Date, 2014
5. Photography versus Contemporary Art: What’s Next?

We have reviewed several aspects of the highly competitive—even love/hate—relationship between contemporary art and photography. Is there anything left to say? Perhaps something about the future of both. They will hardly be able to avoid each other. more

Published: 16.12.2014
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4. Photographers versus Contemporary Artists: Whose Crisis Is Deeper?

Photography and contemporary art are engaged in an entangled relationship with unresolved issues of power. Essentially, photography is one of art’s media, while art is one of photography’s applications. Exactly this is immersing both in an endless chicken-versus-egg causality dispute. Indeed, even if photography is obviously younger than art as such, contemporary art might still be younger than photography—it depends on what we define as the former’s beginning. more

Published: 10.12.2014
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3. Photography versus Contemporary Art: The Case of the Lecture Performance

There is less and less photography (and photographers) in contemporary art exhibitions, but more and more photographs. The photograph is a lens through which we see the contemporary world, which comes to us always already reproduced. Almost every static image we see these days is technically a photograph, since even art critics rarely cross paths with original paintings. In a contemporary art context, photographs abound in “research installations” and archival displays of all sorts; they are shown as a sequence of slides; they appear as stills in films. But recently, they have even begun to star in performances—for instance, in the increasingly popular genre of “lecture performance.” more

Published: 28.11.2014
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2. Photographs versus Contemporary Art: Beyond the Pleasure Principle

I must apologize for the rather long silence, during which I have been traveling, meeting lots of people, while almost constantly in public, which has made it difficult to think, let alone to write. Actually, if I were producing a series of photographs rather than a blog, it would have been easy. I could have made thousands of them (even taking a selfie while giving a public speech—why not, it might have been considered cute!) and indeed post them on Instagram, as mentioned by my co-blogger Casey Smallwood, taking part in the “casual” art production so characteristic of our times. more

Published: 13.11.2014
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1. Photographers versus Artists: A Colonial Story?

In this blog, I will explore—in a necessarily fragmented way—some of the paradoxes inherent to the complex relations between photography and so-called contemporary art, as seen through the eyes of a curator, a writer, and, in the first place, a teacher, since for almost a decade I have been teaching at a school that educates both photographers and artists. Just as an aside: The Rodchenko Moscow School of Photography and Multimedia is a small postgraduate or, rather, alternative art school—set in a country where professional art education still produces mainly nineteenth-century-like academic painters, and photography is being taught widely, but in its purely commercial iteration. more

Published: 01.11.2014
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6. On Digital and Analogue Books and a Possible Scenario for the Future

(I will take the liberty here to describe my wildest fantasies).

Lorenzo Rocha and Andreas Langen in their discussion on September 24 and 25 raised an interesting point that I want to reflect on.

What could be the new medium for digital images? Do digital images need analogue manufactured books as a presentation medium, or something different or new? more

Published: 28.10.2014
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5. A Portuguese Interception

Our journey has brought us from the end of the Roman world (Cape Finisterre) over Santiago de Compostela to Portugal. In Santiago we saw an impressive and interesting group exhibition called On the Road in the restored Bishop’s Palace (Palaco de Xelmirez and Iglesia de Bonaval) next to the cathedral. An ambitious project of the Galician Tourist Board and local administration and yet another example of how contemporary art and photography can be shown in very old buildings (Romanesque architecture of the 12th century).

OntheRoad_santiago (29119)

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Published: 21.10.2014
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4. Distribution and Money, the Frankfurt Book Fair and the PhotoBookMuseum, Cologne

This may be a slightly boring entry, but I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why, in most cases, artists or photographers must supply the publisher with money to produce their book.

As I write this, I am sitting in Sobrado dos Monxes, next to one of the stranger and more beautiful churches near the Camino Real (or Camino de Santiago), only 60 km away from Santiago de Compostela, and far away from the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is currently running until Sunday, October 12.

Pilgrims arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

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Published: 10.10.2014
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3. Honoring Two Great Photo Book Publishers: Gigi Giannuzzi and Walter Keller

Welcome back – now from Jaca, Spain!

AlmostinSpain_komp (29133)

Those who follow this blog may be aware that I am on a road trip through France, Spain, and Portugal. The trip started in Stuttgart and the last location I wrote about was Arles. More about the trip at the end of this entry. And again, to those who follow this blog: Feel free to contact me – I am always happy about advice on where to go, what to see, and who to meet!

In this post I would like to honor two publishers who I had the pleasure to work with throughout the 25 years of my own publishing career. Both died far too early in the past two years, and both I unexpectedly met again during this trip through their books. more

Published: 30.09.2014
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2. What Works in the Photo Book World Today and What no Longer Works?

The photo book market faces the same challenges that most markets are facing these days. This includes overproduction (or "overpublishing," as we call it in our world), a shrinking customer base in the main markets (Europe, USA), changing distribution channels, discount wars, and competition from other media (e-books, online information, print on demand), to name just a few. The competition of the Rencontres d'Arles festival can serve as an example for the current overflow:

All the photo books that were submitted to the book award competition at Rencontres d'Arles, 2014. Only two of them will win awards.

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Published: 23.09.2014
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1. The Current Scene of Photo Book and Art Book Publishing, As I See It

Welcome to everyone following this blog!

I am not a theoretician, nor overly intellectual, nor an art historian, nor a regular writer – just a manic art book publisher who, after 25 years in the business of making art and photography books, has taken a break to consider the years gone by. I am taking a deep breath of freedom now, granting myself the time to indulge my curiosity about our world in general, and that of art and photography in particular, as this was the world to which I have devoted my life during the last decades. So, for a while, I will change my position of an insider to that of an outsider, to explore a different perspective and new ideas. more

Published: 14.09.2014
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5. After Liberalism

One of the most idiosyncratic yet unrecognized trends of the 1970s is how it was precisely then, when the prewar documentary culture from the 1920s-30s began to appear in a new light. Besides the Walker Evans retrospective at MOMA in 1971, which I mentioned in the previous post, the decade started with a series of seminal monographs on the FSA and the 1930s documentary, including Jack Hurley’s Portrait of a Decade (1972), Roy Stryker and Nancy Wood’s In this Proud Land (1973), and William Stott’s Documentary Expression and Thirties America (1973). more

Published: 08.07.2014
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4. Heart of Darkness

The 1960s are dark and phantasmagoric, like an ambiguous terrain vague or “nowhere land” in the periodization of photographic history. I’m not free from that uncertainty about the interpretation of this complex decade. It seems like a moment when the past was not quite over and the future had yet to start. Such ambiguity is evident if we compare Steichen’s The Bitter Years with Szarkowski’s New Documents. Both exhibitions were created within only five years of each other, yet stand for two different historical eras in the same decade. In a way, The Bitter Years is the last hurrah of prewar modernism, a living fossil that represents the peak and the end of the 1920-30s’ innovations. more

Published: 29.06.2014
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3. Excursus: Politics of the Victim

I mentioned in my first post that the rise of documentary discourses between the World Wars resulted from the political need to visibilize the working class in the new media culture corresponding to the era of mass democracy. Both in its “from above” (state/liberal/Griersonian/FSA) and in its “from below” (social movements/revolutionary/worker-photography) versions, documentary rhetoric contributed to this political need, in part through the dissemination of an iconography of a victimized working class.

The production of a poetics of dispossession is a key contribution from documentary methods emerging from the 1930s to social struggles for justice and democracy. Beyond the specific historical prewar context, I think this poetics was a central contribution to the 20th century universal citizenship democratic imaginary, which finds precisely a key historical iconic source in the worker-photography documentary project. I mean, the iconography of a fragile and precarious life is constitutive not only of the project of proletarian documentary, but is in the root of the poetic construction of democracy and justice. more

Published: 19.06.2014
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2. Paul Strand after Margaret Mead

In this second post I’d like to expand the scenario somewhat by introducing a few other possible significant references for an interpretation of the logics of the 1950s.

In 1949, Beaumont Newhall’s 1937 catalogue of the MOMA exhibition, Photography 1839-1937, appeared revised and enlarged as an autonomous book: The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day. Postwar liberal modernist photographic culture now had its foundational text, its Bible. Chapter 10 in Newhall’s book was devoted to documentary, and the genealogy it proposes on the subject remains as canonical as Newhall’s history itself. The genealogy is as follows: first we have the 1860s and 1870s geographical surveys as a pre-history of documentary. Then we have Jacob Riis as the precursor and Lewis Hine as the founding father of 20th century documentary photography, which reaches its complete and most self-aware form with the FSA. more

Published: 10.06.2014
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1. Centrist Liberalism Triumphant: A Postwar Humanist Reframing of Documentary Photography

Hello world!

This is my first blog. I’m not a blogging person and I confess I’m feeling uneasy about the vulnerable improvisatory condition that blog writing involves, a kind of performative public conversation open to doubts and suppositions and maybe to banality :)), rather than solid demonstrative writing. But, anyway: let’s try it.

This blog takes informally, maybe perversely, the title of Immanuel Wallerstein’s recently published fourth volume of his landmark book series on the modern world-system. I will attempt to bring to discussion some ideas and intuitions concerning the postwar reframing of documentary photography as a liberal humanistic (or humanitarian?) discipline. I’ll come back to definitions of humanism further below. more

Published: 01.06.2014
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16.04.–31.05.2014
4. Whitewash: Artist and Models

When one reads this passage [from Martinique by Michel Cournot] a dozen times and lets oneself go; that is, abandons oneself to the movement of its images—one is no longer aware of the Negro but only of a penis; the Negro is eclipsed. He is turned into a penis. He is a penis. (Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Masks)1Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (London: Pluto Classics, 1986) p. 169-70. more

Published: 12.05.2014
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3. A Tale of Two Mapplethorpes

A large retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work has just opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is coupled with another Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Musée Rodin where Mapplethorpe’s photographs—I am not joking—are displayed with various sculptures by Rodin.

Mapplethorpe-Rodin, exposition at Musée Rodin, Paris, from April 8 to September 21, 2014 (installation view by Abigail Solomon Godeau).

As it happens, Mapplethorpe did photograph sculptures (torsos, heads, and backs) in ways not so different from those he used to photograph living bodies, although it seems not to have mattered if the sculptures were authentic, copies, classical, neoclassical, or kitsch. Somewhat perversely (I use the term advisedly), the photographs of sculpture are in the Grand Palais show, whereas the pictures in the Musée Rodin are mostly of living bodies (or body parts) as well as the miscellaneous self-portrait or still life. More to the point, what the exhibition really demonstrates is that for good or ill, Rodin’s sculptures, plasters, or small studies have nothing whatsoever to do with Mapplethorpe’s work and vice versa. Why would they? more

Published: 30.04.2014
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2. Boundary Problems: Addressing History in the Image

In the powerful group exhibition entitled Re-framing History at the Galerie Lelong in NYC, only one of the 21 works on view falls under the rubric of “photography.” But even so, in addition to its seven photographs, fifteen 35mm slides, and a contact sheet, the work includes two videos, a set of 20 matchboxes, and four reproductions of printed matter. I refer here to Susan Meiselas’ mixed-media The Life of an Image: Molotov Man. In fact, within the exhibition it is only Meiselas who would be described as a professional photographer, subspecies photojournalist. The others in the exhibition, Sarah Charlesworth, Juan Manuel Echavarría, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Emily Jacir, Alfredo Jaar, and Krzysztof Wodiczko are better described as artists using photography (as well as video, objects, installation, and text). In some instances, such as Sarah Charlesworth’s April 19, 20, 21, 1978 (1978), even to categorize the three b&w prints as “photographs” is something of a stretch.

Sarah Charlesworth, April 19, 20, 21, 1978 (1978), three black and white prints, reproduced same sizes as original newspapers; dimensions variable (installation view), © www.galerielelong.com

These were drawn from her larger series Modern History, consisting of her photographs of newspaper front pages with all the text (except for the masthead) whited out.1Charlesworth died suddenly this past summer and as is so often the case with women artists, there is now—belatedly—a heightened interest in her work, and one may expect a future spate of exhibitions. Her last retrospective was in 1997-1999, organized by the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art. What remains in the blank spaces are the news photographs reproduced on the page.  more

Published: 22.04.2014
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1. Two Radically Disjunct Approaches

This is the first of five blogs I will be writing for the Fotomuseum Winterthur and, as it happens, the first I have ever written. But because almost everything I write is done on commission, the daunting freedom provided by this kind of blog (“write anything on photography”) is more intimidating than exhilarating. Given such freewheeling editorial liberty, I had to decide whether to orient this first blog to the “general,” or to the “particular.” Both approaches have their problems. As soon as photography is invoked as a generality, that is, as an abstraction (as though its technologies, uses, and practices could be considered one thing), differences are flattened, history disappears, context vanishes. But to write about a particular photographer, body of work, or specific exhibition, seemed too close generically to a journalistic review and a blog need not simply ape the conventional form of arts journalism. more

Published: 15.04.2014
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01.03.–15.04.2014
4. Geographies of Photography

Over the last few weeks I’ve been laying out some ideas about what photography has become, and have begun to articulate some of the ways I use to think about it. In previous posts, I wrote about replacing a more conventional idea of photography with the idea of seeing machines and put forward the idea of “scripts” to begin understanding how seeing machines function, i.e. how they act upon the world. I wrote about scripts as being the range of activities that a seeing machine “wants” to do, and the range of possibilities that those “wants” facilitate, and the range of possibilities that are foreclosed. To illustrate the idea, I used the example of an Automated Number Plate Reading (ANPR) system, and tried to show how the cameras, shutters, and lenses of such as system are totally irrelevant without the “back end” of signal processing, data bases, analytics, search algorithms, and the like. All of these add up to a seeing machine that “wants” to perform a rather narrow range of tasks, and thereby sculpts the world in some very specific ways. more

Published: 11.04.2014
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3. Scripts

In the last post, I proposed that 21st Century “photography” has come to encompass so many different kinds of technologies, imaging apparatuses, and practices that the kinds of things we easily recognize as photography (cameras, film, prints, etc.) now actually constitute an exception to the rule. I proposed a much broader definition – seeing machines. The point of having such an expanded definition is to help us notice and recognize the myriad ways in which imaging systems (including traditional cameras), and the images they produce, are both ubiquitous, and actively sculpting the world in ways that were unimaginable just a few decades ago. Moreover, I proposed that classical photo theory is of little use, and may indeed actually hinder, a broad understating of contemporary imaging systems. more

Published: 24.03.2014
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2. Seeing Machines

In my last blog post, I sketched out some of the ways that traditional photography theory and practice seems to be at a standstill. Contemporary revolutions in photography, from omnipresent digital picture-taking to the advent of hundred-billion image repositories have prompted some practitioners, theorists, and critics to ask whether “photography” (at least as it was once understood) “is over.” I noted that the question has arrived at an ironic time – how could photography be “over” at the exact moment in history that it has achieved an unprecedented ubiquity? more

Published: 13.03.2014
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1. Is Photography Over?

A few years ago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art held a conference about photography – for a photo conference, it had the odd title “Is Photography Over?.” Curators Sandra Phillips and Dominic Wilsdon posed the question as a challenge to panelists, audience members and the world at large. The two-day symposium was an attempt to shake up conventional institutionalized discourses about photography and to be an opportunity to think about what, if anything, has “changed” about photography over the last decade or so.

From my point of view, the fact that the world’s leading photo-curators would even pose such a question turned out to be more illuminating than most of the symposium’s content. Wilsdon and Phillips’ provocation reflects a deep-seated uneasiness among photo-theorists and practitioners about the state of their field. more

Published: 03.03.2014
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15.01.–28.02.2014
5. Archives forever (On History, Two)

Our recent discussions on this blog have set me thinking about the notion of archives in photography. My personal and professional concern is primarily with historical uses of photographic and other archives, but I want to consider these uses from the vantage point of today, i.e. the vocabulary and the concerns of the digital era, which is characterized by perhaps unprecedented “archive fever” (Derrida, as quoted recently by Nils Plath on this blog) or archive fervor, but also by deep ambiguities and problems in the very notion of “archive/s.” more

Published: 28.02.2014
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4. Trove Found at Naval Yard (On History, One)

This week, as happens every so often, a post on the PhotoHistory list forwarded a press article relating the discovery of a “trove” of forgotten photographs — in this case, a collection of 150 glass slides showing scenes from the Spanish American War of 1898, “discovered” in Navy archives in Washington D.C. The article in the Mail Online is entitled “Ghosts of a forgotten war: Naval archivists discover trove of never before seen photographs from Spanish-American conflict of 1898”. Opening with a close-up shot of archivist David Colamaria as he is gazing at a glass slide of the Spanish Admiral, titled “Incredible find,” the article begins: “Archivists at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington DC were going through a backlog of artifacts this week when they came across an unexpected treasure … ‘The plates were individually wrapped in tissue paper and include full captions and dates…,’ said Lisa Crunk, NHHC's photo archives branch head.” The description of the container follows, with the mention of a title and attribution (“etched on the cover”) to Douglas White, “war correspondent.” more

Published: 17.02.2014
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3. Meet Billy the Kid (On Portraiture, Two)

In my previous post I raised the question, “why is it that commercial portraiture, which in the 19th century and into the 20th made up an overwhelming majority of all photographs taken, has received comparatively so little attention in the more established histories of photography?” Maybe the “What if God Was One of Us” video, with its weirdly mixed “message,” does not go far enough to answer this question, except to suggest, subliminally or subconsciously, that commercial portraiture is a game of masks, or fools, and an outdated one at that, perhaps even only appealing today to ethnic minorities and punk heads.

One simple answer is that in most portraits encountered in old albums or today in picture-sharing facilities, there is generally nothing to like or to learn—except perhaps numbers, formats, archival procedures—unless the viewer is related to the subject and in a position to reconstruct stories involving the image. Portraits are usually private. Their merits—the knowledge and care that pertain to them, the aspirations of the sitters through their representations—are private, and often ephemeral; memories attached to them fade fast. In portraits, then, there is nothing to learn or to like, unless some significant context or discourse can be recovered or imagined about them. more

Published: 04.02.2014
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2. “What if God Was One of Us?” (On portraiture, One)

My daughter, 14, had a school assignment about finding and analyzing a song “with a message.” She is very musical, and good in school, but she sometimes seeks our advice. After discussing the notion of “with a message” and searching for possible songs (Dylan, Springsteen, Leforestier, etc.) we thought about a more recent song that she liked quite a bit, “One of Us” or “What if God Was One of Us?” I had heard it sung first by Sheryl Crow but the song, written by Eric Bazilian, was recorded originally by Joan Osborne. The “message,” contained in the title, becomes very explicit in the chorus: “What if God was one of us / Just a slob like one of us / Just a stranger on the bus”. This is not necessarily a religious song, I mean a proselytizing song (Brazilian is quoted saying that he wrote that song in one night “to impress a girl”), but it does talk about faith. more

Published: 24.01.2014
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1. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?

Happy new year everyone on “still searching”.

This is my first real attempt at writing a blog, and I want to thank the Fotomuseum Winterthur for inviting me. I have to beg readers to bear with me while I adjust my academic style to something more conversational, hoping indeed to continue the lively conversation on “Still Searching”. I say continue, because even though I mostly want to concentrate on history — how do we, how should we, write histories of photography today, in 2014? — I would like to interact with previous bloggers here, especially Marvin Heiferman’s very suggestive comments and questions in the previous series.

One big question is about the continuing sense that we are witnessing an “explosion” of images, linked with the digital revolution. Marvin commented on this in his post on “The River”.  This is obvious, and yet it is something troubling, historically, because we have a very large record of previous expressions of the same sense — descriptions and interrogations about “a flood of pictures”, since at least the 1850s. more

Published: 14.01.2014
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