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  1.          Sofa Portraits is now available for pre-order from my website (orders will deliver in October/November)   The pric...

Friday, 31 January 2014

Sans Souci,soldiers and Hitchcock

Here's a picture of my uncle at Sans Souci in Potsdam, Germany in 1936.

Sans Souci means without a care and  is also the name of a book by Christian Boltanski (he's the partner of Annette Messager whose Voluntary Tortures featured here a few weeks back).

Sans Souci features pictures of German soldiers relaxing - visually they are without a care in the world. It's an album kind of book, complete with glassine sleeves. The pictures were picked up at flea markets with key images selected to make up the final album.

The strangeness of the album is seeing German soldiers at play. The album  is a kind of counter balance to the Kuleshov Effect. The Kuleshov Effect states that when you see one picture it affects how you interpret the next one. Hitchcock exemplified it best with his Nice Man/Dirty Old Man examples.

The first sequence goes: 1.  Look there's Hitch, 2.  Look there's a nice lady with a baby, 3. Look there's Hitch, he's being kind and thoughtful. What a nice man! Ahhh!

The second sequence goes: 1. Look there's Hitch,  2. Look there's a lady in a bikini, 3. Look there's Hitch, letching after the lady in the bikini like the dirty old fecker that he is! Disgusting!

That's the theory anyway, but I think he looks homicidal and lecherous in the first one and then lecherous in the second one. Which still proves the point.

So the Sans Souci pictures of Nazis at play works in the same way, but there's a counterbalance. We see people in German army uniforms, so we are geared up to see atrocities and death. But that doesn't come.

That's the basic operation of Sans Souci; pictures that defy expectations. In Private Pictures, Janina Struk (and thank you Mr Fox for recommending it to me)  describes audience reactions to an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum of German soldiers pictures that were taken during the occupation of the Netherlands.

In 2007, these everyday pictures were interpreted by the audience as a 'homage', connections were made not only to the Holocaust but also to the war in Iraq and American propaganda. Struk writes that 'Some said they portrayed the humanity of war while others said they protrayed its cruelty. One elderly Dutch visitor looked at the photographs and began to weep and rushed outside. No one knew what he had seen in those seemingly innocuous pictures.'

The picture at the top of the page is of my uncle, but it's from an album from the 1930s. So there are people in army uniforms, there are swastikas and there are Nazi salutes. Which changes the meaning of just about every picture in the album and makes it hard to untangle.

But untangle it I must. That is my challenge. So my latest book purchase is Sans Souci. I'm looking forward to its arrival.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Belarus, Nazis and Psalm 82/2

pictures above from 82, published by AMC

Martin Toft wrote about walking to war earlier this week which connected to Michal Iwanowski's recreating the walk his grandfather did at the end of the Second World War; a walk that went through Russia, Belarus and Lithuania before he reached his devastated homeland of Poland.

Mention Belarus and it automatically makes me think of the Greatest War Film Ever Made (GWFEM), Come and See. I wrote about Come and See here, it's a brutal tale of a young partisan's walk through the murder and devastation of a country where the policy of extermination went on beyond the camps.

Janina Struk writes about what happened in Belarus (and beyond) in her excellent book, Private Pictures, Soldiers' Inside View of War. She talks about the post-war erasing of memory, the simplification and shrinkage of events into the Holocaust and what happened in the camps and the way in which large parts of the Wehrmacht were absolved from all responsibility as though war crimes only happened in the camps and nowhere else.

This was a result of the Nuremberg war trials. Once the leading Nazis were imprisoned. writes Struk, '...a clear distinction was made between crimes committed by the Nazis and the millions of soldiers who had fought an 'honourable' war. Historian Omar Bartov wrote: 'If the initial purpose (of the tribunals) had been to punish and purge, the ultimate result was to acquit and cover up.''

Struk also writes about the War of Extermination exhibition that toured Germany in the late 1990s and  challenged the myth of the honourable war fought by the regular Wehrmacht soldier and how this shook people out of their comfort zones.

Interestingly, Struk extends the argument and describes how these images could be seen as a wider narrative on war and the use of images, that abuse extends into different wars and conflicts and images such as the Abu Ghraib pictures of 2004 share a family resemblance to those of Jews being persecuted in Europe in the 1940s ( and here's a video of anti-semitism in contemporary France).

She also notes that the reaction of the American authorities to the Abu Ghraib pictures - to prosecute those who took and posed in the photographs, was not so different to the reaction of the Nazi authorities to those who took pictures of atrocities in the Second World War: she mentions the case of  Max Täubner, an SS officer who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in 1943 not for killing Jews, but for photographing their deaths.

The pictures that Täubner took could have appeared in the two volume set  82, published by AMC.

The book is in two parts, both of which feature the private pictures that Struk writes about, the pictures of people directly involved in the events portrayed. 82/1 looks at the material loss of the war; burned out houses and crashed planes. 82/2 looks at the human loss of the war, the humiliations and atrocities, the death, the imprisonment, the violence waiting to be unleashed. Sometimes, the people portrayed (most often Eastern Europeans, Russians or Jews) are shown smiling or giving Nazi salutes

The backs of the pictures are also included (as with Melinda Gibson's great book - it just keeps on getting better and better) so giving the pictures a sense of location.

82 is edited by David Thomson and presents the pictures as they are. The backs of the pictures aside, there is no text so you have to draw your own conclusions and make your own narrative. And as Struk shows, maybe that's not as simple as might first appear.

And the title of the book. There are a couple of psalms, the second of which in particular connects to both the images and the idea that the complexities of war cannot be reduced to polarities of Good and Evil, Wehrmacht and SS, Allies and Axis, West and East.

So maybe the message of the book, and it's volume titles, is not to isolate and demonise what is so obviously evil, but instead to look into our own hearts and question our own behaviour.

A few years back, you would always see banners at World Cup matches reading John 3:16 which refers to eternal life and Jesus. Which is a bit religious for my liking. 82/2 is good for anyone/anywhere. anywhere.

Psalm 82/1: 

God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the “gods”

Psalm 82/2

How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?  Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;  maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Walking Across Europe with a Trolley

Continuing on the theme of Photography and walking, Martin Toft contacted me about his walk to Kosovo in 1999. It sounded interesting so I asked him a few questions and here are his very long and very interesting answers. Make sure you read the section on the mechanics of walking across Europe with a shopping trolley.

Landscape painting, performance, ready mades and land art are all referenced by Toft. I'm not sure everything connects together as simply as that, but it feels that the walking, the spontaneous decision making and the openness of Toft's interpretation of his walk was quite liberating in its openness and its very direct geographical rethinking of the photojournalistic tradition.

An installation of a performance of a man walking alone through Europe to Kosovo

1. Why did you walk to Kosovo? 

My reasons to walk by foot to Kosovo across Europe from my studio in South England was motivated by many different factors. These were a combination of political and aesthetic, philosophical and artistic and physical and psychological. If possible, I will try and unpick and describe some of these as to the best of my ability.

The project itself was conceived as a performance using interdisciplinary activity and presenting it in an installation of photography, video, sound and sculpture using found objects. In essence I was trying to make a total work of art, similar in ambition to the German concept of Gesamtkunstwerk that would engage with everything I was pre-occupied with at the time both intellectually and artistically.

The idea of walking itself began at the time when the UN decided to intervene in the conflict in the Balkan. I was watching TV most nights and witnessed both the ethnic cleansing by Milosevic' troops and the bombing by air by UN forces and felt angry in equal measures. At the same time I was having heated discussions almost daily about the conflict with a fellow student who was a Serbian nationalist. The documentation began with me photographing the news broadcast on television as screen shots (in my book dummy these are presented as contact-sheets).

On another level I also had a desire to go to a war zone, not in terms of being on the front line but rather experiencing an area of conflict and how it shaped the landscape and its people. When I began my walk on 21st July 1999 the conflict in Kosovo was still raging and I had no idea what to expect or what would happen once I got there. In the end it turned out that when I arrived in Kosovo the fighting had stopped approximately 3 weeks earlier.

The walk from my studio in South England across Europe to Kosovo was conceived as a performance piece. It was in essence the ultimate road trip, following in the footsteps and tradition of the great American road trip from Evans, via Frank through to Shore. On a more personal level, I also wanted to travel across Europe at the dawn of a new Millennia and was curious about cultural differences between countries that are bordering each other in the heartland of Europe. In the pictures I took, I wanted to photograph the landscape from the roadside as a position of a passer-by by comparing one country to another as typologies of both places and people I encountered along the road as a I made my way across the European landscape.

On a practical level I bought a map of Europe and drew a Crow’s line from South England to Kosovo and tried to follow it as close as possible with no intentions of wishing to visit any particular site along the way. In contrast, I was interested in the ordinary and my route took me across 15 different countries in Europe.

I was also motivated to produce a new body of work for an exhibition I was planning in 2000 at the Museum of Photographic Art in Odense, Denmark (now renamed, Brandts.dk), The then Director, Finn Thrane wanted me to show a series of pictures from my work on street homelessness in London, but I wanted to do something new as a large exhibition of this work had just been shown in Copenhagen at the Worker’s Museum (‘Sat Ud! Hjemløse i London’ 12.5-17.7.1999) I had been given a space within the museum for young emerging photographers called Platformen, and my exhibition was scheduled at the same time as the annual Danish Press Photography Award exhibition was announced. I knew that many Danish photojournalists would show pictures from the conflict in Kosovo and my intention was to put together a different picture and exhibition about that area.

2. Were there any people who inspired you in photography/art? 

At that time I was studying a part-time MA at University of Portsmouth while trying to make a living as a freelance editorial photographer in London. One of the reasons I began the MA was to challenge my own practice and preconceived ideas about documentary photography. I was pretty naive then, but hungry for knowledge and it was during my studies that I first encountered Duchampian conceptualism and became very interested in land and environmentally-based art often involving elements of performance and video.

Reading Thierry de Duve’s book Pictorial Nominalism which supplies a psycho-analytical interpretation of Duchamp’s abandonment as a painter with the introduction of his Ready-mades in 1913 as an attempt to ‘give painting a new meaning by acknowledging what has happened to it’ and by ‘relating it to the very conditions that made it objectively useless and subjectively impossible to pursue’, (1) was a big catalyst and it gave me the confidence, both on an intellectual and artistic level to abandon or rather ‘leave behind’ my previous practice into photojournalism and B&W social documentary within a humanist tradition. At the time I was also reading a lot of about post-structuralism, and my ideas was informed by Derridean discourse about originality and fixed identity using his method of deconstruction as a tool to re-think my own practice as a photographer.

(1) de Duve, Thierry. Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade. University of Minnesota Press. 1991

Studying west coast artist, Chris Burden early performances and Dennis Oppenheim’s body art works from the 1970s which involved a strong physical engagement using their own body as a material to make and question the possibilities of art and challenging the relationship between artist and audience inspired me immensely. This idea of physicality and pushing your body to extremes in order to make art was a big influence on my decision to walk almost 3000 miles across Europe. As I wrote in my statement at the time, the destination was not the essence of the walk, but merely a stop or ending of the performance. A major source of influence also, was Bas Jan Ader and in particular his last work In Search of the Miraculous, 1975 where he attempts to sail from he East Coast of the United States to Europe. Sadly he never made it and disappeared at sea and I view him as an artist who managed to be both romantic and conceptual and at the same time produce work that is also critical and analytical of his own artistic practice and myth making.

My interest in landscape photography began with reading about early landscape painting from the period of Romanticism notably John Constable, J. M. W. Turner and discourse around the notion of the Sublime. I specifically liked German Romanticism and Caspar David Friedrich. His painting The Wanderer above a Sea of Mist (ca 1818) with the lone figure standing on an rock outcrop and looking away across a wild and ferocious landscape seemed to me to encapsulate both, the solitude I was about to experience but also the feeling of the great unknown and wonder that you feel before setting out on a new adventure. Both, at the same time terrifying and awesome.

My study into Romanticism came about as a diversion from looking at the origins of New Topography in America and the Düsseldorf School of Photography. There is no escaping that I admired (and still do) the work and road trips across America by, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld in the 1970 and 80s and was influenced by the Bechers’ concept of Typology and studied closely the work of some of their famous students, Thomas Struth and Simone Nieweg. It was an interest in photographing a social landscape which was not romanticized and that showed man’s influence on and relationship with the geography of a place - both in terms of the build environment and urbanized populations as well as how we like to control and manage nature through recreational, leisure and national parks  

My walk was also a desire to free up my imagination and make art outside the studio in a spontaneous and uninterrupted manner. I wanted to challenge the distinction between art and life, myself and the work whilst putting myself under intense physical and psychological stress. After all, I had to carry on walking every day, moving through the European landscape until I reached my destination while attempting to make art at the same time.

I was interested in parody and creating an alter ego that would allow me to act out a different role. In my statement I said that; ‘in the guise of a landscape painter (Monet) I began walking through Europe putting myself in the picture as a frontman; my own subjective broadcaster, interpreter and adventurer. I wanted to challenge the artist's social function and explore people's perception of art and its possibilities of creating a dialogue for peace. The European landscape was my canvas to set marks upon and to draw a line. To interrupt and to engage with the environment and with the people.’

In order to be spontaneous and free to experiment whenever an opportunity presented itself I carried everything a painter would take with him on an excursion in plein air i.e. an easel, canvas and paint brushes, tools for sketching etc. – everything except paint itself. I made a number of video based performances along the way, which at the time were pure experiments in engaging with the practice of painting. In my statement I described this as ‘Using my own body as the medium to express, reference and question the notion of pictorial representation and practice through the use of photography and video instead of paint to a canvas.’

Afterwards when I returned home these little spontaneous and environmentally based performance became a series of videos entitled Plein Air 1-5. The visual style of these films was based on silent-movies, especially, Buster Keaton and was filled with humor and sarcasm from my love of W.C Fields. My intention in these films were to challenge the aura of the painting and the artists as genius by using parody in appropriating the process of making pictures outside in nature (plein air) as a continuum of the concept of the readymade. Even Duchamp recognized that the tube of paint, the canvas and even the act of painting as a readymade. He wrote in his notes: ‘thus the act of selecting from paints to make coloured surface was in principle no different from the artistic selection of those other manufactured objects, the ready-mades.’(2). In these video series Plein Air I-V there is the play of repetition, of identity and duality; is it a film about landscape painting alias Monet and the Haystack or a film about making a film. Or, a documentation of a performance of a man attempting to paint a picture. Am I a real painter or just in disguise? It sounds a bit pretentious now, but at the time I really believed in what I was doing.

(2) Sanouillet, Michel and Elmer Petersen (eds.) The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Da Capo Press, 1989 (org by Oxford University Press. 1973.

I was of course aware of the hugely influential work by Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. In my walk I did explore the body of the artists in the landscape, albeit in a different way by recording its physical trace through the use of mainly video which would record 2 sec every 5 minutes of my feet as I made my way across Europe (I will discuss this in more detail later in Q3)  

3. How did you combine photography with walking? 

Use of photography: The way I approached photography while walking was to adopt a pre-conceived formula of using one camera, one lens and video camcorder attached to my trolley I was pulling along the road with all my belongings inside. Aesthetically my pictures are mainly deadpan and I photographed everything horizontally. This was done to represent my peripheral point of view; as you are walking ahead you tend to scan from left to right or vice versa rather than up and down in a vertical movement. All the portraits I made are also in full figure with the person(s) almost dead center. I wanted the portraits to be environmentally based in order to give context and show the area or landscape. In my statement I describe my aesthetics and sensibility as:

‘My accession to landscape photography is my interest in the human made landscape. Landscape photography is often associated with an affirmation of concepts about national identity or nature's divinity. For me it is rather a constellation, a desire for knowledge, an interest to study relationships between nature, culture, identity and landscape - behind or rather besides current representations and associations. In my photography I especially look for that which normally does not get photographed. I endeavor not to take pictures, which are immediately conceived as beautiful or interesting - but attempt to bring different forms of aesthetic meaning to question. My pictures are neither romantic nor socio-political and there are no invested priorities in composition or motif. But the pictures are not devoid of engagement, anger or joy. They can be quiet or busy, but remain silent and are a combination of 'democratic' and 'topographical' photography of the European landscape as seen and experienced from the roadside.’

The process of photographing was to find anything of interest from the roadside. As I was on a mission to reach Kosovo at some point I didn’t deviate from my route, which meant that I could have passed something really interesting from a photographers point of view without knowing it. It was important to me that I focused my camera on what I encountered along the way and not getting distracted with exploring one area. In that respect you could say that the walking itself, i.e. putting one foot in front of the other was more of a priority than stopping and taking a picture. In truth it was a constant battle, as I did not carry my camera around my neck, ready to shoot when a situation or picture-taking opportunity presented itself. For safety reasons and actually more to do with practical considerations as I needing both hands to either pull or push my trolley; my camera was locked away inside my bag on the trolley, which meant that in order to take a picture, I had to stop walking, putting the trolley down, unzip and get the camera out which at times was very time consuming and frustrating if I was on a good stroll. Therefore, in order for me to stop I had to feel a strong sense that this was important enough to record. In my statement I describe my process of photographing as:

‘The point of view from the immediate roadside is of importance since the roads are a network that enable us the freedom to connect with the rest of Europe and its people. But in normal terms we do not think of the roads as a potential source of interest. We use them as mere transport routes between one destination to the other, one place to the next. Roads have a concrete and specific relationship to time and space - we use them to be transported both in time and space, and often with a purpose. Concurrently driving on the road is outside time and space; the travelling time is often experienced as time wasted - you only get a fleeting impression of the landscape that you are passing - and the landscape seldom has a meaning in relation to the journey's purpose. My inclination by walking and taking my time is to 'get off' and explore an unknown and overlooked terrain. What is left, as a remainder of the ultimate adventure is pictorial vestige representing the uninterested and unnoticed from areas of Europe at the turn of a century. Fragments and visual souvenirs captured like postcards that are too late, recorded after or before the event. Postcards that do not inform us about an essence, but a mere existence’.

Use of video: Now, most photojournalist use video as well as stills-camera to try and tell more multi-faceted stories from the frontline. At that time it wasn’t something that I was aware of. For me, at least, it was something new and different using a video camera in combination with stills-photography. As well as making spontaneous video films along the way (as describe above), I also attached the camcorder to my trolley so that it recorded my feet walking in the landscape for 2 sec every 5 mins. In the end this amounted to over 30 hours of video, which was an attempt to remove myself from, being behind the camera and make editorial decisions about what and whom to film. All the 2 sec clips were put together at random and made into a 4-hour loop video viewed as two separate films that are shown on 4 monitors as part of the installation. This video as very fragmented both in visuals and sounds and the idea was to show the fragmented nature of travelling through a place where you only really get to experience brief moments which in your memory and recollections are played out like fragmented images and sequences of events – similar to a dream. In reality, you only remember certain things and it is impossible to represent everything in a chronological and linear way.

A lot of material from that trip has never been used or seen e.g. I have a few   video films made from mass graves and other encounters with people telling their personal stories from both the war in Kosovo, but also video recordings from people who lived through the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina. These video testimonials will be part of my new book layout/design. In any case I didn’t what to make traditional war reportage in a journalistic sense and the films are more observational and abstract rather than person-to-camera interviews.

4. Did the photography interfere with the walking? 

In some ways I have described above how walking and photographing at the same time created some tension between when to stop and take a picture and when to carry on walking. The decision to walk rather than travelling by car or any other more conventional modes of transportation was made spontaneously after a conversation with my mentor and good friend, Finn Larsen. It wasn’t something I had pre-planned or thought that much about, but it seemed the most obvious way of exploring the European landscape and its different cultures. After I had made my decision to walk I was off two weeks later. It was pretty instantaneous and I did not have time to practice, or get myself fit for the physical task ahead.

I remember on day 1 walking out of my flat in Petersfield, Hampshire and making my way down towards the South Downs that this was much tougher than I had expected. In the beginning I only managed to walk 15-16 km a day, but towards the end I was walking 50-60 km a day. On a physical level it was pretty tough as I did in mid summer from July to Sept and had to cross both the Alps and the Dolomites along the way. On a practical level it was fairly ad-hoc as I started with a backpack but soon discovered that this was too heavy and impractical. Upon arriving in Calais, I went to a DIY store and bought a suitcase on wheels. An aluminum trolley that carried all my gear and actually lasted all the way soon replaced this. Repairing and customizing the way I carried my equipment became a daily ritual and I spend many nights sleeping outside DIY tool shops waiting for them to open the next day after another mechanical break down. To represent time and the idea of wear and tear I decided to include in my installation all 3 sets of wheels we worn out pulling the trolley along the road. The total distance I covered was close to 3000 miles (I do have the exact figure in my note books, but they are locked away at this moment in time), and I pretty much walked all the way to Sarajevo, which took me 49 days. 

I had made a promise to myself not to get any lifts, which was at times pretty hard when you are exhausted and someone pulls up and ask you if you need a lift. In total I probably accepted a handful of lifts in situations where the weather was so bad or if it was very late at night. But, I did travel from Sarajevo to Montenegro on an overnight bus because of safety. When I got to Sarajevo, the news came out the Serbian army was defeated and that they were retreating from Kosovo. I didn’t really fancy meeting a Serbian army truck or being stopped by a roadblock somewhere along the road between Serbia and Kosovo so I decided to enter Kosovo via Albania. This seemed like a good idea but in Sarajevo I went to the British Council to get some information and travel advice for entering neighbouring countries such as, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo. I remember I was a bit shocked when I received the print out from the Foreign Office on travel safety for British citizens. In terms of volume the advice for going to Serbia was 2 pages, 4 pages for entering Kosovo and a total of 16 pages about the danger of travelling in Albania. Upon reaching a remote border crossing between Montenegro and Albania I immediately felt unsafe and if it wasn’t for two local guys who helped me and escorted me all the way through Albania to the border town with Kosovo, Kukes I’m not sure I would have made it that far.

5. Does walking change the way you see or interact with 

a)    the people you meet
Walking along the road with a trolley behind you eventually will attract attention from people you meet and passers-by. They will stop and enquire what you are doing and where you are going. In a way this is where the boundary between art and life blurs as you are having conversation about life in general with a stranger but at the same time you are part of a performance. I have travelled on a motorbike around Australia and photographing at the same time and felt that this was an ideal way to explore a place and a people, but walking take this to another level and you not only see things more slowly, but you also hear and smell the area you are in which brings in other senses to your overall experience. In terms of meeting people, walking is a much more softer way of engaging in conversation and allows more opportunities to photograph people in their own environment. On my walk, I often was invited into people’s houses for a drink or small bite to eat. I didn’t accept the invitation automatically as it depended on my schedule. These decisions were also determined, as suppose on me judging this opportunity to be a worthwhile exchange for making a picture. I did not have any specific preferences of types of people whether to do with sex, gender, race or age and my portraits represents a broad section of different Europeans from young to old across different nationalities and cultural and social backgrounds.

On a more negative side, I did also encounter a fair mount of aggravation, mainly from motorists who at times deliberately were trying to unsettle me and in some cases trying to run me over. On quiet a few occasion I had to jump into the ditch. On one specific occasion a black Mercedes driven by the Minister of Police in Bosnia-Herzegovina nearly mauled me, whom 2 hours later had me arrested as I was shouting obscenities after his car drove off. Also, the French Gendarmerie were by far the most obnoxious and difficult of all police and law enforcement authorities to try and explain why I was on the road, what I was doing and where I was going.    

b)   the landscapes you encounter?

In terms of interacting with the landscape I encountered walking made you see and experience the environment slowly and in small incremental steps. Although I was restricted to my view from the immediate road I was also using these limitations creatively forcing myself to find an aesthetic interest in otherwise overlooked areas. I was trying to adopt a disinterested look and often found the space in between houses and building the most fascinating. I deliberately looked for the ordinary and not the extraordinary but obviously I passed through some stunning scenery along the way, especially as I crossed the Alps and the Dolomites, and it was a real challenge not to take the more obvious panoramic view as seen on postcards for tourists. Instead I was trying to bring forward an alternative view of Europe as seen from the roadside. The roads I was walking was meant for cars and often the road network are designed with the priority of getting you from A to B in the quickest ways possible with little regard to aesthetics or any other pleasurable experience. As I have already mentioned in my statement I was looking for

…that which normally does not get photographed. I endeavor not to take pictures, which are immediately conceived as beautiful or interesting - but attempt to bring different forms of aesthetic meaning to question.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Photography and Walking: Do they Go Together

all pictures by Michal Iwanowski

I'm looking forward to the exhibition at Fotogallery in Penarth of the work of Paul Gaffney and Michal Iwanoowski.

Both combine extreme walking with photography. I've featured Gaffney on this blog before for his book We Make the Path By Walking, a project where walking becomes a meditative retreat from the world - a retreat that is at times complicated by photography as Gaffney recognises in this excerpt form this interview.

Over the course of the year, I noticed that my mind was usually preoccupied while walking, and I often found it difficult to remain aware of the present moment for any decent length of time. I also found that the act of photography was often counter-productive to my goal of capturing the sense of experience of the landscape, which often led to a sense of frustration. For example, if you’re walking in quite a relaxed state and you feel drawn to stop to look at something, you can quickly snap out of that moment when the camera comes out and you begin to try to figure out how to compose and frame the picture. 

Also on show is Michal Iwanowski's Clear of People, which is also based on walking and is also a retreat in many ways. This time the retreat is a temporal one. Iwanowski rewalks the path taken by his grandfather and his grandfather's brother in 1945, a path that went across rural Russia, Belarus and Poland. Along the way, they avoided populated areas, sticking to the forests and meadows of the devastated countryside.

Iwanowski walked the same path and lost himself in the landscape and the sky. Time lost meaning and he found 2013 and 1945 become one. He was together with his family as they suffered their way home. This is Iwanowski he says on his website

In 1945, my grandfather and his brother escaped from a war prison in Kaluga, Russia, and crossed over 2,200km on their way to Poland, where they were reunited with their family. 

As fugitives - the walked only at night, and avoided contact with people at all cost. Surviving on berries, mushroom and occasionally stolen potatoes or a cabbage, they endured extreme hardship and weather adversity.   

Yet throughout the journey, their determination and their brotherly bond kept them alive and kept them going.

In the summer of 2013, I retraced their epic journey and documented it from the perspective of a fugitive - staying Clear Of People. The journey took me from Kaluga, Russia, across Belarus, Lithuania, to Wroclaw, Poland, where my gradfather had found home and lived to be 92. His younger brother is still alive, and lives in Szczecin, Poland. 

The show at Fotogallery preivews on Thursday February 6th and I will be in conversation with both Michal and Paul on the evening, which is something I'm very much looking forward to.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Max Pinckers dos and don'ts: Question Yourself, Question Everything

all pictures by Max Pinckers from Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty

A late arrival on the Do's and Don'ts lists of last year, here is Max Pinckers. Max has made his hugely successful profile of Mumbai, the Masala-styled Fourth Wall. The book of that series has sold out but he's following it up with a book on escapees from Forced Marriages and (Honour) Family Violence. It's called 
 Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty and it's coming out  later in the year and ...

you can pre-order it here. 

And read my book review of the Fourth Wall for Photo-Eye here.

And an interview with Max for the BJP here.

Max Pinckers Dos and Don'ts

I’d like to start by saying that there aren’t really any rules in photography that need be followed. Although it’s always good to create some for yourself in order to construct certain restrictions, developing a space in which the need to maintain such restrictions stimulates a creative approach. Start with a concept, an abstract notion, an idea. Mold it, challenge it, write it down and discuss it until it’s purified to such clarity that you can recognize it when scanning the environment and surroundings. Train your eyes to see, and not just to look. When in doubt, always reference back to the initial idea, regroup and re-examine. If necessary, start again (a mid-project crisis can be very healthy). No one will give you the idea, it won’t be hiding from you either, it will present itself to you when least expected. The tricky part is recognizing it (and its potential value) when it does.

Don’t let your subject highjack the initial concept. Subjects have a tendency to grab all the attention, leaving little room for interpretation that goes beyond what is visible in the photographs. This is where choosing the right subject is of quite some importance, although not crucial in conveying your intentions. A subject is of course necessary, but only functions as a vehicle with which the initial idea is communicated. From my experience, subjects that already have some form of fiction incorporated within them seem to work best, providing a stage onto which Reality somehow reveals itself every now and then by exposing its own veil. This is an approach that goes hand in hand with (documentary) photography, its indexical relationship to reality yet its impossibility to contain it.

Give your idea and intentions the space to breathe and develop. Avoid making typographies, one dimensional photo series or the use of repetitive image strategies. Challenge every image with a fresh and critical approach towards the idea. Combine images to create narratives. Become a storyteller. If you can’t seem to find a way to translate what you want to say into a still image, try using words, other people’s images, found footage, sculptures or videos.

Listen to your images. Let them talk back to you and you’ll be surprised with how much they can teach you about yourself. Above all, always be critical and question the medium, the subject, the approach and your own position.


Friday, 17 January 2014

Voluntary Tortures

‘A few months ago I was putting some things away in a closet that I rarely ever go near – I hate it, because it’s such a mess – and quite by chance, I found eighty-one photographs that I had completely forgotten about, prints I had made in 1972. The were part of my piece Les Tortures Volontaires.
And that gave me the idea of suggesting it for this book with Hatje Cantz.’

So writes Annette Messager in her book Voluntary Tortures. It’s a lovely book. It’s large-sized and comes in a buff cardboard slipcase and contains 81 pictures of women (and 1 man) having their breasts squeezed, skin exfoliated and bellies shaken; a book of  voluntary tortures then! 

This is what Messager says at the end.

‘These days, people’s bodies and faces are remodeled, regenerated, transformed, and fantasized – whereby, adhering to socially defined standards.

Unlike wines, which change over time and acquire their bouquet with age, we humans never give up the struggle against the natural processes of time.’

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Isabelle Wenzel's Stand Up Sculptures

Isabelle Wenzel is another artist who (like Melinda Gibson in the previous post) participated in Brad Feuerhelm's call out for investigations into his archive.

Wenzel also investigates the female body and how it is represented in fashion and how dress, posture and function are used to distort and depersonalise in traditional female jobs and roles.

She used to be an acrobat/contortionist so all the pictures here are also self-portraits; and they are a check-list of various fashion tropes (starting with Guy Bourdin) which gives them a life and makes them both funny and subversive. They're performance, still life, sculpture, political commentary and stand-up all in one. And they look fantastic.

Add to that the low-tech way that she makes her pictures, using a self-release button on a Canon G12 (that might have changed by now). She sticks it on a tripod and then dashes into place to get the shot in the 10 seconds available. And if she doesn't get it she does it again... and again... and again...

More on that here.

And here's a video of her posing and if you go here (Just after 5 minutes in), there's a video of her actually making pictures - "Everything I did before was stupid. And this is also kind of stupid... but there is something interesting." Tremendous!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Miss Titus gets her Knickers in a Twist

Brad Feuerhelm has an archive of weird and wonderful pictures and he lets photographers use it. Last year he put out a call for photographers to make new work out of old; he let them mess with his archive.

One of the nine women to respond to his call was Melinda Gibson. Retina-scanned and with fingers inserted into white gloves, Gibson was given free reign in the climate-controlled bowels of Feurhelm's London Headquarters of the Weird and Wonderful.

She by-passed the medical curiosities room, gave a barely a glance at the war trophy-photography cabinet and cocked a snoot at the contemporary taxidermy section.

Instead Gibson headed to the pin-ups. She selected key images and made a book of them. But not just any book. It's a kind of annoying book that I'm still not too sure about, but then again for a book that I'm not too sure about, I sure spent  a lot of time looking at it. The book's called Miss Titus Becomes a Regular Army Mac and that title is the first annoying thing about it (and if you go through the book you'll find out why it has that title).

The next annoying thing about it is it's handmade, beautifully - so you know that Gibson spent an inordinate amount  of time on it. It's gorgeously made, tactile in a paper wrapping with a kind of glassine sleeve cover (to go with the archive picture theme). It feels lovely in the hands. Wait a minute, that's not annoying, that's good isn't it. Perhaps a bit of envy is creeping in here. If schadenfreude is taking pleasure is someone else's pain, then freudenschade is the word for taking pain in someone else's pleasure. It's just too darn smart!

Anyway, the cover is annoying. It has a text by Feuerhelm which is rather dense in the way that only photography texts can be dense - but it makes sense. It tells you what the book is about and how it was made.

Oooh, how was it made? Well, the pictures are from an archive, a lot of them are from old libraries so the backs of them have titles and dates and other marks. So Gibson only goes and incorporates that into the design and overall concept of the book.

How does she do that? By being triple annoying and making one of those books (see Ben Krewinkel or Brian Griffin) where the pages are 'French-folded' so that to see the pictures you have to cut the pages - you have to destroy the book to see the book.

Now that completely matches the origins of the images and adds a certain theatre to the book. It makes you work to see the images and because you've worked so hard you really want to see them. And because the pictures are all of women in various poses (mostly glamour poses but there are suffragettes in there as well), that cutting of the pages, that stripping away is rather symbolic.

So it's a book that makes you work to see the images, where the images connect to their origins, where multiple layers form multiple narratives (including the narrative of construction)! Fabulous.

Below is a review I wrote of the book for Emaho Magazine  - written as I cut the pages open.

Buy the Book here.

Melinda Gibson’s new book, Miss Titus Becomes a Regular Army Mac is a book about a collection of photographs, a response to a collection of photographs or an examination of how that collection has been used. Or perhaps it’s all those three things. It’s hard to tell.

The collection in question is Brad Feurhelm’s. Feurhelm’s collection is one of photographic curiosities, the marginal and offbeat.

So Miss Titus is an investigation in some way. The first thing I notice about it is the beautiful packaging. The first layer is loose tissue, the next is orange paper (with the title mirrored in white) and then more tissue stuck with orange stickers (like the ones you get to mark sold works at some exhibitions).

Then I get to the book. It’s a small book, which is bound by three brass staples at the spine. The title is written on card that appears beneath translucent paper that has been folded over and joined at the spine. Oh and look, slip your hand into the gap and the title is on a card insert that pulls out. There’s an explanatory text  but it is kind of dense and it’s too early in the morning for that  – so I put it to one side and move on to the book which is a far more transparent way of reading the text.

Inside the book I don’t see the pictures that I expect to see. Instead I see the backs of the pictures I expect to see, complete with titles, notes, addresses, bar codes and credits. There are pictures with traces of glue on them, showing they’ve been ripped from a scrapbook or album, pictures from digital printing sites, pictures or porn stars that are FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION.

These draw me in, but still I can’t see the pictures because, with only a few exceptions, the pages are folded over and stapled at the spine. I bend the folds and sneak a peak but that’s kind of unsatisfactory. So what do I do? If I cut the pages, then I destroy the book, but if I don’t then I don’t see the pages but at least I preserve the book as the collected fetish it is supposed to be. And it is supposed to be that – the special edition is even for sale in the Louis Vuitton Maison Librairie in London, something which transforms the fetish into something even more vulgar than the collectible photobook and has me gagging to get my old puritan hairshirt and scratchy underpants out. LV? What does that packaging do to the book?

Anyway, back to the book. The folded over page format is one that has been used in a number of photobooks in the last few years, most notably by Ben Krewinkel’s A Possible Life. Here the visible pages show the official documentation and immigrant identity of Gualbert, a migrant to the Netherlands. Cut the pages open, and the friends, family and hopes of Gualbert are revealed in a series of personal artefacts. The  impoverished, depersonalised Gualbert become a real person, his Possible Life came alive.

And so it goes with Miss Titus. The visible pages show the hidden dynamics of the pictures; the notes and the traces of their lineage. They tease me into wanting to see the pictures underneath, they make me work for the pictures, make me invest my time in hypothesising about what lies beneath. They make me agonise about cutting the pages open and wrecking the book. Or am I wrecking the book? Perhaps I’m just modifying it in some way? Perhaps I should do what I did with A Possible Life and have two copies, the cut copy and the uncut copy.

So after an inordinate amount of time and consideration, far more time and consideration than I normally give to photobooks, I get cutting. I can see a shadow of the first image on the visible page and when I cut, I see the original. It’s a picture of a semi-nude woman (from Hawaii maybe) wearing a garland of leaves around her neck. Opposite there’s a picture from Chicago of a semi-nude woman with fairy wings. I go back to the caption. It’s Muriel Page and the visible caption says her ‘…wings are burned from her back many times a day on the stage of the Harding Theatre…’ What does that mean. Back to the picture and still I’m none the wiser. I’ll be puzzling over that for the rest of the day.

And so it goes on; glamour shots, nudes, Grace Slick and there’s the title picture of Miss Titus becoming a regular army mac. Miss Titus is Susie Titus and the picture shows her learning ‘military etiquette’ in basic training in World War Two. She’s shown in a line of women marching towards a mess hall. But which one is Miss Titus we do not know. The title does not tell it all and nor does the photographic composition. For all the guessing and the hypothesising and the close-reading, there is a shortfall in information.

More pictures come. Suffragettes, a kissing male couple and women in service are a counterpoint to repeated pictures of women posing for a male view. One titled Complete Man exemplifies the book. A woman comes off stage from some kind of nude review. She’s naked except for a heart shaped piece of material over her bottom. And as she leaves the stage a man looks at her and she looks at the man. His body is inclined towards hers, his left hand blurred in movement. But she looks right back at him as she walks past him. If he’s the Complete Man, then she’s the even more Complete Woman, almost as complete as the Hawaiian Hula girl who appears in the last picture of the book. This last picture might be produced for the male gaze but that’s not how she’s posing. Her legs are crossed, her arms are down and her hair is down. She is who she is, no matter what the photographer does.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Suite Francaise and Colloboration

Following on from the amazing Auschwitz and After by Charlotte Delbo, I read Suite Francaise by  Irène Némirovsky . Némirovsky was a Jew who then wrote about the German invasion and the responses of different people to the occupation.

It's a compelling book in which one's sympathies are allied to those who preserve their humanity through their daily relationships with both the Germans and their French compatriots. It's deeply critical of bourgeoise France, of those who seek to preserve their privilege and power, culture and wealth using the rhetoric of patriotism and class.

Instead, the real dignity lies with those who live, love, and resist - with the occupying forces and against them. The astonishing thing is the manuscript  was written at the time of the German occupation. And that Nemirovsky was deported to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. As such, the book (which was unfinished with only two out of an intended five volumes completed) is incredibly human and stands in some ways against the post-war rhetoric of collaboration and in particular the scapegoating of women who slept with German soldiers. Maybe that would have changed in the later volumes but you get the feeling that Nemirovsky had priveleged insights into the institutional workings of wartime France (or any other country for that matter).

In Suite Francaise, the people who stay human are the novel's equivalents of the women who had their heads shaved in the picture above  by  Capa. And the ones who are guilty are those who spout the cultural and class rhetoric of the Republic and engage in deep collaboration with the Germans; these themes were to have been developed in further volumes which were outlined but never written.

But then isn't that the point of Capa's picture in the end - that the only people who have any dignity are those who stand in the foreground of the pictures, that however much ideology you spout, to be human you have to be human. And in the picture above, with her love for her child, the shaven-headed woman is the only human being human.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Auschwitz Before and After by Charlotte Delbo

I read Auschwitz Before  and After by Charlotte Delbo after I was sent it by Deborah Parkin. It was a battered old copy complete with annotations from when Deborah was doing Holocaust Studies. And it didn't exactly seem like cheery reading so I never quite got round to it.

But Deborah badgered me and so I started reading it. I've never read anything quite like it. As the title suggests, the book follows Delbo through different layers of suffering. At Auschwitz, Delbo (who was in the French Resistance) describes how survival is not something that happens but something you choose; and the longer time goes by and the more you suffer, the harder it is to choose - death is the easy choice, death is the human choice, the choice where comfort, release and all the soft emotions lie.

As Delbo says...

'They expect the worse, not the unthinkable.'

The more Delbo suffers, the more she becomes one with her surroundings; the land, the water, the mud, the cold, the sun. Her whole being seeps into the mud that she struggles to walk through when it's wet. Cold cuts through to the depths of her being in Winter, and when she gets a chance to wash herself in a stream, her feet and nails have merged with the socks she has not taken off for so many months. Even the salvation of spring sunshine comes at a cost with the realisation that it's much harder to die when it's hot. The Summer means a longer death with more suffering.

At the same time, Delbo also becomes one with those around her. She is both an individual who must reach into the deepest recesses of her mind to survive, but also part of an organic community identity. When the cold, fatigue, hunger, thirst, pain or despair get too much, it is the other women in the group that will save her, if save is the right word because the depersonalisation and pain ran so deep, the cruelty so all-encompassing as exemplified in this quote from the book.

"I was standing amid my comrades and I think to myself that if I ever return and will want to explain the inexplainable, I shall say: “I was saying to myself: you must stay standing through roll call. You must get through one more day. It is because you got through today that you will return one day, if you ever return.” This is not so. Actually I did not say anything to myself. I thought of nothing. The will to resist was doubtlessly buried in some deep, hidden spring which is now broken, I will never know. And if the women who died had required those who returned to account for what had taken place, they would be unable to do so. I thought of nothing. I felt nothing. I was a skeleton of cold, with cold blowing through all the crevices in between a skeleton’s ribs."

And then there is After Auschwitz when Delbo returns home to France and the suffering continues in psychological form. With the constant battle for survival gone, nothing is real anymore. The suffering she has experienced distances Delbo and her fellow concentration camp survivors from the remainder of society. Delbo visits her old comrades and they describe how they are surviving; in a half-life where questions are constantly asked of everyone they meet - what would this person have done in Auschwitz, how can this person possibly understand what I have been through, how can I laugh with my children when...

Strangely enough, the book wasn't depressing at all. It was horrific, compelling and illuminating but had overtones of life in it while still being brutally visceral. Anyway, if you are remotely interested in history, the holocaust, survival or landscape, or humanity in its broadest sense, Auschwitz Before and After is essential reading.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Best Interview of 2013: Stacy Kranitz

The very best thing about writing for the British Journal of Photography is that I get to interview (skype, email, phone and in person) a whole bunch of photographers from around the world. It's a real joy to get to talk to people who are so coherent and passionate about their work.

I don't know if it's my imagination, but it seems that the intelligence, insight and humour that people exhibit when communicating about their work is increasing. There is more engagement both with the history of different photographic media, with the broader world and with different areas of discourse.

I read a lot of doom and gloom  about photography and hear the limiting voices that says one should only photograph with film/instagram/large-format, the voices that cripple you by telling you what you can't photography, what you shouldn't photograph, what you mustn't photograph (and there are voices on the flip side of this that neuter photography and try to denude it of all its political and psychological power - thanks fashion).

Or there are voices that place photography into a little ghetto that isolates image-making from the broader world, that wants to keep it in the cosy pond where the big fish continues to eat the little fish and the little fish eats the prawn - and as long as you are the big fish then everyone (as long as that everyone is the big fish) is happy.

But the world view of photography is getting more open and with that openness comes more engagement. It's engagement that does not sit still or focus on just one area. It goes beyond journalistic, academic and aesthetic. It can be personal or political or aesthetic. When it matters, it's a combination of many things. It's eclectic which means the engagement is not unified or coherent, but why should it be. As Dr Frankenstein said when the monster walked, It's Alive! That's what matters. When it's something you care about, being Alive is better than being dead.

So next up in my Best of 2013, is Stacy Kranitz for the Best Interview for a story on youth cultures in October's BJP - though really I could have chosen so many here. Best as in most interesting, original, though-provoking and engaging. And done with a hangover from a bed in Appalachia (that's her, not me). Combining skateboarding, Leni Riefenstahl and anthropology, all wrapped up in wit and intelligence and self-depreciation, focussing on some of my favourite projects on the last few years - what more could a writer ask for.

So thank you Stacy and thank you to everyone who so graciously agreed to be interviewed by me over the last year.

Here's what I wrote for the BJP.

Sex and Drugs and the Frankfurt School

Stacy Kranitz has been photographing at Skatopia, an anarchist skate farm run by former professional skateboarder, Brewce Martin,  for over 5 years now. Skatopia is. The people who visit the Ohio farm go for the skating, the music and the drug-fuelled fun. Kranitz goes for the violence and the chaos, her pictures filled with sweat, blood and the bug-eyes of teenagers coming down off a night of tripping on whatever drugs they can get their hands on.  

Kranitz’s work on Skatopia, From the Study of Post-Pubescent Manhood, is more than your usual chaos-filled photo-essay though. It is tied down by solid photographic and anthropological theories and also has its roots in Kranitz’s difficult childhood in a Jewish Kentucky home.

The contradictions in Kranitz’s life were evident in her early inspirations in photography. “I had always wanted to be a documentary photographer or film maker since I heard about Leni Riefenstahl when I was 15 or 16,” says Kranitz (who is now 37). “She was incredible. She used her sexuality to make this incredible work but she was also a liar and used gypsy slaves as extras in her films then put them back in the concentration camp when she was done. I like my heroes flawed and she was flawed.”

Having Riefenstahl as a hero led Kranitz directly to the project that preceded and led to Skatopia, a project where she joined a group of 500 Second World War re-enactors dressed in Nazi uniform as they played out a Battle of the Bulge re-enactment. It’s a project where she confronted the darker parts of history and made it real by becoming part of it.

“I was feeling frustrated with the ethical constructs of the documentary tradition, a frustration that is related to how I navigate the situation. It’s really easy to make images that make fun of people. I wanted to come up with something gives some dignity,” says Kranitz.

“Leni Riefenstahl so that was my character when I was with the re-enactors. I am Jewish so it was very interesting to see how people related to me when they found out who I was.  Some were very protective of anything that was being said. For example, once we were in a French Resistance café and the Gestapo came and took people out for different reasons and shot them. I think I was in the role of a whore and they took me out to shoot me. But somebody complained and said “you can’t do that, she’s Jewish”. Which doesn’t make any sense at all.”

The project mixed elegant black and white portraits of men in Nazi uniform with pictures of Kranitz fully in role. The star picture is of Kranitz in the arms of a man wearing a Wehrmacht waffenrock, her head tilted as she leans in to kiss him. The desire is looks cinematically real as, in the foreground, two other men in Wehrmacht uniform look in and out of the frame, adding a further layer of conviction to the historically fabricated scene.

These layers of confusion between the real and the fantasy, between the genuine anti-semite and the imaginary anti-semite, became more convoluted as Kranitz immersed herself in the Riefenstahl role and a sexual element came to the fore. “I’d get hit on a lot and people would ask me what is your heritage and then I’d say I’m Jewish, then they’d look at me and have a drink then have a think and conclude that “you’re still a woman” even if you are Jewish and still hit on me. Hatred fluctuates, it ebbs and flows and sometimes one thing will outweigh another. I was pushed up against walls and yelled at and called an Israeli spy, but I liked the fact that it was difficult and I had to gain people’s trust.”

“By becoming Leni Riefenstahl I put myself into the project and it gave me the idea of fantasy and that representing reality is a fantasy,” says Kranitz. “So I’m being more performative in the work. I’m an experimental, performative photographer!”

Kranitz laughs when she says this but the self-deprecation doesn’t conceal her belief in this performative methodology, something she put into action when she first went to Skatopia 5 years ago. “There’s usually about 10-20 people living at Skatopia full time and when there are parties you get 100-500 people there.  The owner of the land, Brewce, has a house and people have built shacks. People live in a shack, stay a while, then abandon it and new people come and take it over. It’s open all year round. Some people don’t skateboard, they come because they’re down on their luck or on the run from the law. It’s anarchist but not in an organised way.”

“I had heard about Skatopia and how kids ritualised violence for catharsis; a lot go to party, they hold their hands out to do whatever drugs people put into them (there are lots of new synthetic drugs there) and of course skateboarding is very violent. It’s repeated falling off. People are throwing fireworks at each other, they burn cars up, there’s a mosh pit and people fight for pleasure, anger and catharsis.”

“It’s sort of tolerated and expected and that is really beautiful,” says Kranitz. “I grew up in a really violent house. There was a lot domestic violence from my father and later on my brother too because it’s all very much a learned behaviour.”

“I loved my father because he was trying to be a good father but he couldn’t control his anger. I grew up in an upper middle class house in an upper-middle class neighbourhood  so you wouldn’t expect it. The cops would come to our house every week, and it was very confusing and very insular. It became this dark thing we couldn’t get out of.”

“So I’m looking for these different levels of families where people create their own value system and sense of right and wrong and Skatopia is such a wonderful place for that. It is a very open place which is very accepting of people with cameras. I first went with a friend but later I had a boyfriend there for 3 years (every project I do I get a new boyfriend. I have a lot of projects on the go at the moment so I have a lot of boyfriends) and it infiltrated my life to the point where the personal and professional merged.”

 “But Skatopia has been well documented. It’s been on MTV and there was a film made about it called Skatopia: 88 Acres of Anarchy. It’s been featured in magazines like Rolling Stone but very much as a lifestyle thing. So I was trying to do something different with the place. For the first two years that didn’t happen. It took me a long time to develop my own visions. I’ve been working there for five years now and I’m still developing it.”

To help this development, Kranitz is bringing in new streams of thought into her photographic practice, especially from anthropology. “People dismiss anthropology for its dark history but I think they are doing the best job examining their own past to forge new ways of engaging with how to represent culture. Photojournalism is shamefully behind, there is so little self-reflexivity.”
Kranitz references Katherine Stewart as an influence on her work (which is also part of an MFA she is studying for). Stewart believes that over-intellectualising things gets in the way of understanding the incoherent and inexplicable elements in a society. “I see myself, like Stewart, making work that I hope destabilizes the very claim of knowing the meaning of things at all because culture isn’t something that can be gotten right,’ says Kranitz.

Another influence apparent in Kranitz’s approach is Michael Taussig, an anthropologist who said that that western anthropologists shouldn’t examine other cultures but should  examine and critique their own defective culture by going to the fringes of that culture, to the places where the joins show, something Kranitz is doing by joining the Skatopian community.  

“What’s new in my vision is this collection of violence being portrayed as a catharsis. It’s stylised and fetishized and I have an abnormal love of young guys with their shirts off but I wanted to show evidence that violence can be cathartic.”

So we see pictures of bloodied noses and bloodied knees, shins scraped raw by repeated skating falls, dirt filling in the places where the flesh used to be. People smoke and snort and go bug-eyed when the drugs go bad. One boy tries to pee into his mouth, a man stands in the midst of exploding fireworks, while other pictures show people crashed out the morning after the night before.
There is an adrenalin-edge to the pictures but also a sense of dysfunction and anxiety that is part of what attracted Kranitz to the place in the first place.

“I felt connected to this violence. It connected to my childhood and it’s part of my history so I can connect to that personally. I also shot all of this when drunk and high. My favourite time to photograph is at dawn when people are coming down and at that edge; either they stop partying and go to sleep or they take some more and carry on. But they always take more but so do I because I’m at that edge too.”

“A lot of this is trying to get to this lost youth I didn’t have. I was a very sad adolescent. I was depressed and didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t party like this, so Skatopia is a place I can do that. It’s a fantasy land.”

At the same time, Kranitz says, “I struggle to know what the fuck I’m doing”. There is a lack of control in her work, a de-intellectualisation that runs counter to the deep thought she invests in her working practice. In that sense, the instinctual, full-frontal photography that Kranitz is making is her own catharsis or healing, changing her way of thinking and her life through the way she photographs and communicates.

Kranitz continues to photograph at Skatopia but is also visiting the people that she meets to broaden the scope of the project. “The Skatopia pictures are very specific and hyper-focussed so I started to build relationships and visit these kids. I’m making films and thinking about intimacy because as I got to know these people I realised a lot were reconciling themselves to coming of age and how they want to exist in society; what job they want to do, what kind of women they want to date; that’s where the post-pubescent title comes from.”

To a large degree, Skatopia is a male-centred society where those ‘post-pubescent’ choices are actively sidelined in favour of an adrenalin-centred libertarianism; in which case, Kranitz’s work is a lot more nuanced than might appear to be the case on the surface. This is backed up by her studies and her linking of her practice to photographic (James Agee and Walter Benjamin are two major influences) and anthropological theory and the way in which she uses this to rationalise the way in which she works and lives; the two becoming inseparable so that she is all the better to immerse herself into whatever environment she finds herself in.

“I’m doing an MFA and I work with the anthropological department because I’m interested in the problematic nature of documentary.” From the Study of Post-Pubescent Youth is one side of this study into how documentary can work, but Kranitz is in the early stages of developing a more comprehensive showing of her work, one where she incorporates journals, sketches and other sources to enrich the visual narrative.

“I’m interested in creating a new methodology. That’s what keeps me going. That and challenging the boundaries of the history of documentary photography. But at the same time, by doing that I celebrate the history in every way I can.”