Photobook Reviews (Week 51, 2013)

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Found photographs are magical in ways that other types of pictures will and can never be. With usually no or very little actual information available, they still speak strongly of a stranger’s desire: This moment is worthwhile being captured, this is what I want to remember in photographic form. Unlike what postmodern theorists want you to believe, their meaning is not entirely up for grabs. You can play all kinds of games with them. You can be truly postmodern and make yourself the sole author. Or you can try to imagine or even research what these photographs might have meant to those who took and/or cherished them, and then work with that. This latter approach seems more common, probably in part because not only postmodernism theoretically has a few holes, but also because inherently it is so cynical. Artists working with found photographs usually reject this cynicism, even though often enough the pendulum swings into the opposite, very romanticized, nostalgic direction. Three recent photobooks reminded me of what can be gained from working with found photographs when it’s done well.

Everything Passes is reminiscent of Elisabeth Tonnard‘s In This Dark Wood (which just got re-released as a trade edition) in that it uses photographs of people walking in the streets, photographed semi-candidly. Unlike in Tonnard’s case, here the photographs are used to hint at a fairly specific time and place. The photographs were all taken by fotocineros in Medellín. On your stroll through the streets, a fotocinero would snap your picture and hand you a little slip of paper, which would give you the option to pick up your portrait at some studio later. In other words, fotocineros really were unsolicited portrait photographers, working in the streets. Everything Passes collects a number of these photographs (all of them picked up by their subjects) into a single little book, with short essays talking about the city, the past, and the connections photographs can create with those in the pictures. There isn’t more to the book that just that, but it’s all you need. There’s not so much a story as a feeling that is being evoked: It’s like catching a fragment of a tune, a whiff of some perfume, or a quick glimpse of a face and – albeit briefly – being transported back to some special moment in the past.

Hotel Silesia by Matteo Terzaghi and Marco Zürcher also deals with place, albeit in a very different way (there’s an order link on this page if you scroll down, below the Polish text; note the text in the book is in English if you order the, well, English-language edition). On a residency at the Gliwice Museum, the two artists spent their time looking for old photographs, trying to create, in their own words, a record of “a childhood one century long, pondered (or dreamed of) through photographs.” Given its history, Silesia is not the kind of place where this task can be done without bumping into a reminder of any of the horrific events that happened there over the course of the 20th Century. Photographs, of course, can’t speak of any of those in ways that will bring them closer. Photographs only deal with surfaces. A portrait of an evil person, say, is really just a portrait of a person. Evil cannot be photographed (sorry, photojournalists!). Put together, however, photographs can be made to speak in ways that evokes some of that which can’t be shown in them. And this is what Hotel Silesia does.

Max Sher‘s A Remote Barely Audible Evening Waltz, in contrast, focuses on very specific people, Galina Babanskaya and Veniamin Averbach. Sher came across the photographs in a former communal apartment in St. Petersburg that was being sold. He rescued the boxes of colour slides from being thrown out (and photographed parts of the apartment and some of the belongings). “Is there a big difference between photographs found in someone’s former apartment and broken pieces of pottery unearthed from ancient tombs?” he asks in a short introductory piece. What can photographs tell us? What can they tell us about those in the pictures and about those who took the pictures (which, often enough, might be the same people or people very close to each other)? Inevitably, the people in these found photographs will forever remain strangers to us. But the photographs make us feel that we’re getting to know them. The more we look, the more we think we know.

In the end, we have little hope of knowing anything from found photographs. But we are being given the opportunity to make a connection with people we will never be able to meet, people long gone, people who might have had the same dreams and aspirations we still have. This is why photography is so powerful: Not because it shows something or someone, but because it makes us feel something.

Everything Passes; found photographs; texts by Alfonso Morales; project coordination by Isabel Garcés; 104 pages; RM; 2013

Hotel Silesia; found photographs; text by Matteo Terzaghi and Marco Zürcher; 72 pages; Museum Gliwice; 2013

A Remotely Barely Audible Evening Waltz; found photographs and photographs by Max Sher; 168 pages; Treemedia; 2013

Ratings explained here.