Wednesday, 23 March 2016
Great - this is the last book on my pile of books to review. And it's a good one.
The blog will have a break for a while.
Beyond Maps and Atlases is Bertien van Manen's latest exploration into the existential nature of photography and place. As with all her work, the pictures in the book are conversational in tone, an extension of the van Manen self with snapshot pictures made with serendipitious roughness.
But while in previous books like A Hundred Summers, A Hundred Winters, East Wind and West Wind, van Manen is looking outwards towards worlds and peoples she is getting to know, in Beyond Maps and Atlases, the work is more inward-looking. She's part of it.
In this sense, it shares more with Easter and Oak Trees, van Manen's fabulous and joyful version of the family album. She's in that work in the fullest sense, invested in her husband and her children, invested in a representation of her younger self.
Van Manen is also evident in Beyond Maps and Atlases, but in a far less celebratory sense. Here there is a tiredness and a sadness that link to the mythologies of Ireland, that are projected onto the symbols that van Manen finds in Ireland, symbols that are ultimately left behind in a miasma of otherworldliness. This is a depiction of something out of reach. You feel the touch of grief in the work.
Maybe that's because you're supposed to. The introduction to the work on the Mack website goes like this;‘At first, working in Ireland I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. My husband had died. I dispensed with the people and reflected on the atmosphere. I was guided by a feeling and a search, a longing for some kind of meaning in a place of myths and legends. There was mystery and endlessness at the edge of a land beyond which is nothing but a vast expanse.’
So the images link in to this atmosphere of mortality. Van Manen merges with Ireland and with photography and a the absence becomes apparent. It's an afterlife of a book, of spectral presences, of figures covered in a mist-like haze, of those older Irish women who really 'know'. Her husband isn't there and, in some way, neither is van Manen.
Read an interview with Bertien van Manen here.
Buy the book here.
Parties, style and subculture are at the heart of so much great photography. In Africa, Malick Sidibe's pictures of Bamako (both inside and outside the studio) are just one example, and Billy Monk's pictures of the clubland of apartheid-era Cape Town are another.
And then up comes Fuck It by Michele Sibilioni, a book on the nightlife of Kampala. It's a mix of party shots, street life, preachers and prostitutes, interiors and expats. It's not about style, identity, community, or performance. It's about the bare bones of the night time affair.
It's the night-time economy of an African city and as such, it doesn't have the style of Sidibe, Monk, or Stromholm or Andersen. It's a different kind of photography, one that's rough around the edges, but the energy, the service economy, the dicey decor will all seem very familiar to anybody who has spent any time in a developing capital, or actually anybody who has ever spent a dicey night out anywhere, developing or otherwise.
There are fights, pools of vomit, three-card tricksters, bad tattoos (that's where the 'fuck it' of the title comes from - the front thigh of a woman, a penis drawn right below) and faces, black and white, blanked out from drink and drugs; another night washed up in Kampala. Sound familiar?
The interiors are great too. Sibilioni's camera looks up to the rafters or down into the corners of rooms, to functional grids of iron and wood, to splattered corners of stone and concrete.
Colours are off, grain is big, and the streets are dark and washed in green, paths you travel to a commodified world filled with bad sex and bad security guards.
But strangely enough the parts add up to a bigger whole. They tell a story that, though not entirely coherent does make a sense of sorts, and captures the mood and the moments of night in the city just off centre stage, on the fringes where the rough starts to show.
Buy the Book here.
And have a look at Nsenene here. Sibilioni makes lots of really good work.
Tuesday, 22 March 2016
Moises Saman's book Discordia is a record of 4 years of photography in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.
It's a record of the Arab Spring then. At the back of the book Saman tells stories of fixers, translators, and managing passage across borders. He talks about being part of the press pack in Libya, of being on a helicopter that crashed while rescuing Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, of seeing the cuts disfiguring the Assad tattoos on Zakariyya, an Assad loyalist who had turned himself in to rebel forces in Syria and was facing a unpleasant future.
But the thing that sets Discordia apart is the mood of the book. It's about the events in North Africa and the Middle East over the last five years, about the transition from demonstration to protest, to insurrection and outright war, with all the gradations in between, but at the same time, it's more than that; it's one of those few and far between books that create a visual template of what conflict might (to those of us who have absolutely no interest in going anywhere near it) look or feel like, and how it happens.
Fake blood spilled in hospital, Libya
In terms of great war books, off the top of my head (because that's how this blog works) you can go from Vietnam Inc. which is the mass overview of the military rhetoric of war and how that matches up against a photographic version of reality (the two realities don't match), to Gilles Peress's Telex Iran, which is more revolution, which tells us that nobody really has a clue what is going on (there is no reality), with a side-step to Baudrillard and the idea of the First-ish Gulf War as a figment of CNN's imagination (there is no war), where the visual language of smartbombs and night time visuals that look like something out of a 1980s video game there serve the idea that this was a high-tech victimless war that was somehow clean and just.
Makeshift swing in mosque previously occupied by Syrian soldiers
In Discordia, there is no war; instead there are a multitude of wars going on. It gets beneath another kind of rhetoric and because of that you can add it to the list of great war books. Here, war is shown on the ground, in the streets, in back offices, derelict mosques, concrete alleyways, and rubble-strewn streets. There is no distance here. Death, mutilation and torture takes place at close quarters and everybody who takes part or is taken part on is connected to the places where death happens. If Vietnam Inc. shows the disparity between the rhetoric and the reality of war, Telex Iran says there is not reality, and Baudrillard says there is no war, then Saman is saying that war is local, that there is no 'war', there is only violence - by people, of people, against the people.
Death happens in places where people live, in houses, apartment blocks, and schools. It's a neighbourhood affair. Once it happens, it doesn't leave. It stays in the form of the bullet holes, shrapnel blasts, and bloodstains that are left behind. And the smell of that death, the fear, the anxiety, the terror, they all stay behind.
Marae. 2012. Fatima reacts after seeing the body of her dead son, 25-year-old Habib al-Akramah, tortured and killed by pro-Assad militias in the city of Aleppo.
That's what Discordia is; a mapping of war. This is where it happens, enacted by people who we maybe know in places that we live in. It's a community affair. The bombs aren't smart here and the destruction goes far deeper than that of property or even life. Everything is destroyed and we see that in the piles of chairs, and beds and barbed wire that we see throughout the book.
There's much more to Discordia than that, but that is what sticks; the mood, the locality, and the completeness of the destruction. It's a very depressing, but incredibly powerful book; a great book.
Buy the book here.
O Vazio é um Espelho (Emptiness is a mirror) by Carine Wallauer is a modest but rather lovely handmade book from Brazil.
It's an existentialist experiment in how we 'project ourselves onto the other'... 'an invitation to touch the face of a stranger on paper, to feel the objective and subjective textures of the different layers of the self'.
It's a beautiful and delicate book. When it arrived in the post it was wrapped in reflective silver paper. Open it up, there's a threaded layer of translucent paper, take the book out and the title is embroidered on the cover in reverse (there's the mirror again).
The cover shows a fragment of a face, but fold it out and we see the portrait featured above; bare shoulders, cracked lips and sad eyes on an empty beach.
We see a woman walking naked on sand dunes, so there's isolation (and the sand dunes always remind me both of Shoji Ueda and of Antanas Sutkus' pictures of Sartre on the Lithuanian sand dunes).
We see the face more, rolling through a half-frame effect, the expression turning from smile to a half-sewn up page of emptiness. There's the void, there's the nothingness.
Wallauer says the book is an experiment, and so it is. It's a small but thoughtful experiment that (though not entirely successful visually) finds expression in a modest but beautiful book where the pictures, the stitching, the folds, the paper make for an object that is lovely to touch and that create and serve the mood of the title. And I expect the experiment is ongoing, because the investigation into who we really is never ending.
See the book here
Buy the book here.
Monday, 21 March 2016
Got to Go by Rosalind Fox Solomon is a great book with a great cover. It's a picture of a lady in a bathtub, well-but-not-too-well coifurred with bling-ringed fingers reaching up to touch a face that has an expression of confusion, doubt and realisation all wrapped in one. Oh, and she's sitting in a bubble-filled bathtub. That's very evident, but the focus is so drawn to the face that it didn't really register the first few times I saw it.
So how much do I know if I can't even see that the woman in a picture of a woman in a bubble bath is in an actual bubble bath. Is there such a thing as bubble-bath blindness? Because if there is I have it.
Essentially, the picture is a realisation of Rosalind Fox Solomon herself because the book is an autobiography of sorts, both of her life (Is it though??) and of the history of women (again, is it though??), and the story of a mother's life and a relationship to a daughter (is it though??).
It has words that convey her sentiments as a woman, and the ideological bombardment that accompanies that status, combined with pictures that encompass her career and mirror the stages of her life in various ways. Or is it all about mother, in the more oppressive sense of the word?
It's a fluid kind of work where the words and the texts come together, move apart and are never quite pinned down. As it says in the Kurt Vonnegut quote at the back of the book.
'All persons living and dead are purely coincidental, and should not be construed.'
And you can link that to the statement on her website which goes like this:
“I GOT THE NERVE TO DREAM OF MAKING SOME GOOD PICTURES IN MY LIFETIME AFTER I LEARNED ABOUT EUGÈNE ATGET & JULIA MARGARET CAMERON. ATGET LAUNCHED HIS WORK ON THE STREETS OF PARIS WHEN HE WAS 40; CAMERON WAS 48 WHEN SHE FIRST PICKED UP A CAMERA TO MAKE HER EXTRAORDINARY PORTRAITS.
I STARTED TAKING PICTURES
WHEN I WAS 38.
MY FIRST PORTRAIT PROJECT WAS AT FIRST MONDAYS, A MARKET IN SCOTTSBORO, ALABAMA.
IT BEGAN WITH BATTERED DOLLS.
WHEN I COULD MOVE CLOSE TO THE DOLLS I BEGAN DOING THE SAME THING WITH PEOPLE.”
And then we're into the story of Solomon's life, or a 'construe' of Solomon's life.
It's the story of prescription drugs, neuroses and never being quite good enough in oh-so-many ways. It's the disappointment of being a daughter to a reactionary mother who judges in ways that are arbitrarily spiteful, passing judgements that are made in lines that accompany pictures that extend this vision of girlhood and womenhood beyond the immediate to the more universal. It's the life that Solomon has led, but it's also the world that we live in. Solomon is everywomen here.
The lines flick from Solomon to the people in the pictures and back again. When the lines stick, they bite and take you trailing into a world of neurosis, anger and a sharp, sharp wit. But you're never quite sure who the pictures are sticking to; is it Solomon, the people in the pictures, or the family. This is the line that goes with the cover picture:
'i never knew which I hated most; my breasts, my nose or my name.'
That's one that sticks and it leads into a series of body parts; a nose job, droopy breasts and buttocks being ironed flat. There's sarcasm (the lady who likes being taken care of):
the acme of a lady
will make life
i like chivalry
a man's arm helping
up and down a curb
i'm not independent
why should i be?
i'm spoiled rotten'
Or there's the naughty girl. With a picture of a naughty-looking girl. And a caption that says:
There's nakedness, bad dads, spanking, cancer, suicide, infidelity, old age and death. Does it all hang together perfectly? The text does. It tells a story of manipulation, control and delusion from within.
'mother says, i like male attentions of all kinds
because i'm female through and through'
Mother doesn't come out of it very well then, but nor does father, who loves and chastises and is something of a bit player in all this.
Who this archetypal mother is and what she symbolises is the heart of the book. And it does read like a mix between Solomon, her mother, and a symbol of defeat, but then maybe that's reading too much into it all. Maybe there isn't a story to construe?
Except of course there is, because the pictures, which are beautifully made and filled with nuances that link up to the text, direct us in very particular social and political directions. And there's a little bit of vengeance in there that has a cracking good taste to it, and not a little bite.
Buy Got to Go here.
Friday, 18 March 2016
My pile of books to review is getting smaller and I'm not going to review anymore for a while once the pile is gone. Otherwise the blog becomes an exercise in pile management and it's just painful, which really won't do.
But in the meantime, really interesting books keep on coming in, not least of which is Sam Ivin's Lingering Ghosts.
Ivin graduated from the fabulous Documentary Photography Course in Wales (which I teach on) and Lingering Ghosts was part of his graduation project. It consists of portraits of asylum seekers who have been waiting for leave to be granted, who are living in limbo as they wait to get the lift from asylum seeker to refugee, from where they can start planning a new life.
But if that leave doesn't come, if permission is not granted, then nothing can be started, you live a life not knowing if you'll be sent 'home' the next day, to a home that no longer exists, a home that is surrounded by imprisonment, torture and fear. It's a desperate position to be in - and that's where the title comes from.
And that's where the images come from, images where the eyes are scratched out, where the identity is violently mutilated.
After Ivin graduated, Fabrica saw the images, gave Ivin and residency and helped him make this book. But before he did the scratching process by which the images of the refugees became disfigured to match their limbo-like status, was intensified. The original photographs were printed onto aluminium and then the scratching became something sharp and vicious.
So there's a physicality to the pictures, and this is matched in the book. It is a large sized book designed so that the integrity of the original prints is preserved (and I'm guessing the original idea may have come from photographers like Ben Krewinkel's and his A Possible Life ).
The book comes in a passport format (which is oversized and so doesn't quite work) and the images are presented right side, with a passport symbol of the country of origin on the left. So the picture above is of a girl from Eritrea - she's been an asylum seeker for 7 years. A mass of scratches covers her eyes, which become bleached white panes of nothingness, and then the scratches spread out from there, wiping everything out at the centre but sharp and piercing at the edges - here is where the size of the book matters. You really feel the violence and the pain of the suffering, all rendered in visual form.
So it's the physical prints that matter, the ones where the aluminium (I think) shows through, and the book presents the collection of prints. And tells stories and thoughts and feelings of the people photographed.
"Everyday the same. That's it. You can't plan for anything. You just need to wait until you finish then you start to plan for your life. But before, before you finish asylum, there's no plan, nothing. You just need to wait for the out,"reads one story.
"I'm hoping hoping, hoping, hoping," reads another.
Buy the Book Here
Thursday, 17 March 2016
all pictures by Nico Baumgarten
How the Other Half Lives by Nico Baumgarten is a homage to Jacob Riis's exploration of immigrant life in the slums of New York . But instead of showing us the lives of immigrants, Baumgarten shows us the lives of cats. 'He goes there so we don't have to.'
So it's a kind of psychogeography of Riga (and elsewhere) as lived in and seen by cats. I quite like that idea. It comes with a text (told from a cat's point of view) which I'm not made keen on.
But the pictures and the idea is great and moves us beyond the anthopomorphic. It's a photographic version of the Secret Life of Cats - this was a programme that aired in the UK a few years back. It showed us what cats got up to when we weren't looking - basically going through other cats' catflaps and stealing their food. This is the same kind of deal, but in a very urban setting, with cracks in walls taking the place of catflaps.
We see the sheds, the openings, the cellars, the cracks in the walls where these street cats (and they are street cats that feature - proper feral, mange-bitten beasts)
You see their prey, the live pigeons and the dead pigeons, the opportuniites and the dangers - a bare alleyway, a dented pavement, a stretch of open concrete. And the places to hang out, relax and rest; a comfortable stoop, a puddle of water, a derelict building where a pile of bricks makes for a suitable resting place, an abandoned car with broken windows, a line of boxes.
There is also mortality in there. We see the corpse of a cat (and one of a pigeon to match), but that's the price for urban living, It's Riga! as we know it, all derelict and grey, but from a cat's eye point of view.
buy How the Other Half Lives Here.
Tuesday, 15 March 2016
Oh my giddy aunt! It's a new book by Scot Sothern.
Scot Sothern is best known for his Vice Column (the not-so-subtly titled Nocturnal Emissions). This recorded his adventures in the land of low-life Los Angeles, in particular in the 1990s.
And Low Life was the title of the photobook he made of that time, a time when Sothern was living in high-speed crisis mode, a large chunk of which was dedicated to the buzz of visiting prostitutes in LA during the years of the crack and HIV/AIDS epidemic. It's a strange book, a kind of punter's eye view of prostitution. In that sense it is completely unlike most other photographic representations of prostitution - it's not attractive in Sothern's pictures, it's not alluring or glamorous. It's a client's eye point of view for sure, in the fullest sense of the phrase, but with something else added.
But it's not neutral either. Sothern gives it a pulp overlay which takes in a different direction. That might confuse people. The visual messages are mixed - and the text mixes them up some more. Perhaps that's why it hasn't had as much attention as it should have had. Or perhaps people genuinely don't like it. Maybe people should genuinely dislike it. I really don't know. Or perhaps we prefer our prostitutes to be portrayed in a more orderly fashion.
Ethically and visually, it's massively questionable, though not as questionable as owning an iphone, or eating at MacDonalds, or shopping on Amazon, but you know, these things are relative. But then so most interesting photography or art is questionable. On this blog, I've featured so many ethically questionable projects, from Donald Weber's Interrogations (where Weber photographed prisoners who were intimidated/threatened/tortured by the Ukrainian police he was associating himself with), to Stacy Kranitz's pictures of messed up youth and a messed up Apalachia, and Barbara de Genevieve's pictures of homeless men - a project where de Genevieve had an ethical Damascene conversion, decided that the whole ethics and photography question was a load of old guff, did a back flip, and ended up paying homeless African-American men to pose naked in the nearest hotel room.
Having seen a few people perform their theory of what is problematic over the years, I sometimes get the feeling that the main criteria for having the problematic label applied to your work are
a) you are not very good at defending yourself
b) you are outside the immediate clique of those who are critical of you
c) you care too much about the criticism
So criticism is sometimes applied simply because you are not of my circle, or even worse, you are in a circle with somebody who is not in my circle. Or simply because you don't fight the criticism well and so everybody feels free to lay into you. And you care abou the criticism. We see it all the time.
We all have our little grudges and and grievances, but hopefully we are self-aware enough to recognise this and to peg back our displaced outrage on at least some occasions.
So back to Sad City, the book by Scot Sothern. Well, hard as I try not to, I rather like Sad City.
I shouldn't because it's a series of images taken from the seat of a car of the homeless and the marginal, or the drunk and dishevelled. It's not as distant as Doug Rickard's or Mishka Henner's Street View projects (both of which stick with me), but at the same time it's not really work where one can wax lyrical about the empathy, the collaboration and the concern.
Not because Sothern isn't concerned. I think beneath that ethics-free exterior he probably is. He's just not painfully concerned. He's not concerned with a problematic scowl. He might be full-of-shit but he's not full-of-shit concerned. And for that we should be grateful.
It really is tiresome pretending that photography is social work and it can make a difference or change things, that simply showing something can have any long-lasting effect. Photography does make a difference, all the time. It changes how we act and how we think, and it is normally in a negative way. But it does not come from the worlds of the photobook or the concerned. It comes from a different place.
So why do I like it, or more to the point, why do I want to like it. I can't really work out what I think about it. Maybe because it's by Sothern, or maybe because it's published by Tony Fouhse's Straylight, I don't know.
Here it's a case of liking something because of who it's by, or who it's published by, because Sothern's trying to tell a story in a different way, because he's not crippled by self-doubt, because for all its multiple failings, it's trying to take photobooks in a different direction. But that's a positive reason for liking something and it's a reason I recognise. Sometimes you like things because they are likeable, or the people involved are likeable in some way.
Or maybe I simply like it because I'm not supposed to like it. I really don't know.
The pictures are of men standing looking macho on roadsides, of women coming out of clubs and giving Sothern the finger, they're of sick people, homeless people, people with bad fashion sense, it's the whole gamut of the poor and the dispossessed, a beginner's guide to the badness of photography, Susan Sontag, Martha Rosler and half of Frankfurt gene-spliced into one, with polarities reversed all rolled up with a soft chewy pulp-fiction centre.
I like the stories. Some might be from Sothern, some might be from other people,some might be made up. They are stories of gimpy-eyed kids, blind hookers, family violence and small time photo-studios. They're stories of regret, of sadness, of envy and guilt, of squalor. Some of the stories might be true, some might be false, we never really know. It's a series of short stories that roughly tie in with the images, a kind of John Cheever meets Skid Row Elmore Leonard but without a plot or a pinning down. They're about Sothern maybe, but at the same time, they're not. Perhaps that's the part that gives them some salvation, but also their weakness. The stories aren't pinned down, and perhaps they need to be. To make the Sunset Boulevard analogy, it's not Sothern lying there face down in the pool, but to go the full film noir distance, perhaps it needs to be. Because that's who the book should be about; Scot.
Make of it what you will but I like it. Yes I do. I've decided! For now.
Buy Sad City Here.
Monday, 14 March 2016
Union by Noel Bowler is a thing. It arrived in its own cardboard cover, well a cover with 'Union' and 'Full Member' stamped on the front. It's a small detail but it's one that sets you up for the book inside.
Open the outer cover and the wrapping fun continues. The book is beautifully wrapped in brown paper, all tied up with a piece of twine that also has a 'Full Member' tag on it.
And funnily enough, in this world of bijou little photobooks, it's these kinds of details that make a difference, can make you want to look further and deeper, or make you want to look in the first place; there's a basic understanding that a book is something tactile and can be a pleasure to touch (but not in a bad way, not in a dirty way!), and if that's the case, then so can the wrapping. We all like getting presents after all, and half the pleasure is in the presentation.
The book itself is a series of images of the interiors of trade unions. As Ken Grant says in the introductory essay, the work is attuned to that of Jacqueline Hassink's Tables of Power, a book where Hassink's pictures of corporate tables reveal 'photography's ability to glean traces of policy, philosophy, or even fabric from an empty room'.
There are tables in Union too, but the rooms are smaller and the possibility of elevation is not there. So things are cosier in the sense of scale. The decor is different too; box architecture furniture meets ceiling tiles and strip lighting (most of the time).
The exceptions to this functional decor are interesting. A Russian room filled with beautiful tables and chairs that seem built for studying, the power chair in a private office in a US union room, and the brickwork and round table of Britain's RMT union.
The artwork in these offices and committee rooms is fascinating too. The photographs of previous RMT chairmen (I'm guessing) looks down on the above-mentioned round table, hierarchies of history imposed from the wall. Elsewhere, it's a mix of budget-busting pomp, social realism, historical forelock-tugging and pure functionality;a giant mural, a painting of 911 firemen, pictures of the former leaders, or a dull photograph of a sailing ship
There are all kinds of unions represented here, with power structures that work in all kinds of ways, structures that, as with Hassink's Table of Power, you can guess at. And there are guesses to be made.
Buy Union here.
Thursday, 10 March 2016
Jesús Madriñán Boas Noites is a book of portraits of teenagers and young adults taken during the gaps between drinking, dancing and hanging out. They're shot in rural Galicia in Spain and as a whole they are very nice portraits in a very nice book.
There not like Andrew Miksys' Disko, where the subjects are framed by the surroundings, or even defined by the surroundings. The people in these portraits are pretty much left to their own devices when the pictures are taken.
As it says in the website statement:
'Gestures, attitudes and expressions are directly drawn from what each subject choose to show or hide, without any mediation or conditioning on the artist’s side.'
That's what it says but that's probably a bit disingenuous. No mediation? Really? These are edited pictures, they are the ones selected and they are shot in such a way that you only see part of the picture.
So you don't see the boundaries of the interiors (which probably look as crappy as the interiors of any rural gathering of rural youth, be it in Spain, Latvia or Ireland), but then neither do you get the individuals isolated against a white backdrop or a suitably derelict wall. It's not Richard Avedon in other words.
It's quite a common thing for photographers to say, to pretend that they're not doing anything to shape how the picture is read or seen. It seems a bit pointless really. If you're not doing anything to mediate the pictures, why exactly should we be looking at them. It's rather like telling people why you shouldn't look at their pictures.
Of course sometimes there's a reason for it. Sometimes you get the feeling that the statement is for the people who are photographed. I think my favourite 'I'm just photographing what I see, I 'm not doing anything, this is reality' project is David Magnusson's brilliantly creepy Purity - another example of a project focussing on teenage ritual - of a sort.
On his website, Magnusson describes the project thus:
In Purity I wanted to create portraits so beautiful that the girls and their fathers could be proud of the pictures in the same way they are proud of their decisions — while someone from a different background might see an entirely different story in the very same photographs.
Which is rather a case of Magnusson being modest. He's shot the pictures on barren looking landscapes (there's a bit of bible-desert-satan symbolism going on there that might be a nod beyond the beautiful), with the hands-on dads looming over their daughers, and some incredibly symbolic background going on; is that nodding donkey adding to the natural beauty of it all, and it's delightful how that cross looks like it belongs in a graveyard.
It's a great project, but it's not what Magnusson says it is, and I would hazard a guess that he knows it. The statement is not for us, it's for the people in the photographs. Anyway, here is another article on the project.
Similarly, in a less spectacular way, in Boas Noites, you do get to see what's going on, or who's going on, in the background, even if you don't quite know where you dealing with.
So it's all about the who, and the shadowy figures in the background kind of define where and who these people are.
There are lots of great works that show the where and the who of people and places. Raimond Wouda's School is one of the best examples of this, it's artlessly lit large format pictures capturing both the energy and the dynamics of Dutch high schools. This was work that was of interest to more than just the photographic community. I remember showing it to a UK student (non-photography) who had gone to school in Holland and he was fascinated, instantly rolling into the dynamics of ethnicity and place to analyse both who was in the picture (She's Moroccan, she's Kurdish...) and where the picture was taken.
In Boas Noites, the definitions are more shadowy. The people in the hot seat (and very often it is a hot seat - there's some mediation for a start) start off isolated, but then begin to be defined by the figures in the background; figures who point, drink, laugh but mostly just stand there with their check-shirted backs turned.
Then there are the clothes and the poses and the expressions. The dress is mostly Spanish casual, hot weather wear for parties. The poses are varied. There are ill-advised hands on hips (but not as ill-advised as some of the ones in Purity Balls), hands in laps, hands together, hands holding a rose and one guy holding up the two fingers. The expressions are serious - there is a sense that somebody did tell people not to smile (more mediation - though one guy is giving the old smile a bit of a go) because these are photographerly faces. They're not Instagram faces or Selfie faces, they're serious photography faces.
But they are good faces which are given a sense of life by the shadowy flickers of energy we see in the background. These portraits are moments of stillness from a flow that we can see they will return to after the shoot is over.
I don't know if you can take an unmediated photograph. It doesn't really make any sense to talk about photography being unmediated. A photograph is what it is pure and simple, it is a thing free of value, or ethics or moral content. The value comes into how it is made and how it is shown and how it is seen.
In Boas Noites, Madrinan is trying to remove that value from his own input, but that is probably doing himself a disservice. He creates a feeling and a mood, and he links individuals to the social circumstances he finds them in. There's a whole bunch of mediation going on and it's very skilfully done.
There are many people who make photobooks that aren't mediated so well, in which decisions aren't made, choices aren't taken, viewing is left up to the viewer - where there's a sequence of images rather than a narrative anchored to a story. These kinds of photobooks are never very good, because photography is about communication, making choices, and not being random.
And in a world full of random photobooks, Boas Noites is not random.
Buy the book here
Tuesday, 8 March 2016
The end of World War 2 is approaching. The Soviet army are beginning to attack territories occupied by German speaking people in East Prussia. The horrors of Nazi atrocities in the Belarus, in the Ukraine, everywhere, are fresh in their minds. There is no mood for mercy or forgiveness.
The German army is routed. Soldiers are killed or captured or retreat. Only civilians remain, the women and children and old people who were unable or unwilling to join the convoy of refugees heading to western Germany. For these people the war is not over.
It's not over for lots of people. Concentration camps on the verge of liberation are being emptied, their occupants forced on death marches, the final vengeance of the defeated, but still murderous SS. And even for those who survive the Nazi regime's murderous rule, the war will never be over. Extreme trauma never ends. Survival is just that, something that must be endured.
And then there was peacetime Europe. It was not really peace of course. The Allies, including the British, did not cover themselves in glory and were responsible for abuses on a massive scale. And if you were German, and a woman in the newly conquered East, mass rape was the vengeful reality of the Second World War Endgame.
And then there are the children? The German-speaking children. The ones who have been orphaned and find themselves in territory now occupied by the Soviets?
That's where Claudia Heinermann's Wolfskinder steps in. It's a book that records in words (by Sonya Winterberg) and pictures (by Claudia Heinermann, the experiences of those German-speaking children who were left behind by the horrors of the Second World War, children who were orphaned, who found themselves living alone in the forests of Lithuania and beyond. It's a book about people who were on the wrong side, and so whose suffering is somehow not as worthy of those who were on the right side. This is part of a re-evaluation of that suffering, a reclamation if you like of pain and injustice without the qualifications of blame and guilt attached. It's a hard thing to do, because that is still the prism through which we see the Second World War, and very often it is a prism that is unjust and unfair.
The children were called Wolfskinder because they lived in the woods liked wolves. It was a wild, unloving existence that is filled with the backdrop of horrific trauma (a trauma made no less horrific by these children being on the wrong side, or the fact that the Nazis had inflicted far worse atrocities in their invasion of the Soviet Union). These are children who witnessed the deaths of their parents, the rapes of their mothers, the starvation of their brothers and sisters. These are children who survived by scavenging in the forests, by labouring on isolated farms, relying only on the odd crumb of kindness or comfort from local people to survive.
Their stories are told through interviews journalist Sonya Winterberg (who worked with Heinermann on the project) conducted. There's the 14-year-old Eva Briskorn who saw her five-year-old brother Siegfried run over by a Soviet truck, then witnessed four of her other siblings and then her mother die of typhoid, leaving only Eva and her sister Gisela. Gisela got taken in by a German-speaking family, Eva was left to fend for herself. She ended up in Vilnius, where she worked as a maid for various families before getting married. She only found a kind of peace when her husband, who beat her 'from the day of our wedding to his death in 2011', died in 2011.
The pictures are a mix of then and now. There are archive pictures from the family album; the families who died in the second world war, the lives they began to lead.
Then there are pictures of the children now in both the few surviving archive pictures and as they are today, as elderly people, most of whom are still traumatised by the scars of the past.
Most touching are the pictures of the forests where the children lived - and died. We only see the children who were resilient and resourceful enough to be able to survive these lives. The forest is presented as something dense and impenetrable.
As a photobook, it might have been better to make this a book of landscapes, to tell the stories of these children through the metaphorical devices that are apparent in these once lived-in forests. But this is not so much a photobook as a memorial. Heinermann wanted to make something fitting to the memory of the people she photographed. And that is what she has done with Wolfskinder, a book that is the latest in a line of post-memorial photobooks on the Second World War and its aftermath. It is an immense book, a huge size that is not really functional for the fetishised photobook customer base. But then sometimes that's not the point.
Buy Wolfskinder here.
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