Maybe we got it all wrong. Maybe we participants in the world of contemporary fine-art photography — and by extensions all other photo professionals: photoland — maybe we are the weirdos. Maybe we are the ones engaged in the equivalent of Kabuki Theater. For sure, what we do more often than not is heavily stylized (see, we have our reasons), and there always is plenty of drama (ditto). But the world at large is mostly not interested (in our white-cube exhibitions and our photobook fairs), and where it is interested we don’t manage to hold their attention for too long. Much like Kabuki Theater, our own might just be too weird to watch.
Exhibit A: “Basically, I wanted to take screwy pictures, but intentionally screwy pictures.” — Stephen Shore. Now if that’s not Kabuki Theater then I don’t know what is.
This would explain why all in all the world of contemporary photography is such an joyless affair. The joy that is being had is the joy of people trying to be intentionally joyful. You know, I like that world. Also, I’m German, so what do I know about joy? Still, I’ve peeked beyond the curtain, and I’ve seen the joy they’re having outside of photoland.
Take Stikla Strenči, for example (the book is now sold out, but I’m hoping that with this article and the — ideally — subsequent international interest in the book, they’ll reprint it). When I received the book in the mail (kindly sent to me by one of its editors, Anna Volkova), that was basically the end of my work day. The rest of the day I spent looking at the book in a very rare state of enjoyment and wonder. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re ever sent me a book, I love your book. But to be honest, I don’t love it as much as I love this one.
I had never heard of the Latvian town of Strenči before. These days, Wikipedia informs me, there appear to be 1,614 people living there. Between the First and Second World War, the time period covered in the book, there maybe were 100 less. A local photo studio operated by a variety of people produced around 13,000 pictures there, meaning that, as Kirill Kobrin points out in the afterword, it is likely that most people in the town were photographed more than once and thus are in more than one picture. Now this already is an intriguing idea, namely that every inhabitant of a town would be photographed and could thus be found in a visual archive.
What’s even more mind boggling, though, is the quality of these photographs. They all look like view-camera pictures with relatively slow materials (which would make perfect sense, given the era). Their resolution in very high, while there is the occasional motion blur of people who didn’t hold still for long enough (in this particular picture, the woman on the very left is slightly blurry). So here then are these collectors aiming for a rather fake mushroom that despite their best efforts appears to resist being plucked from the ground (please note that the book is large (it’s 13.25″ / 33.5cm tall), so you’ll have to imagine seeing this picture rather large in front of you).
Or take this picture of these young women in a creek (btw, if we take the number of 1,500 inhabitants at the time, you’re looking at 0.8% of the entire population right there). There’s no clowning around going on here, but each and every face asks to be looked at, in particular the one of the woman in front of the group. In fact, they all look a bit miffed, which has me wonder why they decided to step into the creek in the first place.
Here’s the town’s more official side, and while this must have been a serious affair, the seriousness translates only in parts. To be honest, the whole scene strikes me as a bit ridiculous (that little table?), and it’s that being ridiculous that has me think of my own times’ official events. Given how grim these times currently are, maybe the realization that we’re being made part of essentially a circus helps us get closer to a better understanding of what’s going on. After all, a circus only exists because there’s an audience for it, doesn’t it? And it’s just a bit too easy to say that we’re all completely unwilling participants.
I don’t know the story behind this picture, but I wish these two were my grandparants (or great grandparents) instead of the ones I actually had.
I could go on. Of course, you might wonder how showing photographs from a book and briefly writing about them is a critical review. But then if I were to use the criteria that work so well in the world of my Kabuki Theater and applied them here — what exactly would I be gaining from that? I’m not sure.
To use Stephen Shore’s term, most of the photographs in the book are “screwy” in a variety of ways. But they’re all great not because they’re “intentionally screwy” (that idea makes no sense once you start thinking about it), but because someone wasn’t trying to make something “screwy” while clearly not being aware of and/or not caring for the kinds of conventions that have created a creative straight jacket for Mr Shore and the rest of photoland. And that makes for great photography.
All too often, I run into photographers who need to really think about their next picture, who need to agonize over whether their idea might work or not (oh, the horror, when it doesn’t work!) — instead of going out to simply make it, consequences be damned. The photographers in this little Latvian town didn’t have the luxury to think about this. Civic events were to be photographed. People wanted to have their portraits taken (with masks — why not?). There was life, and that life demanded to be captured in pictures. And the results are nothing short of amazing, at least in this edit produced by Anna Volkova and Vladimir Svetlov.
One thing I know for sure: any time I’m feeling down on photoland and the sheer tedium of its Kabuki Theater I’ll pull out this book, to look at photographs that remind me of what a truly wonderful and joyful medium photography can be. This really is one of the best photobooks I’ve seen in a long time.
Very highly recommended.
Glass Strenči; photographs by various artists; edited by Anna Volkova and Vladimir Svetlow; essay by Kirill Kobrin; 204 pages; Talka; 2019
Ratings explained here.