a niche community and very insular.” If photographers and publishers make books for other photographers and wealthy collectors, but not for the people who find themselves in the pictures, then it seems obvious that we’re facing a very serious problem.

In fact, the problem is widely acknowledged by photographers and publishers themselves, given that the market for these books is stagnant at best. But it’s just so hard to get out of the white cube.

Or is it?

After Poland’s far-right government managed to hijack the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, said Tribunal ruled that existing abortion laws were unconstitutional, essentially outlawing abortion (this might sound familiar to Americans who are seeing this play out right now). Thousands of Polish people had already taken to the street in support of women’s reproductive rights; after the ruling, the country erupted in mass protests on a scale previously unseen.

A group of photographers, researchers, and activists got together to funnel their individual work into something larger: they named it the Archive of Public Protests (APP). Here are their names: Michał Adamski, Marta Bogdańska, Karolina Gembara, Łukasz Głowala, Agata Kubis, Michalina Kuczyńska, Marcin Kruk, Adam Lach, Alicja Lesiak, Rafał Milach, Joanna Musiał, Chris Niedenthal, Wojtek Radwański, Bartek Sadowski, Paweł Starzec, Karolina Sobel, Grzegorz Wełnicki, Dawid Zieliński.

On the website (and on social-media channels), their work is disseminated as a group effort. Furthermore, they produced a number of newspapers, all of which are available for download from the website (most of them are only in Polish; full disclosure: I contributed minor copy editing and translation services to the most recent issue). With very limited financial resources (some minor grants, some crowdfunding, some support from NGOs), the newspapers were produced and then distributed at the very locations where new visual material was being produced: at sites of demonstrations.

In addition to photographs, the newspapers feature slogans often seen at demonstrations; they’re designed in such a way that someone can take the newspaper apart and use a page as a banner at a demonstration. APP have gone out of their way to bring the newspapers to smaller Polish cities, deliberately reaching out of the Warsaw photo bubble.

“My photo book of the year is a protest choice,” writes Rob Hornstra, referring to APP’s work, “both within the world of photobooks and in the country where the work is made. My photobook of the year is a free newspaper.” Alas, on a bookseller’s website a free newspaper isn’t any good: “photo-eye and any photobook store cannot run a business by distributing free newspapers”. And so the newspapers didn’t make this list or any other (unless I missed it — entirely possible, given there now are dozens and dozens of them).

And neither did the 18 Polish photographers, researchers, and activists make the shortlists of the two major corporate photo prizes (one of those oversized tomes for wealthy collectors did, though). At least, they found recognition locally, in their native Poland, where thankfully their work is being recognized. Make sure to head over to Zachęta Online Magazine to see their faces and read their words.

Warsaw, 11 Dec 2021, “No human is illegal” march; photograph: Wojtek Radwański

If the Archive of Public Protests can teach us something beyond what it means to be a well-engaged citizen who embraces solidarity with others, then it’s that photoland’s illusionism is a choice and that rejecting it is an option, however arduous this might end up being (especially when faced with a relative paucity of resources — here is a related read: why does success have a paywall?).

The white cube might offer the comfort of a shared make belief. But in light of the increasing challenges faced by our societies, that’s just not good enough any longer — if (there’s that word again) we want to also maintain the comfort of the freedom that we currently still enjoy.

If that’s not enough of an incentive for you to break out of the niche community’s insularity, then go and ask any of the 18 Polish artists what it feels like to have a far-right government systematically trash civic life and the country’s democratic foundation, while taking away basic human rights from the women unfortunate enough to live under its rule and letting refugees starve and freeze to death in a forest.

A Conversation With Lina Scheynius Mon, 20 Dec 2021 14:42:22 +0000 Joerg Colberg

I have been following Lina Scheynius‘ work for over a decade. I wasn’t active on Flickr when the site experienced its most active and widely used days (at the time, I was busy working on my blog). But I knew that she had built a very dedicated following there, from which resulted books and exhibitions.

Once everything moved over to Instagram, I became aware of Scheynius’ never ending struggle with that site. Her posts were getting removed, even though the bulk of her work didn’t even appear there. I had wanted to speak with her about this experience for a while. At the same time, focusing on the troubles with Instagram felt like taking away too much attention from the photography itself.

But now, Scheynius’ artist books have been re-published as a box set, and there is a brand new book. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to reach out and talk with her about the many aspects of her career. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jörg Colberg
You have a background in modeling and got into photography at some stage. How did this start?

Lina Scheynius
I was doing photography before, and then I started modeling. But I did photography continuously the whole time. I was really critical of how I was being photographed. So I started to do it like how I wanted it done. When I went home, I did my own shoots.

Your photography has always been very personal and diaristic. Can you talk about this a little bit?

I was influenced by Nan Goldin’s work. I think it was also through the fashion industry that I came in contact with it. And there was a book that Corinne Day had done called Diary, which somebody had shown me during shoots. They said: “this as the inspiration for this shoot.” I don’t know if you know, but on a fashion set, there’s often something that people are trying to copy. So I had come into contact with those two photographers. Nan Goldin is obviously still really important for me. I started to try and do work like they had done.

You make it sound so easy. But you kept at it and in 2008, you self published your first book.

But that was much later than when I discovered those photographers. I did everything just on my own. I didn’t show it to anyone. I just had it on my bedroom wall. In 2006, I started to show something.

“Untitled” (2016) from the Diary series

How did you decide that given you had all these pictures you’re now going show them to people. I would imagine that’s a big step.

It was mad.

It’s so bold.

I don’t know why I didn’t show them before. I think I was too shy to show my pictures to people. I couldn’t even imagine that people wanted to see them. I didn’t think that I would bring these photos to anyone to look at.

At the time, the internet was becoming bigger, and I found Flickr. I don’t even remember their names now, but I found some people who posted intimate work on Flickr. And I thought, okay, I’m going to try and post something and see how it goes. I thought it would stay small. I didn’t imagine that my parents would end up seeing it or that it would be in a newspaper for millions of people to see. [laughs] I didn’t imagine what scale it would get. At the time, I don’t think people knew, either. One thing then led to another.

So you built a community of followers on Flickr, made the first book, and it grew from there?

Yeah. But it had already grown quite far for me to dare to make a book. I didn’t just make a book. I made a book once I knew that people wanted a book. So it was already quite big. It happened quite fast: the first jump, or whatever you want to call it.

You then made a number of books, which were recently re-released as a box set. What did you learn when you made them? You had more and more experience making your own pictures, and there was an audience. Did that change anything for you photographing? Or did you go about it organically?

For the first book, I was so careful to only include pictures I knew people liked. I did only Polaroids, self portraits. Looking back at it now, it’s quite commercial. But that’s how I went about it. I needed to sell the book because I didn’t have a lot of money. And it costs a lot of money to print a book. I did everything on my own. It sold out really fast. From then on I thought: “oh, okay, I can sell this”, and I became much bolder. I realised that I could put anything in the books, and people would buy them. That was amazing. That’s such a privileged position to be in.

“Untitled” (2015) from the Diary series

I don’t know how comfortable I would be to share so much of my private life. Was that ever an issue for you how do you approach it? It would be so difficult for me, and you’re doing it so boldly.

I can’t really explain what gives me that courage. Sometimes, it’s definitely wavering. I go through periods when I wonder why I have done this, thinking I should do less of it.

Around 2008, I was struggling to take pictures. When I looked through the viewfinder I could already anticipate a large audience behind me. So I would think: “Okay, I’m not going to take this picture. It’s too private.” I think I had to learn to take pictures and hold them back for myself.

I think I’m learning that now again because of Instagram. There, I’m not enjoying sharing so much. I like how I started out, doing things and keeping them in a drawer. Without question. But I don’t know if I would recommend anyone to do it.

Do you ever look at your work and think, I can’t I did this? People appreciate it because I shared it? I mean, I’m a super critical person. When I look back at what I did, I dislike almost everything. But there are certain things where when I look at them I think: “Wow, I can’t believe I did this. I really still like it.”

Yeah, I’m definitely impressed with some of the things that the younger me has done. But it’s hard, especially with books. I self published the first 11. And technically I didn’t really know how to get the ultimate quality out of them. So often, when I would get them from the printer and think: “oh, I would change this.” But this time, with my new book, I’m so shocked. I can almost find nothing to change. I haven’t dared to look at it too much yet. But the quality is really amazing.

Spread from Touching (JBE Books, 2021)

The new book is an obvious change of pace, because it features double exposures, and it has a lot of text. Can you talk about how you decided that this is something you wanted to do?

I started doing a little bit of double exposures with flowers because I did a flower newspaper. I don’t know why I decided to try it with statues. I just did it with two rolls of film. Really interesting things started to happen. It was like the bodies were blending. So I continued.

The text is talking about this as well. I’ve done a little bit of toying with text before. In one of the books in the box set, there are diary entries that I’ve added. This was the first time that I wrote specifically for a book. But I wasn’t the first choice. The publisher and I thought, let’s try and get a well known author that I admire. But after a few months, we realised that we had to give up. But I had already had the idea before that I could write myself. And I am glad I did because it adds another layer to the work that I appreciate very much.

The texts are not traditional photo texts. It’s hard to explain. Some entries are from my diary, for example when I was sitting at the Louvre. There are some discussions about self portraiture and why I’ve done it.

Spread from Touching (JBE Books, 2021)

Blogging fell away quickly because of the arrival of social media. At the time, I didn’t really follow Flickr that much, but it seemed to fall away, too.

Yeah, it totally did.

I don’t know if that’s how you got to Instagram. But you ended up there, like pretty much everybody else. And then you ran into like a huge number of problems with the site.

I recently went back now to my Flickr. They didn’t display it at the time, but I have 30,000 followers there. That’s a lot of people, considering the time. It was so long ago. Flickr was really, really important for me. I could show my work completely uncensored. There was a filter and you were able to moderate yourself. Now I went back and sadly, it was like porn central.

Everything turns into porn central.

Tumblr as well, right?

I think so. On Instagram, you don’t set the rules. You got into a lot of problems and trouble because of the so-called community guidelines. Can you talk a little bit about your experience? I think it’s important for people to hear what this experience actually does to an artist.

“Untitled” (2013) from the Diary series

Well, it’s definitely hard to grow on a platform… It’s hard to show your work on a platform where you can’t show your work. A lot of the photos that are on Instagram are my flower series. And that’s nice, but that’s such a small portion of my work. Most of my work is not flowers.

Your work also isn’t pornographic so I don’t understand Instagram’s reaction.

It’s sexual. I have photos of a man with an erection; that could be considered pornographic. But I wouldn’t dare to post those photos on Instagram.

There is the Instagram issue with female versus male nipples, which is completely absurd.

I’ve had the idea to pixelate a man to post a man and pixelate his nipples.

You had photos removed that weren’t remotely sexual. The reasons were completely unclear why they would do that.

There was a lot of that.

And you were shadow banned, right?

Yeah. This means that people can’t find you. If you search for a name in the search function, it’s not going to come up.

Do you think this has affected your art making or you on a personal level?

“Untitled” (2015) from the Diary series

I definitely think it has affected the joy I feel with sharing the work. I also think that because the app is designed to be so addictive, that has also affected it as well. With Flicker or Tumblr, I went there to share the art work or to look at other people’s art. But on Instagram, there’s so much going on. It’s so fast paced, and there are so many heated discussions. You can get into a rabbit hole, and then half your day is gone.

Now you’ve moved to a different platform with your Substack mailing list. What is the idea and what might people see?

Maybe it’s like going back to blogging, even though I never did blogging. But it’s like private blogging with a very small readership who are all there because they’ve paid for it. It doesn’t feel like I’m going back to something that I’ve done before. It feels more like a new exploration. I post pictures that I haven’t shown anywhere before, and I write as well.

Do you see this as the activity online that you want to do and the way to show your work?

I don’t know. It’s really nice. I feel like the people are genuinely so supportive. It’s like a small, intimate room of people. But I don’t know if that’s all I want to do.

My Photo Books; photographs and text by Lina Scheynius; 11-book box set; essay by Joël Riff; 806 pages; JBE Books; 2019

Touching; photographs and text by Lina Scheynius; 88 pages; JBE Books; 2021

Against Neoliberal Dogma: Art And Creativity Mon, 13 Dec 2021 15:23:50 +0000 Joerg Colberg

One of the worst aspects of living under neoliberal capitalism is to realise how far its underlying thinking has become an important part of our collective life. Social media have vastly amplified the importance of conforming to these ideas.

Personal responsibility is everything. In itself, there is much to be said for exercising a sense of personal responsibility. But personal responsibility without its necessary counterpoint in the form of communal and/or societal support is toxic. In the end, you’re responsible for everything, including, crucially, your failures — which you then have to deal with yourself.

In part as a consequence of all of this, there has been a proliferation of ideas of efficiency. A very cartoonish, yet widely accepted (and commercially very successful) example is provided by Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The book is little more than pseudo-scientific neoliberal ideology of the worst kind. But its ideas have become so common that we often don’t realize any longer how ubiquitous they are.

Obviously, I’m not going to suggest to you how to lead your life. If you want to, for example, buy yourself a smartwatch and monitor your habits, that’s fine with me. If you think that you need to use your time more efficiently, go for it. But I run into manifestations of neoliberal thinking regularly when teaching photography, and I thought it might be time to spell out how bad this really is if you want to become a photographer (or even an artist).

Let’s begin with the obvious: creativity cannot actually be quantified. The same is true for productivity. I’m pretty sure that there are people who will disagree. But if you think you can treat your creativity the way Amazon treats the supply chains inside its warehouses, you’re basically going to turn yourself into one of the people working inside such a warehouse. That is a very, very bad idea, which will create a lot of damage to your creativity and mental well being.

In my teaching, one of the biggest challenges students appear to run into is when or how to commit to doing something. More often than not, they have a lot of ideas. Having a lot of ideas isn’t a problem. But what do you do with them? As far as I can tell, there are two big problems.

The first problem is having to make a decision which idea to pursue. Often, students cannot decide what they want to do because too many ideas sound equally interesting: how can you pick one? Well, I can tell you how you pick one: you just do it. In the worst case, you could toss a coin or write ideas on slips of paper and pick one out of a hat (this is only for the ideas that are really interesting).

But isn’t that too flippant an approach to a serious problem? Well, no, because it actually is not a serious problem. If you’re stuck with too many ideas in a creative field, being unable to make a decision, the question is not: which idea is the best? Instead it is: why is it that you’re stuck there in the first place? In all likelihood, it is because you’re looking at the possible outcome more than at the actual idea and the process that might get you there. You’re worried that you will make something bad, so you don’t get started at all.

It is true, if you have two ideas and pick one, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be the best possible. But honestly: who cares? This obsession with only wanting to get the best is neoliberal ideology: only the real winners count. Everybody else is a loser.

The situation of not picking an idea can be found in the fable of Buridan’s ass. Now, you’re the donkey, and you’re starving your own creativity because you won’t get started on anything.

Neoliberal thinking also promotes the idea that everything has to conform to maximum efficiency. Again, how or why would you apply such an approach in a creative field? A priori you don’t even know what you’re going to run into. That is the very essence of being creative: to discover something, to allow oneself to be surprised. Maximum efficiency cuts out surprises (because they might waste time).

In the creative field the real outcome of anything you do is only partly provided by the end result. The process itself — that’s where the actual enjoyment (and frustrations) lie.

Social media make this fact very hard to see, because everybody only talks about outcomes (which obviously are always super successful). The struggles of the process and the inevitable failures remain hidden. Nobody wants to talk about that because in a neoliberal world, your public face depends on being seen as successful.

But creativity feeds on failure and on struggles a lot more than on the eventual success. The reality is that once you have finished a project (whatever it might be), you’re not learning anything from the fact that it’s done. It’s just done. This might feel great — this is not to diminish the sense of accomplishment that comes with it. But the exhilaration and of course frustration of the creative process happen a lot earlier.

The accomplishment isn’t just to have this finished thing (whatever it might be: a book, photo(s), sculpture, …). If you have gone through it, you know that it’s the fact of having seen yourself through this arduous process. The finished things — that’s just the cherry on top.

The creative process also is highly non-linear. You can’t plan it out. You don’t know how it is going to evolve. If you could plan things out, it wouldn’t be creative, would it? (Doing a paint-by-number painting isn’t creative.) Consequently, you cannot think of the creative process as being effective. That makes no sense. There’ll be a large number of dead ends, of things tried that don’t work out, of false starts, etc. That’s a huge part of it.

Following neoliberal thinking, it’s tempting to view false starts and dead ends in the creative process as inefficient: you could have planned things more carefully and spent your time more wisely. But if you follow such an approach that only shows how little you understand what creativity actually means. There is no such thing as wasted time in the creative process. Well, actually, there is: any time spent on not doing something is wasted.

I often hear students tell me that they’re thinking about making a picture. Usually, I ask what prevents them from just making it. Well, they tell me, they’re not sure how to do it or whether it will be successful. One of my (many) old records that then gets played is me saying that the only people who solve problems by thinking about them are philosophers and theorists.

In the creative process, you don’t think about doing something. Instead, you do it, and you see where this leads you. The process itself needs to show you as much as the picture itself. Photography is a visual medium, which means that you have to see it. You can’t just think about it. Again, there is no such thing as wasted time and energy. If you let a picture challenge yourself and guide you to something that works better, then you’re in business.

If there is one thing that you really want to concentrate on it’s your focus: show up regularly, and see things through. Those two aspects are literally the most important parts of the creative process. Everything else — the false starts, the surprises, the failures, the experiments, … Those aspects are essential for your creative process. They keep you on your toes, they keep you exhilarated, and they help you embrace something that is deep inside you on your own terms.

And you actually don’t have to produce and share something all the time. I realise that in the day and age of social media, that’s a strange statement: artists are now thought of as “content creators”. But is that really how you want to see yourself? As some sort of drone who puts out stuff every other day just to feed some machine that mostly does nothing for you (other than making you feel bad)? How is that a good idea?

Don’t allow other people to set your terms for you. Don’t see what you do with a critical neoliberal audience in mind. It’ll be the death of your creativity and artistic process, and it will only serve to make you feel very bad about yourself.

Deana Lawson Mon, 06 Dec 2021 15:27:43 +0000 Joerg Colberg

Given that photography always has one foot in what you could think of as a reality, it often remains at the level of a semi-art. This is especially true in the case of the photographic portrait. I don’t necessarily mean the term “semi-art” in a negative way, because its underlying idea can cut both ways. But historically, because they were aware of photography’s foot in reality, photographers went the extra mile to make their wares look like what they think art ought to look like: this not only involved copying conventions from, say, painting, but also included making huge prints. Pictorialism arose out of this just as much what I ended up calling Neoliberal Realism.

On the other hand, even when photography manages to achieve the level of good art, its underlying nature pulls the viewer back to the fact that what is being depicted is taken from the real world. I suspect that this fact will remain true even once computer-generated images will occupy a space equal to that of camera-based ones: in the end, it’s not how the images were produced, it’s the combination of what they look like and what codes they telegraph that will drive the conversation.

Coming back to the portrait, there are two aspects that no photographer can run away from. There’s the aspect of power. And there’s the history of photography. These two aspects are not completely independent.

Someone has a camera, some other person does not: this sets up one of the most basic problems of photography. The person with the camera has the power. Even though they cannot do whatever they want — the other person might run away, grimace wildly, or try to put their hand in front of the camera, they have all the power over the photograph that goes out into the world. They pick the context in which it might appear, and they’re usually the first to set the parameters of the ensuing discussion around them (especially when photography criticism parrots PR copy).

Per se, this is not necessarily bad. After all, actors do what the script and directors tell them to do. Excepting those cases where actual abuse is happening, nobody has a problem with that. That is their job, to personify another person based on some pre-set parameters. Photographic portraiture can operate along those lines (think fashion or commercial photography).

But usually portrait photography in what’s typically called a fine-art context doesn’t operate this way. Often, photographers come across people they want to take a picture of by chance. Or they seek out a certain type of person. Thus begins the complex negotiation over power that involves question of consent and much more. Large parts are often left unspoken. Photographers know how their cameras operate and what they can do with them. People who aren’t photographers typically only understand this to a limited extent (even when they’re using their smartphones to take pictures).

This relationship is skewed in just the same way that your relationship with your dentist is skewed, or your relationship with your florist, your barber… You get the idea: someone is an expert and has a lot of practical and theoretical knowledge, and the other person decides to trust them (what happens when people don’t rely on that trust is currently playing out in ICUs all over the world).

Practical knowledge means that a photographer knows what the picture will look like in a basic sense. What they don’t know — all the interesting details: that’s what they’re after. Theoretical knowledge means that a photographer is aware of the medium’s history. They know who came before them and what those photographers did. They know — or at least they should know — the full spectrum of their craft, including the conversations that those older pictures have spawned.

As a result, portrait photographers have to deal with a responsibility that is set by their medium: to a certain extent, those that came before you boxed you in. All those portraits that already exist give you a set of constraints to work with — or against.

I’d argue that as a photographer, it’s important to navigate the constraints. To begin with, you’d be in dialogue both with the history of your medium and the conversations people are having right now. But you could also serve as a corrective, as someone who nudges the photographic conversation towards previously uncharted territory. After all, in the arts, constraints can be moved (without that possibility you’re left with mere craft).

In other words, photographic constraints both limit and expand what you can do.

This brings me to Deana Lawson and a new survey of her work. The biographical essay in the book, written by curator Eva Respini, lists a number of artists who served as references for Lawson, some to be expected, some surprising. And yet the artist who is echoed most strongly in these photographs is missing: Chauncey Hare, in particular his photographs of people in their own homes. I sense a similar sensibility at play, even as there are, of course, major differences.

Lawson’s subjects are Black, and the photographs that hold my attention are taken in what look like their homes. Through photographic choices, these homes are transformed into stages that feel at least somewhat alien to the sitter(s). The use of specific poses serves to heighten the drama of the stage, while at the same time giving the sitter(s) power: whatever a viewer might make of their surroundings, the feeling is communicated that the resulting picture is made for the sitter(s), that the picture says something about them — and not the photographer.

But this kind of thinking is a trap. After all, it is widely known how careful Lawson arranges the settings and the poses. I think for someone from the world of photography, this is very obvious. Someone who is not familiar with technical details might simply pick up on what I would describe as the photograph’s artifice: they typically look as if they were designed to look like paintings.

“Deana Lawson’s work is prelapsarian—it comes before the Fall,” Zadie Smith writes in New Yorker magazine, “Her people seem to occupy a higher plane, a kingdom of restored glory, in which diaspora gods can be found wherever you look […] Typically, she photographs her subjects semi-nude or naked, and in cramped domestic spaces, yet they rarely look either vulnerable or confined. […]  Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above water, struggling. But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.”

A very different take is provided by In ‘Axis’ and other pieces […], I could not find any of the earned intimacy that pointed to the artist’s own personal experience or long-term communal investment in most of what she was depicting.”

I don’t think these two sentiments are as much in opposition as one might be tempted to think. In fact, I’d argue that aspects of both pervade Lawson’s work. The photographs are aspirational and celebratory. But they operate on a very, very thin line, which easily allows for a read that questions whose aspirations are actually being celebrated here — the photographer’s or her subjects’?

This is not a new discussion in the world of photography. Speaking of the “big-dick energy power dynamics of White male artists” that Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw brings up in her essay (a marvelous phrase that sums up so much!), when Richard Avedon photographed underprivileged people for In the American West, to then showcase massive prints in galleries and museums — what was he actually celebrating there?

I don’t think that past discussions of this topic have been as enlightening as they maybe should have been, in particular since the art world is not very good at dealing with questions of class. This is not surprising, given that the art world’s class composition is very heavily skewed towards the wealthy end.

This is why Chauncey Hare is such an interesting reference. Hare’s approach was a little different. There was no careful staging. What’s more, his interiors turn ever more cavernous through the use of a very wide lens, leaving his sitters often lost and overwhelmed by their surroundings. But I would argue that there is considerable overlap in the underlying idea, namely that it’s a photographer’s task to give dignity to those s/he portrays so that through the picture an audience might come to a deeper understanding of them.

Hare was very open about his political beliefs. In 1979, he staged a one-person protest outside of SFMOMA, objecting to the inclusion of one of his photographs in a show that had been sponsored by Philip Morris. He really wanted people to see underprivileged people in their homes so that there might be some change, and he objected to this goal being pushed with money from the corporation. Obviously, it’s more than unclear whether photographs in a museum can actually achieve that goal, whether it’s sponsored by corporations or not. In fact, he ended up leaving the art world altogether (this article talks about this in detail).

What is more, if you photograph people in their homes with tools they don’t really understand — it’s very obvious from some of Hare’s photographs that some of his subjects never thought they would be in the frame, then it’s a fair question to ask how that gels with your politics: is photographic exploitation any better than the economic one?

I see Lawson as pushing the conversation initiated by Hare forward, while at the same time working toward a similar goal: to make people care about a community that historically has been depicted in very detrimental ways. For both artists, this opens up the same conundrum, namely that given the context the work mostly appears in (museums, books such as this catalogue), Zadie Smith’s read competes with Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s.

Looking through the book, I found myself jumping back and forth between these poles. I am a white German man, and I have been thinking a lot about embedded codes in photography. There’s no doubt in my mind that both facts guide my reaction to the work. To focus too much on the artifice of the work runs the risk of missing its point. Still, it is the role that artifice plays in individual pictures that in each case has me tip towards one side or the other.

For the most part, it is the photographs of romantic partners that I find  particularly striking. They often include the full spectrum of sexuality in a single picture: an embrace might hint at the tenderness of a first touch as much as at its later carnality. In contrast, pictures like Axis had me wonder about whether the photographer’s aspirations with the picture and the resulting outcome really were aligned very well.

As much as I appreciate seeing the wider spectrum of Lawson’s work in the book, it is the concentrated interior portraits that I keep coming back to. Time and again, I’m discovering new details even as the details might make me question what I really respond to. These might be an assortment of remote controls that appear carelessly scattered next to a sitter; an ankle monitor worn by a young woman who is reclining in the nude on a set of stairs; a young girl hiding her face behind her father who is posing for the camera.

All of this points to the fact that much like all good photographs, Lawson’s demand to be seen as much as read: they are made with intent and dedication, and they demand the same from their viewers. This brings me back to why photography is such a semi-art. There is the fact that photographs emerge from the world that we encounter right in front of us. They make us believe that we look at a part of the world.

At the same time, these photographs are art. This means that they are really more about their maker, Deana Lawson, than about those who find themselves in the frames.

In the end, this means that regardless of what we make of the photographs, we also have to become aware of what we want them to do for us. We can pretend that this aspect is irrelevant. But why would we even look at art if we didn’t allow it to see ourselves reflected in it — possibly in ways that challenge what we like to think about ourselves?

Deana Lawson; photographs by Deana Lawson; edited by Peter Eleey & Eva Respini; essays by Eva Respini and Peter Eleey, Kimberly Juanita Brown, Tina M. Campt, Alexander Nemerov, Greg Tate, plus a conversation between the Deana Lawson and Deborah Willis; 144 pages; MACK; 2021

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