Review – Holy Bible by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

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Oliver Chanarin & Adam Broomberg/MACK

Anyone who follows this blog or my practice will know my mixed relationship with Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s work. I’ve been critical of their projects in the past, and before I start this review I’ll restate the reason why. I think the way they often meld relatively traditional documentary subject matter with visual strategies more familiar to fine art photography is really important. For anyone interested in seeing documentary photography move away from a very literal notion of showing, and towards a way instead of evoking and indicating what cannot be shown, they are important as perhaps the most high profile examples of this approach. For these reasons when they leave their work open to easy criticism (as I think they did with War Primer 2) it really bothers me because it often seems to become as a way for people to criticise this approach to photography in general.

Moving on then, for the follow up to their Deustche Boerse winning War Primer 2, Broomberg and Chanarin have choosen another book project, and again one inspired by the work of the German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht. Throughout his life Brecht added cuttings of photographs and notes to a small bible, now held by his archive in Berlin. Inspired by an essay by Adi Ophir, which connects the tyrannical workings of the divine with the functioning of power in modern states, Broomberg and Chanarin have created their own bible in the style of Brecht’s, using photographs from the esoteric Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC), and extending Adi Ophir’s thesis from god and statehood, to photography’s apparent predilection for destruction and suffering.

Ophir’s essay, which provides Holy Bible with its basic argument, is included at the end of the book. To simplify, Ophir argues that after initial moderation, God became increasingly violent and oppressive in dealing with his people, wiping out entire cities and ‘all their inhabitants, men, women, and little children’. In effect cataclysm came to represent him (think of the phrase ‘an act of god’ used as a synonmn for a natural disaster) and the destruction wrought by him comes to have an educational and moral function. These appearances become vital in shaping the first nation, Israel. In time the institution of laws (commandments) regulates his wrath, and this economy of moral violence transitions to human hands, wherein it continues to function in a similar way.

Broomberg and Chanarin’s book explores this argument and add some ideas of their own. Throughout it’s many pages small parts of the text are underlined in red, selected to jar with photographs printed opposite. These photographs are a broad mix, there are the predictable pictures of guns, ‘I will seek to destroy all nations’. Then there are more subtle choices that echo some of the very clever photo-epigram matches of War Primer 2, like a man in an iron lung ‘between blood and blood, between plea and plea, between stroke and stroke’. Equally there are some that perhaps seem mainly intended to rile, for example bloodied corpses ‘arrows drunk with blood’. If this image-text juxtaposition formula sounds rather repetitive, it is, but there is just about enough variety to sustain interest, and a few reoccurring motifs help to pace your passage through the book, like the regular and initially quite amusing appearances of magicians and performers with the words ‘and it came to pass’.

The approaches at play here are several. Amongst the most interesting for me is the way the artists set out to demonstrate differing attitudes to images and words. A bible passage describing the destruction of a city would be treated completely differently to a photograph showing the same thing. It’s a pertinent issue, just look at the way so many of the world leaders who clamoured to launch a strike on Syria described being moved by photographs and video of chemical attacks (not by their prior knowledge that such attacks were almost certainly happening). These images galavanised action against things we previously had a pretty good idea were happening, but had little visual evidence of. As a book concept it’s also a great idea and very well executed. Holy Bible is gaudy and rather cheap feeling, in other words a perfect facsimile of a King James Bible, right down to the gold edging on the toilet paper thin pages.

The main thing that bothers me about the work is the choice of the bible as subject matter, it feels too easy. The bible has been appropriated, rework, investigated, or sometimes just mocked by a long list of artists, but rarely with a particularly interesting point to make. Relatively rarely does anyone do the same thing with another religious text. Aside from the deviation it would have required from Ophir’s essay, it might have been more interesting (and certainly I think braver) to have explored similar themes with the holy book from another Abrahamic religion. Considering the artist’s Jewish backgrounds, and their long running focus on the War on Terror, the Torah or Koran both seem like obvious choices. However for all their controversial credentials I sense this would be the wrong side of edgy. Better to pick a familiar, fashionable target without likely repercussions, than one which might genuinely offend, frighten, or provoke.

On Criticism and Patronage

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Vasily Grossman

I like my reading matter to reflect my surroundings, so while I was in Ukraine recently I decided to tackle Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate. A vast meandering novel with more than a few similarities to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it follows a Russian family and those around them through the events of the Battle of Stalingrad and the uncovering of the Holocaust. The novel’s protagonist, a Jewish theoretical physicist named Victor Shtrum is often dangerously critical of the Soviet government. To make matters worse he develops a ground breaking new theory which draws the ire and jealousy of his less talented colleagues who accuse him of ‘Talmudic abstractions’.

Shtrum appears to be on a fast track to denouncement and deportation to a prison camp, until a surprise phone call from Stalin himself changes everything, reversing Shtrum’s situation and placing him in a position of previously unimaginable privilege. But where before Shtrum felt able to protest the abuses of the state in spite of his precarious position, with his new status he comes to feel completely powerless to resist it. Under pressure from colleagues he had previously despised Shtrum signals his final, total supplication by signing a letter denouncing two innocent doctors as murderers and enemies of the state.

As a novel is chosen to reflect surroundings, so surroundings begin in a strange way to reflect that novel. It may sound melodramatic to say so but I found it difficult not to recognise similarities, admittedly very distant similarities, between what I was reading and recent feelings of my own. When I began writing reviews and critiques of photography it was partly because I thought it would force me to engage more with work that I saw in exhibitions, in books and online. It was also though a response to what I felt was the deeply unsatisfactory nature of many of the reviews I was reading in other places.

I had a feeling at the time that there was almost a collusion between some reviewers and the photographers and artists they wrote about. I had read so many pieces that might as well have been rephrased press releases from the galleries and artists themselves, that attempted no interpretation, offered no insight, and gave no original commentary of the work. Either this was down to laziness or stupidity on the part of reviewers, or it was a reflection of spinelessness in the face of a system of patronage, of exchanged tokens, of unspoken loyalties.

Such systems of nepotism and favouritism are notoriously difficult to uncover, let alone resist, because as Grossman adroitly observes in Life and Fate, those engaging in these things are rarely aware of it themselves. Instead to them their actions appear transparent, natural. Grossman observes that while a good man will forever torture himself over one bad act, a bad man will forever congratulate himself over a single good one. Critics are to some extent dependent on access, whether in the form of press invites, opportunities for interviews, and so forth. As I slowly draw myself further into this world it becomes increasingly apparent that there are unwritten rules to be obeyed in return, gatekeepers to satisfy.

Now I feel uncomfortable to note certain tendencies creeping into my own reviews. That as I come to know and be known by more people in the photographic community, I find it harder to be as honest as I thought I used to be. In the beginning it was easy, I didn’t know anyone and hardly anyone read this blog. Being savage was little different from saying such things aloud in the privacy of my home, nothing rested on them. Inevitably as things have grown, as I’ve met more and more photographers, it has becomes harder to be completely honest about how I feel about their work. Whether because I fear the professional repercussions, or simply because I don’t want to hurt another person’s feelings, I all too often have the feeling that I am tempering my remarks.

In his Writing the Truth, Five Difficulties Brecht identifies five necessary abilities for those wishing to write the truth. He writes that those who wish to write the truth must have ‘the courage to write the truth when truth is everywhere opposed; the keenness to recognize it, although it is everywhere concealed; the skill to manipulate it as a weapon; the judgment to select those in whose hands it will be effective; and the cunning to spread the truth among such persons.’ All these traits at the moment feel beyond me, but I can at least start to work through them, gradually ticking them off, and without courage the other four are useless.

I needed to write this post as a first step, both as a denunciation of what I think I see, but also in order to steel myself not to fall into to the same behaviour I’m condemning. I need this little bit of text as a reminder to remain honest and continue to say what I think, not what I think is expected, even if that means annoying, angering, alienating those in a position to help me advance professionally. To again borrow from that old firebrand Brecht, ‘To displease the possessors may mean to become one of the dispossessed…this takes courage’.

When Documentary Becomes Art II

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Hilla and Bernd Becker

This is part II of a write up of an introductory talk I gave earlier in the summer on the relationship between art and documentary photography, how the two sometimes blur together and what the consequences are when this happens.

(Part I)

The sixties saw what is often termed as a ‘documentary turn’ in art practice. Various ideas exist to try and explain this ‘turn’ (a nasty phrase which almost suggests a type of nausea or illness), some of these theories pointing to factors external to the art world and others arguing it was a result of internal trends. In terms of external influences, perhaps following the end of the Second World War there was a lack of desire to see the world reflected in art. People didn’t want to be reminded of the destruction, the holocaust, and the drab, difficult conditions of the post-war years, they wanted to be distracted from it. by the start of the 1960’s the world, and particularly Europe, had recovered sufficiently that people had retained the desire for art which acted as a mirror on the world. This return to looking also obviously coincided the social and cultural foment of a decade that saw major events across the planet and beyond, from civil rights and the war in Vietnam to the lunar landings.

Within the art world the emergence of Pop Art in the fifties and sixties seems to have been significant. With a focus on mass media and particularly photography, and its tendency to relocate familiar objects into unfamiliar settings, it seems hard not to believe that this movement and its offshoots might have played a part in setting photography and art, fact and fiction, on to a collision course. Another argument is that this documentary turn reflected a growing sense of disillusionment with the prevailing abstract expressionism of artists like Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Both had been heavily promoted in the post-war era by the American government (indeed even by the CIA) as part of the cultural cold war against Soviet socialist realist art, and to a lesser extent socially engaged European art movements like Cubism. The documentary turn was perhaps a backlash against this.

In terms of art photography Hilla and Bernd Becher’s photographs are a profoundly influential example of this documentary turn. Trained as artists, in 1959 the couple set out to document overlooked German industrial buildings in the Ruhr valley. They photographed these structures with a consistent, almost scientific approach before arranging their photographs into thematic grids or typologies, intended to reveal the structural similarities between buildings which had, like Karl Blossfeldt’s plants, evolved in isolation from one another. The approach and philosophy of the Bechers indeed owed more than a little to the inter-war New Objectivity Movement of which Blossfeldt, Sander and a number of other artists I mentioned in part i were closely associated.

The Becher’s success and subsequent tenure as teachers at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf produced a generation of photographers who employed a similar synthesis of art and documentary. Notable example include Thomas Struth and Candida Hofer. It’s a measure of the continuing influence of the Dusseldorf school (for better or worse, and many would say worse) that the most expensive auction price to date is for a photograph by another of its acolytes, Andreas Gursky.

In counterpoint to this ‘documentary turn’ the last ten or twenty years appears to have seen something of an ‘artistic turn’ in documentary practice. This has manifested in documentary photographers, and indeed some photojournalists, adopting the strategies of fine art in both the production and dissemination of their work. For example forgoing traditional narratives in favor of more unconventional ones, or in some cases abandoning narrative altogether and employing complex conceptual approaches to investigate subjects. Similarly documentary photographers are increasingly employing the economic and curatorial strategies of the fine art world , selling expensive limited edition prints in galleries and employing the byzantine language of fine art in statements about their work.

A good example of this new turn are Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin. Their practice has evolved  from something which far more obviously resembles traditional documentary photography (see for example their 2003 book Ghetto) to something more anchored in traditions of art photography and conceptualism (for example 2011’s War Primer 2, which employs techniques like appropriation and collage). This is often controversial, as with the duo’s 2008 piece The Day Nobody Died, a response to the Afghan War, embedding and censorship. Strangely many photographers were far more vocal in their criticism of the work for it’s use of such a conceptual strategy to talk about a ‘journalistic’ subject, than they were of the issues of embedding and press censorship which the work was actually commenting on.

The reasons for this ‘artistic turn’ in documentary practice are again difficult to precisely pinpoint, I can think of two fairly obvious explanations. It may be the inevitable response to a world in which almost everything seems to have been documented, and certainly the most visually arresting subjects have been photographed to excess. In such a world photographers are increasingly turning to subjects which require complex approaches to depict them in a compelling way, or even to depict them at all. How for example is a traditional photojournalist to effectively document drone warfare or cyber-terrorism?

Also I wonder if financial motives are also part of it. With traditional editorial markets evaporating, even established photojournalists are increasingly looking to a relatively buoyant art market to fill the gaps left in their income and this inevitably requires that the work they produce speak a particular conceptual and aesthetic language. When I interviewed Magnum’s Alex Webb recently he told me how print sales had increasingly replaced editorial work as the basis of his income. If this is the case for an established and well respected name, what hope is there for the rest of us?

As was established in part one of this short history, the mixing of art and documentary isn’t a new thing, even if it remains controversial in some circles. One has to question the value of these distinctions as anything but a form of photographic tribalism. All photography is on a very literal level documentary, since all photographs document something. Inversely even documentary photography in the most rigorously, intentionally unartistic sense still nessecarily includes characteristics that are inherited from art practice because this is where photography springs from, technologically and philosophically. Equally, however we might feel about it, today anything and everything is at risk of being appropriated as art, regardless of it’s original purpose or intent.

Open Source Self-Publishing

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After what was initially a great response to my launch of War Primer 3: Work Primer last week I hit up against a bit of a wall. The project had at first spread reasonably far by word of mouth, with the book notching up two thousand views on Issuu in a day, pretty good going for a work which undoubtedly has quite narrow appeal. However going beyond this it has proved really difficult to get any photography or visual culture titles and websites to show any interest in the work, or to persuade them to write even a short piece on the book and the issues of artistic appropriation and exploitative labour practices that spawned it (you can read more about these topics here.)

For a while I wondered why. Perhaps it’s because they just see the project as rather mundane, it is after all, a derivative of a derivative. On the other hand perhaps it’s too controversial, maybe writers and editors don’t want to risk souring their connections to influential individuals and institutions by running a piece on it. Maybe none of them even bothered to read my messages. Either way dozens of e-mails and tweets to publications big and small have met with only a handful of responses, and only two sites to date having the balls to actually run it.

Increasingly frustrated I started turning to the photographic community for advice, initially just for suggestions for magazines and sites that might show some interest in the work. However I got more than I bargained for when Andreas Schmidt suggested making War Primer 3 an open source photo book. His idea was to encourage people to download the PDF of War Primer 3 from my website, and then print their own version through print on demand publishers like Blurb.com and Lulu.com, and to sell their new copies of the book via online stores. The only restriction being that the new printed versions should be sold at production cost, not for profit.

I love this idea because as well as being an answer to the problem of how to more widely distribute War Primer 3, it adds to the project on several levels. The book was already about the issue of appropriation and reuse, so the idea of people appropriating my appropriation to produce a series of ramshackle bootlegs seems like a wonderfully logical one. Hopefully it encourages some wider ownership of the work, beyond the limited edition books of Broomberg and Chanarin, and even beyond the unlimited digital edition of my iteration.

It could also be really interesting because as Schmidt pointed out the lack of standardisation and the variety of paper and format choices available through print on demand publishers mean that each new version of War Primer 3 printed in this way will most likely be a unique edition. There could ultimately be dozens or hundreds of different version of this book floating around, from big, expensive colour hard back editions, to small, black and white pocket books printed on cheap paperback grade paper. Participants could also alter the book more profoundly, for example playing with the page ordering, or adding new images or text as Schmidt has with his version War Primer 38.

So if you’re tempted please download, upload and print away the PDF of the book can be got by clicking here or you can download the book as a set of high res jpegs here. Then it’s just a case of laying the book out in whatever design software you use (for example Indesign or Blurb’s own Booksmart software) exporting and uploading the new book ready to print through the site of your choice. I’d love it if anyone who does so can send me links, either to their version of the book in an online store, or better still photographs of a printed version, and I’ll compile a list of places selling it and photographs of the different ‘editions’, a library in effect of a single book.

I’m off for a holiday in the middle of nowhere for a few days now where I will be writing away ready to return to the usual schedule of critical writing from next Monday.

War Primer 3: Work Primer

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I know Monday is usually the day I post a bit of critical writing and so I apologise to anyone (if anyone) waiting on tenterhooks for this. I just wanted to share something I’ve been working on over the last few days, in response to the issues raised by many interesting conversations about the value of photographic appropriation, exploitative intern use in the art world, and the worthiness of this year’s Deutsche Börse prize winner.

War Primer 3: Work Primer is a reworking of Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s Deutsche Börse winning War Primer 2 (2011) itself a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Bertolt Brecht’s 1955 book Kriegsfibel. In this unique exploration of photography and conflict Brecht sought to extract the hidden meanings behind Second World War photographs with short poems modeled on the funeral epigrams of the ancient world. Broomberg and Chanarin in turn updated Brecht’s book, by introducing images from the War on Terror, each intended to resonate with Brecht’s original texts.

While brilliant in some respects, Broomberg and Chanarin’s followup was also deeply problematic, for a variety of reasons some of which I have outlined in my review here. I felt particularly uncomfortable with the book’s existence as an expensive, editioned art object, and the use of unpaid, uncredited intern labour in its production, both things Brecht would most likely have baulked at.

In response to this, and in the spirit of Brecht’s playful invocation not to ‘start with the good old things but the bad new ones’ I have reworked the digital edition of Broomberg and Chanarin’s book into a ‘work primer’ on economics and labour, past and present, at home and abroad. To do this I have replaced Brecht’s original epigrams with text from his poem A Worker Reads Historya meditation on history’s forgotten, and reordered the pages of the book to loosely match the words of the poem. To these pages I have added new text and images. The result is a small tribute to the forgotten of today, the unacknowledged workers, labourers, and slaves that keep the engine of the world, even the fine art world, turning.

More on the project here.

Broomberg and Chanarin and the Politics of Appropriation

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Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin have won the Deutsche Börse prize for War Primer 2, a reworking of the 1998 English edition of Brecht’s 1955 book Kriegsfiebel, which sought to tease out the hidden meanings of Second World War press photographs. To achieve this Brecht juxtaposed the photographs against short epigrams, echoing the funerary poetry often inscribed on the monuments of the ancient world. War Primer 2 updates the original work with photographs from the War on Terror (in a very broad sense of the phrase), each selected to resonate with Brecht’s text and laid directly over the images of the original book.

The shortlist for this year’s prize was potentially so interesting, divided as it was between photographers and artists in such radically different camps. There was Christina de Middel, who represented the burgeoning, quirky, do-it-yourself photography publishing scene. There was Chris Killip, the old guard of socially concerned documentary photography. There was Miskha Henner, fusing appropriation with quite traditional documentary subject matter. And then there were Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, who more than any of the others perhaps represent the photographic arts establishment, the world of expensive editioned prints in white walled galleries.

Within hours of their win being announced there was a certain amount of crying foul. There were rumours that the duo might be sued by the Associated Press for using a photograph without permission, there were similarly vague accusations of impropriety because of Broomberg’s former position as a trustee of the Photographer’s Gallery (who organise the competition), and the current trusteeship of the publisher of War Primer 2, Michael Mack. But most of all I sense there was just a lot of indifference, apathy at a prize which once again has chosen the most obvious candidates as winners.

And this apathy is a shame, not least because it means that most of those still writing and talking about War Primer 2 are either those who are unquestioningly enamoured with it (or with it’s makers), or those who on principle despise Broomberg and Chanarin and what they represent, and would rather condemn their work, simply because it is theirs, than admit that there is anything of value in it. I find myself somewhere in between these camps, feeling that with War Primer 2 I am confronted by a book which is on some levels extremely clever and on other levels deeply unresolved, even contradictory.

Appropriation in terms of fine art is an established and accepted technique, its position in photography is less comfortable, perhaps because the inherent, infinite reproducibility of the medium means any appropriation is always a potential threat to the original author’s ownership of the work. Still it’s been a steadily expanding field for many years, and War Primer 2 is the latest in a long line of appropriative ‘photographic’ works, including of course Brecht’s original Kriegsfiebel. However appropriation becomes more of an issue with Broomberg and Chanarin’s work, because where Brecht appropriated just the physical material of photographs, I think War Primer 2 appropriates more totally, borrowing from Brecht on three levels, the physical, the conceptual, and the ideological.

Physically, War Primer 2 builds directly on to Brecht’s original book, or ‘inhabits’ it to use Broomberg and Chanarin’s chosen terminology. The connections between new and old images are hit and miss, some are brilliant, like the much reproduced overlay of one of the burning twin towers with an aerial reconnaissance photograph of a bombed refinery. Others are weaker, the visual comparisons between George W. Bush and Adolf Hitler for example are predictable and lazy. Some also rely heavily on knowledge of the image that lies beneath, often entirely obscured by Broomberg and Chanarin’s additions. This ‘inhabiting’ (some might call it ‘squatting’) of Brecht’s original book is more broadly problematic in that it’s a technique which limits reproducibility, forcing the book into the world of the inaccessibly expensive art edition, the opposite of what Brecht presumably intended with his cheap school book style primer. (They have, I should say, since released a free digital version, which does something to counteract this).

Conceptually, War Primer 2 seems like an almost total appropriation of Kriegsfibel. While Broomberg and Chanarin have added new visual material, with results that range from the provocative to the banal, the core concept of the book remains I think indisputably Brecht’s. What was interesting about Kriegsfibel was never really the photography, and the same is true of War Primer 2 but for a handful of exceptions where the old and new images jar strikingly. What makes Brecht’s book a masterpiece are the poems, those brilliantly insightful, evocative litanies to the stupid, cruel, arbitrariness of war and repetitive, reductive ways it is recorded. For me at least this poses a difficult challenge to the notion that Broomberg and Chanarin have met the Deutsche Börse prize’s qualification that winner should have made a ‘significant contribution to the medium of photography’. The contribution, I think, is still almost entirely Brecht’s.

Ideologically there is again an awkwardness in it all. Broomberg and Chanarin seem to have selectively appropriated elements of Brecht’s politics, not least his (now very fashionable) scepticism towards photography. And yet as I’ve already said War Primer 2 is not an object I can imagine Brecht would have recognised as his; an expensive, exclusive, limited edition art piece. Not just that, but an art piece produced by unwaged students (including friends of mine) plucked from the London College of Communication, where the duo are associate lecturers. I was nearly recruited in a similar fashion to work on their latest publication Holy Bible. Also on the heels of writing about Sebastião Salgado’s relationship with mining giant Vale, I have to wonder how Broomberg and Chanarin can possibly square Brecht’s politics with winning a prize sponsored by like Deutsche Börse, which represents to such a caricaturish extent the type of capitalism Brecht so despised.

I’ve dwelt overly on what I perceive to be weaknesses in the work, I should say there are many things I admire about it as well, some of which are highlighted in this essay from the exhibition catalogue. As a long-time fan of the under-appreciated but brilliant original book, I somewhat feel the issues around War Primer 2 are to be overlooked if they draw attention and interest back to Kriegsfibel and it’s author. War Primer 2 is an interesting and timely piece of work, but in many ways I think Broomberg and Chanarin are standing on the shoulders of a giant, and rifling through his pockets for spare ideas.

Review: Deutsche Börse Prize at The Photographers Gallery

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Chris Killip, What Happened: Great Britain 1970-1990

It’s always interesting to see who’s been shortlisted for The Deutsche Börse Prize. According to it’s mandate it should be four photographers who have produced work in the last year ‘which has significantly contributed to photography in Europe’, quite a big achivement for someone working in any media, but particularly one so diverse as photography. I have to admit I feel rather ambivalent about this year’s shortlist, perhaps because there are strong arguments for and against all four of the shortlisted photographers to win, here are some thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses in each.

Mishka Henner’s No Man’s Land uses Google Street View imagery to probe the highways and byways of southern Europe, seeking out the sex workers who wait by the side of often desolate rural roads for clients to hire them. Henner ‘finds’ these women using location information gleaned off internet forums. The resulting collection of images (and a video installation) is a strange journey through menacing grey zones, an exploration of voyeurism and surveillance, the integration of camera technologies and the internet. What it emphatically isn’t is an exploration of who these women are or why they are here. I liked a few things about Henner’s work, not least that it aggravates certain photographers and critics who don’t consider someone a ‘real’ photographer unless they leave the house. The work itself was a refreshingly strange thing to see on a gallery wall, with it’s pixelated, muted aesthetics and visual quirks (like the odd multiple vanishing points that sometimes occurred where one image was imperfectly stitched with another).

At the same time though various things make me uncomfortable about this work, some of which Henner appears to be playing on and others which don’t feel so resolved. The biggest is just the assumption that these women are sex workers, but then there is also the way Google’s automated face blurring reduces them to a state of almost pornographic anonymity, and also while I think of it even the implication of the title that all sex workers are women. In terms of a contribution to photography I also have to wonder how cutting edge this type of appropriated imagery is, given that quite a number of photographers have been using similar techniques since Street View’s debut six years ago, and I also feel I have to ask if some of the hype about this body of work stems from it’s questionable handling of the subject matter as much as its process or message.

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s War Primer 2 takes Bertolt Brecht’s (sadly relatively unknown) 1955 book and updates it for the era of the War on Terror. Brecht’s original work attempts to extract the meaning behind a series of Second World War photographs (a media Brecht regarded as profoundly untrustworthy) through short four line epigrams. Broomberg and Chanarin searched for images from the War on Terror that fitted with Brecht’s original poems, and in some cases with the original images, pasting them directly into copies of a recent reprint of the book, and screen printing in new titles and captions. I like the subject matter and the execution, particularly the idea of a book that exists on top of and within another book. Some of the photographs work brilliantly, one of the best being the image shown above of the twin towers overlaid onto an aerial photo of a bombed oil refinery, with the almost spookily resonant poem ‘A cloud of smoke told us that they were here/ They were sons of fire, not of the light/they came from where? they came out of darkness/ Where did they go? Into eternal night.’

I have two main concerns, first that I really feel it’s impossible to understand War Primer 2 except in the context of the original book (which few people I’ve asked seem to have actually seen). Having come to Brecht’s version first I rather feel what makes Broomberg and Chanarin’s updating compelling isn’t so much what they’ve added (clever as it is), but what was always there. It’s Brecht’s brilliant, insightful poetry that makes both versions of the book so compelling.  Then there’s also the issue of appropriating the work and rhetoric of a socialist like Brecht, and selling it on as a limited edition art piece at $560 a go (although I note they have now made an iPad version available for free, though this still seems to slightly miss the point). I could go on but won’t because I’ve written about similar issues before. I still think it’s a brave book which throws up some interesting ideas about media, and the relationship between text and images, and if it introduces another generation to Brecht’s genius perhaps that in itself is enough to overlook some of the problems.

Cristina de Middel’s Afronauts is a self-published photobook that has been something of a sensation this year, rapidly selling out, and with second hand copies now commanding vast prices. The beautifully designed book takes Zambia’s eccentric and short lived space program as the starting point for an imagining of an African mission to Mars, with a resulting combination of photographs, drawings and letters that that knowingly reference Afro-pessimism and European stereotypes about the ‘dark continent’. I love the blurring of fact and fiction in this project, and the mixing of medias. A nice touch are the letters which read like Nigerian 401 scam e-mails (another African stereotype de Middel has imaginatively photographed). The book is beautiful looking, it’s a shame that the one on display in the gallery is shown closed and sealed in a Perspex box because having heard so much about it I would have liked to see more of it.

Indeed I feel I’ve heard more about the book than the project itself, collectors and reviewers have tended to rave about it’s beautiful design and the photography itself seems to have almost played second fiddle to this, a problematic tendency in the wider indie photo book world from what I have observed. The photographs are quirky and funny but somehow leave me with a feeling of unease, perhaps because I don’t feel like leave much room for manoeuvre, you either get the joke or you don’t, and I wonder if to some observers Afronauts will just seem like an example of the things it sets out to parody. Perhaps this doesn’t matter, at any rate reasons of length dictate that it is a discussion for another time.

Lastly Chris Killip’s What Happened: Great Britain 1970-1990 explores the effects of the de-industrial revolution which so profoundly changed the social and economic fabric of the United Kingdom that we are still coming to terms with it forty years later. Killip’s black and white, socially concerned documentary photographs are quite a surprise after three galleries of very conceptual work, but pleasantly so. There is a timelessness about these photographs despite their very fixed date and geography. Maybe this is partly due to the subject matter; a mixture of disenchanted, dejected figures and desolate urban and rural landscapes. Perhaps it also stems from Killip’s retracing of ground so rich in history, his Jarrow of 1976 feels as if it might simultaneously be the Jarrow of 1936 and in some respects it is.

My main problem with this work is just the context I find it in, it’s that old problem of putting material of this sort up on gallery walls with short, uninformative titles. I want to know so much more in every case than the information provided, which is deeply frustrating as I’m left relying on supposition and assumption to understand the images. I haven’t been able to find much detail on the exhibition he was nominated for so I can’t judge how much more information was available there, in other words whether the lack of information is down to Killip or a curator. Regardless of this minor complaint, and despite being part of a conventional documentary tradition, Killip’s work oddly feels the most subversive and relevant on show because in a country gripped by austerity, with Thatcher just buried and her ideological successors in office, what Killip is offering us seems so painfully recognisable.

The Deutsche Börse Prize is on at The Photographers Gallery until 30th June 2013, the winner is announced on 10th June

Refugees From Time: Progress, Nostalgia, Photography

Even in a cynical, post-enlightenment age our understanding of the passage of time centers very much around an idea of progress, that today was better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. Exceptions to this model, hugely destructive wars for example, are often explained away either as being instigated by groups that are intrinsically resistant to progress or are characterised rather paradoxically as necessary ‘sacrifices’ for the better tomorrow that will inevitably result. The old argument that war at least results in technological innovation and social change for example.

But there are more inexplicable anomalies, eddies in the tide of progress. One that I find particularly fascinating is that even as things allegedly improve we frequently find ourselves returning to the past, or a shadow of it, in the form of nostalgia. The word comes from the Greek for ‘homecoming’ and ‘ache’, reflecting its early origins as a medical condition, a form of homesickness frequently suffered by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from their mountainous homeland.

Untitled-1

Hugh Lee Pattinson, Daguerreotype of Niagara Falls (1840)

Contemporaneously nostalgia has come to describe an emotional response to a memory, typically a positive one of longing for a specific thing or time in the past, still in a way a sort of homesickness for a place once occupied but now impossible to return to. In a sense we are all refugees from time. Although nostalgia can be rooted in something directly experienced, it can also be based not on a lived memory but an inherited, collective, cultural memory. Nostalgia in the sense of Americana or Ostalgie, for example, many of the consumers of which are people born after the periods in question ended, who had no experience of them, who have inherited them through culture, word of mouth and so on.

Where am I going with this discussion? Nostalgia has been a significant theme in photography for at least a decade, something I find quite fascinating. Photography was once a medium that was seen as dangerously forward looking and progressive, it was leaving behind fine art with all the ideology and constraints that came with it. However since the advent of digital technologies there has been a resurgence in interest in analogue processes. Polyester based silver halide film is the most obvious example of this, something which has gone from near extinction to a relatively healthy existence (if a mere shadow of its former self).

Film is joined by more obscure stable mates, tintypes, collidon wet plates, collotypes, daguerreotypes, albumen prints. These are techniques that date back to the very dawn of photography, when they flourished briefly and brilliantly before being rapidly discarded for alternatives which were quicker, cheaper, simpler. The Darwinism of progress selected these technologies for extinction, but now they are being brought back into a very different world. What accounts for this return to these processes by people born decades or centuries after these methods were in mainstream use?

1860_Anonyme_Un_vétéran_et_sa_femme_Ambrotype

Unknown photographer, Ambrotype of a Veteran and his Wife, probably 1860’s

I think a significant explanation must be that many of these redundant technologies appear to solve a basically artistic problem, that of photography’s inherent reproducibility, and therefore its perceived lack of artistry. By being niche, difficult to master and difficult (or impossible) to reproduce, a return to these media allows a photographer to express his skill as an end in itself, sometimes above and beyond the image that is produced. Broomberg and Chanarin’s experiments with obsolete Kodak film (from which they only salvaged a single frame) come to mind as an example of this, obscure, nostalgic photography that is by intent or accident as much or more about the performative side of the art as about the physical product.

Saying this is not to write off photographers working with obsolete processes. Many seem to use them (I think rather unusefully) to just make images that looks as old as the process used (photographing unspoilt landscapes, civil war reenactments and so on) but I’ve seen a few projects that I think really effectively use old techniques in a modern setting to say something. One of my favourites are these images by Eric Omori of paintballers at events near former civil war battle sites. I suppose what I am saying though is that nostalgia as an end in itself seems a bit dubious for photographers, but as a means to an end it can be a fascinating way of saying something about the present. To mangle something Brecht once said, ‘start with the good old things, then turn them on the bad new ones’.

The Invasion of Forgetting

Accompanying my project about the reawakening of memory and history in the context of the Euro crisis is an essay consisting of twelve chapters on subjects ranging from the origins of nationalism to the nature of chance. Individually dealing with disparate subjects, the idea is that together they combine to pose questions about the nature of memory, history, photography and time. They are designed to be printed as separate unbound chapters, which can be shuffled and read in any sequence, further underlining the idea of chance and synchronicity in our understanding of the past. Here is one of several I will be publishing on the blog.

The Invasion of Forgetting

‘Every ten years a great man, Who paid the bill?’1
Bertolt Brecht, Questions from a Worker who Reads

A Royal Airforce bomber during a night raidHamburg, date unknown

A Royal Airforce bomber during a night raid
Hamburg, date unknown

Knowledge of the past is like a great continent. As time passes, people die and direct contact with its events are lost, erosion takes place leaving increasingly isolated promontories of knowledge, bearing little relation to the original geography in which they sat. The channels and seas separating them are the unknowable past, apparently lost forever. The historian, professional or otherwise, attempts to bridge these isles with supposition. Besides death, the causes of the erosion vary, but neglect and catastrophe leading to the destruction of material evidence are the most usual.

Clearly it would be impossible to preserve all that constitutes the past, as much as it would be impossible to conserve total knowledge of even a single second of the present. How much and precisely what gets preserved has a profound effect on our later understanding. Indifference to the present because of the apparent lack of need to protect or conserve it means the task is often left until after it is too late. Few people for example made efforts to record the customs and culture of Native Americans until their obliteration was almost total, the painter George Catlin and photographer Edward Curtis are notable exceptions, early examples of the ‘salvage ethnographer’.

Forgetting the past can also be a defensive measure. W.G. Sebald mused that the devastation wrought on German cities in the closing years of the Second World War produced such a sense of trauma that the ability of Germans ‘to remember was partly suspended’.2  Consequently the event was scarcely dealt with for decades afterwards because in the face of such a trauma ‘the need to know was at odds with a desire to close down the senses’.3  As a result he felt that Germans still had not truly come to terms with the bombenkrieg.

The past can also be willfully forgotten, through intentional neglect, and more actively through the destruction of things that bear witness to it. Burning books or photographs for example, demolishing statues and buildings leave gaping holes in the fabric of history that are sometimes more conspicuous than the thing removed. In Berlin the destruction of the socialist era parliament was advertised as an important stage in German reunification. Prominent East Germans however criticised it as part of a process of concealing positive aspects of East Germany and recasting it entirely as the defeated evil in counterpoint to the positive depiction of the ‘victor’ west.4

1 Bertolt Brecht, Question from a Worker Who Reads (1935)  available at http://www.marxists.org/subject/art/literature/brecht/index.htm
2 W.G. Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction (New York, 1999) p. 24
3 W.G. Sebald, On The Natural History of Destruction (New York, 1999) p. 23
4 Staff writer, Berlin’s Palace of the Republic Faces Wrecking Ball, published 20th January 2006, accessed 16th October 2012, available at  http://www.dw.de/berlins-palace-of-the-republic-faces-wrecking-ball/a-1862424-1