Moritz Neumüller is a curator, educator and writer in the field of Photography and New Media. He has worked for institutions such as MoMA New York, La Fábrica Madrid and PhotoIreland Festival in Dublin. He is the academic director of the Photography Department of IED Madrid, and runs a postgraduate course for the IDEP school in Barcelona. He is a regular contributor to European Photography Magazine (Berlin) and Photoresearcher (Vienna), and has curated exhibitions on artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Yamamoto Masao, Cristina de Middel, Stephen Gill, Gabriel Orozco, Martin Parr, Chris Jordan, and Erik Kessels. Since 2010, he has run The Curator Ship, an online resource for visual artists. Recent curatorial projects include the Daegu Biennial 2014 (Korea), the Photobook Week Aarhus (Denmark), and the exhibition Photobook Phenomenon for the CCCB center in Barcelona.
When anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss put together his collection of fieldwork photographs from the Amazon region, many years after they were taken, he was left with the impression of a void, a lack of something the lens is inherently unable to capture (Lévi-Strauss and Modelski, 1995). Craig Campbell interprets this as a “binding condition” of photography itself: For him, photographs, no matter how real or convincingly true they might seem, “always fail” (1996: 58). In fact, Lévi-Strauss found the smell of his old journals more apt to trigger his (affective) memory, and to bring him back to
the savannas and forests of Central Brazil, inseparably bound with other smells – human, animal or vegetable – as well as sounds and colors. For as faint as it now is, this odor – which for me is a perfume – is the thing itself, still a real part of what I have experienced.
the savannas and forests of Central Brazil, inseparably bound with other smells – human, animal or vegetable – as well as sounds and colors. For as faint as it now is, this odor – which for me is a perfume – is the thing itself, still a real part of what I have experienced.(Lévi-Strauss and Modelski, 1995: 9)
Lévi-Strauss’s surprise when confronted with the failure of photographs to have a mnemonic effect (while other sensory inputs make him remember himself as a witness, as co-present with the artifact itself at a given time and place) can be easily replicated by looking at family albums: “What? Did I seriously have that haircut?”; “Who is the man beside aunt Mary?”, “Where was this taken?”, etc.
Many of the key arguments for the usefulness of photography have been dismantled by post-modern thinking; for instance, the idea of photography as a truthful, objective and disinterested medium. The advent of digital image manipulation has accelerated this process immensely, as it seems easier to understand the manipulative power of Photoshop than other tricks the camera can play on us. The fundamental factor is, of course, the context in which an image is viewed. The history of misidentifications in photo lineups and police portraiture is a good example for this argumentation (Delgado, 2017).
Of course, retouching and cropping has always been an integral part of image production. It also appears, in the form of cutting and tearing, in the realm of family albums. I remember that my grandmother had to make use of her scissors to remove children who made indecent faces or gestures on the family photographs, which of course made it all the more interesting to do them. Choosing the right photographs, while throwing away those “gone wrong” is another editing effect, which can be incredibly useful, in the creation of our family-image, and our (public) self-image.
Finally, photography can be used to change the world. Despite all warnings that a photograph is not a transcendental index of truth, but a subjective interpretation of it, we still want to believe that what we see in an image is true, and thus can be moved, made conscious and even called for action. A well-known example is Napalm Girl, the picture by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, showing a badly burned young girl running naked amid other fleeing villagers. Once the image made it to the newsroom, John Morris had to convince his fellow New York Times editors to consider the photo for publication because of the nudity issue, but eventually they approved a cropped version. When he saw the image on the front page of the New York Times on June 11, 1972, President Nixon apparently wondered, “if that was fixed”—by which he meant “manipulated” (World Press Photo, 2017). Other interesting details: The photographer, born as Huỳnh Công Út in Vietnam, began to take photographs for the Associated Press when he was 16, just after his older brother, another AP photographer, was killed. After snapping the photograph, Ut took the girl—called Phan Thi Kim Phuc—to a hospital in Saigon, where she had numerous surgical procedures including skin grafts, before she was able to return home. Phuc was removed from her university as a young adult studying medicine and used as a propaganda symbol by the communist government of Vietnam. Later, she was granted permission to continue her studies in Cuba, where she met her future fiancé, another Vietnamese student. On the way to their honeymoon in Moscow, they left the plane during a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, and asked for political asylum in Canada, where they now live. But it’s not over yet: On September 9, 2016, Norway’s largest newspaper published an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg after Facebook censored this photograph, which was on their Facebook page, and half of the ministers in the Norwegian government shared the photo on their own Facebook pages. Several of these posts, including the Prime Minister’s, were deleted by Facebook. Nudity was again the problem—although this time it was algorithms that decided not to publish the photograph. As a reaction to the letter, Facebook reconsidered its decision and republished the posts later that day, recognizing “the history and global importance of this image in documenting a particular moment in time” (Kafka, 2016).
The story of this image has it all: The personal involvement of the photographer, and his Vietnamese nationality, remind us of Sophie Riestelhuber’s claim that photographers should rather work in places they know and have control of, instead of going to far-away destinations to cover conflicts they don’t understand. The manipulation and making of an icon (which could be compared to the making of the very different, but also iconic image of the Migrant Mother; see Chapter 1.7), its role in the Anti-War movement, the continuing problem with nudity, but not with violence, in the media, and finally, the story of the photographic subject herself, who is now an UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. The close connection of war, images and lies is reconfirmed by another fact: After one of Phuc’s speeches, Rev. John Plummer, a Vietnam veteran who claimed he took part in coordinating the air strike with the South Vietnamese Air Force, met with Phuc briefly and she publicly forgave him, but later Plummer admitted he had lied, saying he was “caught up in the emotion at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the day Phuc spoke” (11thcavnam.com, 1998). Maybe he was, but the real motives seem to have been the urge to be forgiven, the longing to be part of a story, and the identification with a visual representation of what cannot be expressed in words. The contributing authors to this chapter talk about these issues at stake, and many more, from war photography to activism, via advertising, family albums, architectural photography and the history of the photo booth.
The first contribution is a highly didactic yet still personal text on the relationship between photography and armed conflicts. I first met Rita Leistner at the Portfolio Reviews of the Toronto Photography Festival and was fascinated by her Palladium Prints, made from iPhone images while she was embedded in the Afghanistan War. Later she sent me her book Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan—her own way of processing the current “technological turn in history,” with the help of McLuhan’s theories—which contained interesting references to drones and surveillance imagery. Thus, she was the logical choice when I was looking for somebody to write on War Photography, because she has not only thought about the theme, but had also been present in active war zones.
Useful Photography, the title of the chapter, is originally the name of a magazine focusing on overlooked images taken for practical purposes, co-edited by the Dutch multi-talent Erik Kessels, a publisher, artist, provocateur and co-founder of the advertisement company KesselsKramer. In the following interview, which took place in fall 2016 in Barcelona, Olivia Estalayo asked him about recent developments in commercial photography, agencies, and the ethics of the advertising business. As is well known, Kessels is a keen collector of vernacular photography and the curator of the widely acclaimed exhibition Album Beauty, so it is no surprise that Mette Sandbye mentions his work in her article on the Family Album. Sandbye has researched and published extensively on these themes, and thus was the obvious choice to write on this “understudied part of visual culture.” She also excels at linking “traditional analogue family photographs,” which were taken for a future audience, with the new form of recording our world, that is, digital photographs taken by mobile phones, to be seen immediately by a wide and distant audience. While many of the aspects and functions of this kind of photography remain the same, the practice has changed radically: Less family and more friends, more everyday experience and daily life occurrences, more selfies, pets, and food. In other words: the everyday life made public. This anticipation of the public dimension of a private issue, love (in the best case), and the founding of a new family, is also the core of Wedding Photography, which is the subject of Sandbye’s case study.
Architecture photography, which also falls into this category of useful, or applied photography, has attracted less critical attention than “the history of popular photography” (Wells, 2015: 7), maybe because it not only has to “sell” (or at least show off ) the building and its architect, but also has a more conceptual edge to it: It converts a three-dimensional structure into a flat, publishable form that highlights the main achievements of the building and its creator. In his enlightening essay, Rolf Sachsse reminds us that architecture was the first playground of photography, and highlights the medium’s role in the rise of Modern Architecture. Sachsse is certainly one of the most prominent authors in his field: an architect, photographer and scholar, his many writings cover practically all possible aspects of the relation between the two disciplines, and their fusion into architectural photography. Recommended by PhotoResearcher editor Uwe Schögl, I had asked Rolf the favor of curating a small exhibition on architectural photobooks for the first edition of Aarhus Photobook Week in 2014, and he kindly agreed. Therefore, I hesitated a bit before asking him for a favor again, this time to contribute a piece of writing to this book. I truly thought he would say No, and yet: Not only did he accept but he delivered a solid and didactic essay, and a perfect entry point for anybody interested in the subject.
Compared to heavyweight Sachsse, Érika Goyarrola is still at the beginning of her academic career. She recently finished her PhD in humanities from Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona with a thesis on Self-referentiality in Contemporary Photography, highlighting the work of Francesca Woodman, Antoine d’Agata and Alberto García-Alix. It is fair to say though that her articles and essays for journals and magazines have attracted much attention, as has her curatorial work, especially the exhibition cycle 1+1=12. Encuentros de Fotografía Contemporánea at Institut Français Madrid in 2014. To counterbalance the focus on the globalized barrage of images taken by mobile phones, it seemed necessary to take a closer look at the history of the traditional self-representation machine, the photo booth. Since its invention, nearly a hundred years ago, it has been a fundamental instrument for autobiographical purposes and has become part of one of the major strands of photography in the second half of the twentieth century. Or as Goyarrola puts it, “the photo booth brought a new style, and thus a new viewpoint of photography in particular and visual arts in general.”
The last part of this chapter is dedicated to photography as a way to encourage critical thinking about the world we live in. And—even if a handful of politicians and scientists still want to convince us of the opposite—our world’s major problem today is neither terrorism nor migration, but global warming, plastic waste and pollution of our vital resources, water, air and soil. I met Chris Jordan at the Spanish festival PHotoEspaña in 2005, and was so fascinated by his series on consumerism and waste that I invited him to participate in the festival the following year, with the large-format images from Katarina’s Wake. Since then, his work has become referenced and widely exhibited all around the globe. It was only shortly before I contacted him again to contribute to this book that I learned about Swaantje Güntzel’s work, via an introduction by a common friend. While treating the same issues (plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean), their way of working, and the end products, could not be more different. I could not help asking her right away if she would be willing to participate in a conversation with Chris and myself on the subject of photographic eco-activism, and we set up a Skype meeting. In the resulting interview, I limited myself to throwing in a few keywords, to break the ice, and then let the conversation flow. It is interesting to see that on both sides of the Atlantic, artistic work with an environmentally concerned focus is still having trouble being taken seriously by the art world, and not being put in the drawer of “activism,” a term that according to Jordan, “is deeply infused with hypocritical judgment and telling people how they are supposed to behave.” Güntzel adds that a main problem for her is that collectors don’t trust her market value (as she is not in the high-end segment of the art market yet), but just look at the work in terms of “Would I want to have this in my living room?”, and then decide that they don’t.
The difficult equilibrium between delivering a message and making the work sellable (as art, as news, as a commercial product …) has been an intrinsic problem of the photographic medium from the moment of its inception. However, as photography is much more than art, different to text, film, or music, and due to its ever-changing role in society, as well as its implied truth-value, this situation is unlikely to change any time soon.
Due to the near limitless applications of the medium of photography, clearly this chapter cannot explain the usefulness of photographic images in an exhaustive way. Medical, technical, and didactic images have not been taken into account, nor have fashion and editorial photography. We have tried, however, to analyze some of the aspects and functions of the photographic image in a way that can be applied to others. Mette Sandbye, Rolf Sachsse and Érika Goyarrola have helped to provide the useful images for their articles, which come from historic and contemporary artists, such as Edouard Denis Baldus, Heinrich Heidersberger, Ahmet Ertug, H.G. Esch, Hansjürg Buchmeier, Brenda Moreno and Juan de la Cruz Megías. A special thank you goes to Alasdair and Kirsty Foster for sending us their personal wedding photograph from the 1970s (unfortunately, they have forgotten the name of the photographer). Rita Leistner, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson, Chris Jordan and Swaantje Güntzel have allowed us to use their own works, some photographed by collaborators, and the illustrations for the interview with Erik Kessels come mostly from the KesselsKramer website, except for the installation shot from his 24-hour photo installation at the CCCB, which is courtesy of Marc Neumüller Esparbé.
The camera requires one to be there—a photographer is denied the luxury of philosophizing from afar.Philip Jones Griffiths (1996)
What draws a photographer to war? One photographer’s father was a soldier, another was the child of Holocaust survivors, some photographers are born into conflict zones and begin documenting the war outside their front door, some are looking for adventure or are running from their own problems, while many are moved by political convictions. “I went to El Salvador to see if the effects of foreign policy could be photographed, if it could be visualized; and it can,” veteran conflict photographer Robert Nickelsberg recently told me. All have the personality trait that enables them to run toward danger when others might (sensibly) run away. Most, eventually, come to hold a sense of responsibility to witness and to try and understand versions of living history through photography—so that news reports will contain more truth than lies and the historical record might contain at least some trace of what actually happened. War photography is a sub-genre of photojournalism, whose most basic, primary tenet is to function within the realm of the actual.
I became interested in war because of my uncle Herbert Leistner, an avid reader of history, who had been a Messerschmitt Bf 109 aircraft mechanic for the Luftwaffe during World War II. He came to Canada in 1951 from Germany and eventually started a tool and die business with a Jewish-Canadian entrepreneur named Al Hertz. Uncle Herbert rarely spoke of the war, except to deride nationalism and mass movements, referring to the Nazis’ surge to power. Somehow, as a child, I took on a sense of responsibility for what happened in Germany. At fifteen, and clearly naive, I thought that if I could become a witness to war, maybe I could do something to prevent atrocities like the Holocaust from happening again.
I wanted to be a war photographer from that moment on, but I had no idea how to make that happen. It took me another nearly twenty years to photograph my first conflict. Cambodian government troops had opened fire on demonstrators in Phnom Penh during the widespread unrest of the 1997 elections. It was before the digital age of photography and it wasn’t until I had my film developed at a local lab that night that I realized I had been shaking so badly all the photographs were blurry. A few years after I returned from Cambodia and before going to Iraq, Bob Nickelsberg advised me, only half joking, “Set your shutter speed to 1/500th of a second, shoot as many frames as you can and hope to hell one of them is in focus.” What I’ve learned is that to photograph in such high intensity situations, you have to have a mastery of your tools and of your emotions so that you can shoot composed, meaningful frames on instinct, in the heat of the moment. “Fear is not what’s important; it’s how you deal with it,” James Nachtwey has said. “It would be like asking a marathon runner if they feel pain. It’s not a matter of whether you feel it; it’s how you manage it” (in the documentary film War Photographer).
Before going to Cambodia, I had seen almost every movie made about conflict photographers—Apocalypse Now, Under Fire, The Killing Fields, Salvador, The Year of Living Dangerously—and had read widely about the Vietnam War during my studies at the University of Toronto. But there is no school for war photographers other than a conflict zone. Over the next year and a half in Cambodia, I learned on the ground from seasoned journalists, especially Vietnam War media veteran Al Rockoff who I had first heard of when I saw The Killing Fields—a movie he hates for its fictionalization of certain events on the eve of the fall of Phnom Penh, for which Rockoff was one of very few photographers present. In Phnom Penh, I also met Phillip Jones Griffiths who, six years later, wrote the foreword to a book I co-authored, Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
The journalistic photographer can have no other than a personal approach; and it is impossible for him to be completely objective. Honest—yes, Objective—no.W. Eugene Smith, 1948 (Lyons 1966, 103)
War photography is political because war is political. The first war photographer to achieve notoriety for this profession was Roger Fenton, who was sent to the Crimean War (1853–6) by his employer, the British Government, with direct orders to create images that would contradict negative written depictions of the war appearing in newspapers, specifically the reports of the Anglo-Irish reporter William Russell. British soldiers were advised not to speak to Russell, whom the military establishment “despised … claiming that he was a danger to security” (Figes 2010, 308). Photography was only seventeen years old in 1855 and, with the rise of the illustrated press (thanks to the invention of the high speed rotary press in 1843), was making a mark in newspapers alongside text in the form of wood engravings drawn from photographs. While the Mexican–American War (1846–8) was the first to be photographed, the Crimean War was the first to be covered systematically by photographers whose images were disseminated in the illustrated press, notably the weekly Illustrated London News (founded in 1842).
While Fenton would have witnessed a lot of death and destruction, his pictures needed to be in keeping with Victorian sensibilities and the orders of his employer (Figes 2010, 307–308). Fifty years later, during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), war photographers had clear and personal political allegiances, aligning themselves with a wide range of armed groups, not just the ruling Porfirio regime. Historian John Mraz uses the term “Revolutionary Photographers” to describe those photographers actively working toward political change during revolutionary wars, in contrast to photographers photographing post-revolutionary periods (Mraz 2012, 1–16).
In Regarding the Pain of Others, an influential book of criticism on the subject of conflict photography, Susan Sontag refers to war photographers as “spectators of calamities” and “professional, specialized tourists” (Sontag 2003, 18). Her assessments can rub photojournalists the wrong way, but her warning is a powerful one that the best conflict photographers spend their careers trying to heed: That it is not enough simply to witness—that would be akin to war tourism. It is absolutely, quintessentially, morally necessary to do something with what you have witnessed. Hence war photography and photojournalism rely more urgently than other forms of photography on the modes and means of dissemination of the work after it is made.
Elsewhere in Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag acknowledges war photographers for their personal commitment, especially when this is tied to political responsibility:
The photographer on the street in the middle of a bombardment or a burst of sniper fire ran just as much risk of being killed as the civilians he or she was tracking. Further, pursuing a good story was not the only motive for the avidity and courage of the photojournalists covering the siege. For the duration of this conflict, most of the many experienced journalists who reported from Sarajevo were not neutral.
The photographer on the street in the middle of a bombardment or a burst of sniper fire ran just as much risk of being killed as the civilians he or she was tracking. Further, pursuing a good story was not the only motive for the avidity and courage of the photojournalists covering the siege. For the duration of this conflict, most of the many experienced journalists who reported from Sarajevo were not neutral.(Sontag 2003, 112)
Phillip Jones Griffiths, one of the most important and most politically engaged war photographers, often wrote about the role of photojournalism in exposing lies, noting in one of several retrospectives, Dark Odyssey, “my camera has given me opportunities to witness the deceit implicit in conflicts and my goal is to see through the deceptions” (Jones Griffiths 1996, Ch. Conflict).
What we think of as modern photojournalism and war photography begins around the end of the nineteenth century with advances in the printing press and photomechanical reproduction (in particular the halftone process invented in 1880) (Carlebach 1992, 150), the Kodak camera, and the Boer War (1899–1902) (Whelan 2007, 12). Photojournalism experiences its next flourishing in Weimar Germany (1919–33). This coincides with and is influenced by the increasing involvement of political engagement in other art forms of the period.
Artists like painters Otto Dix (a veteran himself of World War I who painted from experience) and Max Beckmann, playwright Bertolt Brecht, the curator and publisher Ernst Friedrich, and creator of political photomontages John Hartfield are producing scathing anti-war works after World War I. Friedrich’s War Against War! is banned for showing graphic photographs of maimed and disfigured German soldiers kept hidden from society in institutions. Erich Maria Remarque’s historical novel All Quiet on the Western Front describes the brutal physical and psychological hardships of frontline soldiers in the field and after they came home. The Nazis disapproved of anything that criticized war and would suppress all these works.
It is an explosive period for print media and the picture press—especially in Germany, but also in France, the United States, Great Britain, Mexico and elsewhere. Weimar, home of the Bauhaus school of art and the influential school of journalism, the Hochschule, is a hotbed for training politically engaged artists. Moreover, the economic insecurities of the mid 1920s lead a new, highly educated class of men and women into this new field of photojournalism. Until then,
news photography was dominated by men of mediocre education, drudges whose greatest talent was for being en masse in the expected place at the expected time when luck occasionally threw one of them a fluke opportunity to shoot an extraordinary picture.
news photography was dominated by men of mediocre education, drudges whose greatest talent was for being en masse in the expected place at the expected time when luck occasionally threw one of them a fluke opportunity to shoot an extraordinary picture.(Whelan 2007, 15)
Photography also offers more opportunities for the many non-German-speaking exiles in Berlin who lack the facility to read and write in German.
In 1931, Endre Friedman, a 17-year-old political exile from Hungary, enrolls in the Hochschule. He already has Hungarian friends in Berlin, including his childhood friend, the photographer Eva Besnyö. When his family is hit by the economic crisis, Friedman has to drop out of journalism school to look for a job. He turns to photojournalism. Besnyö introduces him to photographer Otto “Umbo” Umbehr and poet Simon Guttmann, co-founders of the Dephot photo agency. From the outset, Dephot is a politically engaged photo agency, created by Guttmann as a means of combating fascism. It is also the first photo agency to adopt a freelance model, paying photographers 50 per cent of sales rather than a salary (Whelan 2007, 27).
By the time the Nazis come to power in 1933, Friedman, trained in photography and galvanized against the rise of fascism in Europe, flees to Paris along with other émigré photographers, writers and artists. In Paris, he meets a succession of photographers and political activists, including another Jewish political exile, Gerta Pohorylle, with whom he falls in love. He teaches her photography and she encourages their political ideals. To get ahead, they invent, out of a hybrid of themselves, the ultimate photojournalist, “Robert Capa”—a dashing, courageous “American photographer” under whose fictional name they publish both of their photographs. But Friedman in effect becomes Capa, and Pohorylle, seeking more autonomy (and credit) for her work, splits off under a new (less Jewish-sounding) name, Gerda Taro.
Taro biographer Irme Schaber describes what distinguished Capa and Taro from other combat photographers at the time:
Their purpose was not to assume the perspective of the weapon typical of many combat photographers. Rather, their emotional, solidarity-based involvement was an authentic expression of their anti-fascist commitment. Taro and Capa sought to transcend the status of the eyewitness, to achieve the perspective of the participant.
Their purpose was not to assume the perspective of the weapon typical of many combat photographers. Rather, their emotional, solidarity-based involvement was an authentic expression of their anti-fascist commitment. Taro and Capa sought to transcend the status of the eyewitness, to achieve the perspective of the participant.(Whelan, Schaber & Lubben 2007, 25)
David “Chim” Seymour is the third photographer in this trio of politically engaged photographers to define modern war photography. The lightweight cameras with faster shutter speeds just becoming commercially available hugely facilitate their work, enabling them to move faster and with more agility, to get closer to their subjects and to work in more variable conditions. The most famous phrase of photojournalism, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” is attributed to Robert Capa, but it is clear that the idea was a collaboration between the three photographers.
On July 26th, 1937, Gerda Taro, one of the earliest, most intrepid and innovative photojournalists and war photographers, is killed in action following a fierce battle between Franco’s Fascist troops and the Republican troops whom she supported (Whelan et al. 2007, 9–35). I have often wondered how different the history of photojournalism and war photography might have been had Taro lived longer.
“Embedding” has long been a necessary part of war reporting. How else could photographer Felice Beato and his cameras have been present during the Second Opium War in China (1856–60) if not for the access he was given by the British military? And yet, 150 years later, on the eve of the Iraq War (2003–), embedding was taken to a whole new level. The main architect of the American embedding system was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Bryan Whitman. Whitman, along with Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, consulted with and was inspired by big Hollywood producers like Jerry Bruckheimer in order to design their media strategies (Knightly 2004, 533). Bruckheimer—the producer of commercial hits like Top Gun, Black Hawk Down, and Pearl Harbor—had a long association with Rumsfeld, having collaborated with the Pentagon under the Bush Administration on an ABC prime-time entertainment series, Tales from the Front Lines (Rich, 2003).
In Bruckheimer and director Ridley Scott’s blockbuster Black Hawk Down, the film opens with empathy-inducing scenes of soldier camaraderie (they are the most absurdly handsome group of soldiers you will ever see), capturing the audience into an emotional rapport with the American soldiers right off the top. You learn nothing about any of the Somali insurgents they are battling. There is no question as to who the “good guys” are and who the “bad guys” are, violations on both sides notwith-standing. Embedding with the military can be like that. It’s admirable to feel compassion for soldiers in war and, especially when they are your protectors, it’s only human nature to want to protect them too. The problem is that it only offers one point of view from one point of access. Embedded, you can get fantastic, up-close photographs of soldiers firing missiles, but you cannot, at the same time, photograph the destruction and death where the missiles land.
Australian journalist Phillip Knightley, one of the most ardent media critics of the embed system, describes its genius:
Every system that the Pentagon had tried for managing the media in wartime before now had aroused the media’s ire precisely because it felt it was being managed. What if, instead of managing the media, the Pentagon incorporated the media into the national war effort?
Every system that the Pentagon had tried for managing the media in wartime before now had aroused the media’s ire precisely because it felt it was being managed. What if, instead of managing the media, the Pentagon incorporated the media into the national war effort?(Knightley 2004, 531)
But some journalists did work unilaterally (the official government term for “unembedded”). There were also photo editors who saw the need for multi-sided reporting and I was not alone among colleagues who photographed the war from both the embedded and unembedded camps.
I am like you, scared of these things.(Iraqi psychiatrist to a patient, in Abdul-Ahad 2005)
One hot September day in 2004, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Kael Alford, Thorne Anderson and I had just returned to Baghdad after covering the Siege of Najaf, about a hundred miles south. During the Siege, the road to Najaf had become notorious for frequent attacks and kidnappings of foreign journalists who, largely because of the embed system, were now seen as one and the same as American soldiers. They became human bargaining chips used for political leverage or criminal exchanges—kidnap any foreigner, and you’d eventually find someone interested in paying to get them back. A week after being abducted on the road to Najaf on August 19, Italian freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni was murdered by the “Islamic Army in Iraq,” a group linked to Al-Qaeda. Baldoni was purportedly beheaded on video, although the footage has never been aired or confirmed (YouTube had not been invented yet). We were relieved to be back safe in Baghdad, with the Siege and that road behind us.
That morning, Ghaith—a Baghdad-born writer and photographer we had crossed front lines with in Najaf—had gone to cover a “routine bombing” when, all of a sudden, American helicopters returned to the scene and fired on a crowd of civilians. When Ghaith arrived back at the al Hamra Hotel he had a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his head and was in shock. He said he had just photographed a horrible scene on Haifa Street in downtown Baghdad; he had witnessed many deaths. (See Color Plate 6.)
Plate 6 Iraqi civilians are left injured and dying after U.S. helicopters opened fire on a crowd who had gathered to see a burning American tank. Haifa Street, Baghdad, Iraq, September 12, 2004. Credit: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad from the book Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
Kael and Thorne, an American photojournalism duo who had been in Iraq since before the invasion, were sitting next to us in lounge chairs by the pool. We were discussing how the Western public had little idea of what was actually happening in Iraq. Thorne said he and Kael had a proposition. We would bring our work together into a website and exhibition that focused only on photographs not taken inside the military embed system, to show people another side of Iraq and to emphasize these two distinct ways of covering war. Ghaith’s devastating images from that morning would almost immediately be published on the new website, iraquncensored.com (later unembedded.com). There would be images of the Mahdi Army fighters we, along with a number of our colleagues, had been “embedded” with over the last months (at the time it was considered a near treasonous act to fraternize with “the enemy,” but today the Mahdi Army is one of the most important allies of the U.S. in Iraq); photographs of the female patients at the al Rashad psychiatric hospital I had been documenting for nearly half a year; photographs of civilian victims of the war, as well as photographs of how daily life still went on in Baghdad—picnics, weddings, amusement park rides, etc. (See Color Plates 7 and 8.)
Thorne set to work right away building the site. We planned to use it to raise awareness and money to mount an exhibition that would tour the United States in an effort to present a picture of Iraq outside the headlines and to sway public opinion against the war. Thorne forwarded the web site to Margo Baldwin, a long-time anti-war activist, and the president and publisher of Chelsea Green Publishing in Vermont. Our intent was not to attack all embedded photography, but to highlight what we saw as an imbalance in news coverage so big, we believed people had no true idea of what was going on.
We were working in the tradition of Gerda Taro, Robert Capa and Chim Seymour and other politically engaged photographers who chronicled the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) as a way to inform the public about the fight against fascism in Spain. We were inspired by Phillip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc., which played a significant role in turning public opinion against the War in Vietnam (Griffiths wrote the Foreword to our book); as well as by Susan Meiselas’s Kurdistan web site akakurdistan.com (which she had funded with money from her 1992 MacArthur Fellowship); and by the 1983 collaboration El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers.
As independent photojournalists working with an independent publisher, we were not motivated by whether or not we could keep “good embeds” (good embeds would be on the front lines, bad embeds would be photographing soldiers handing out candies) or about losing our jobs. In fact, what we did with Unembedded would soon become a much more common way for war photographers to get their work seen by the public. As newspapers began to disappear over the next fifteen years, more and more war photographers and photojournalists were self-publishing and seeking independent funding. Today, most are using the Internet and social media to get their work—and their politics—out there. And many more, like the bloggers and photographers in Syria today, are reporting from their country of origin—because it is increasingly too dangerous and too economically prohibitive for foreign correspondents to travel to war zones. Moreover, the evolution of smartphones into viable photographic devices in 2010 was a critical turn for war photography, putting the power of photography into the hands of countless more individuals than ever before.
The first rule of journalism is to get to where the story is. It takes enormous personal and financial investment to get to a war zone. Working embedded with the military makes war cheaper for journalists and the outlets they are working for. There are photographers who work for and are paid by the military, and there have always been freelance war photographers who foot their own bills and hope to make their money back through stringing and selling stories and photographs after the fact. The list of photography gear is heavy and expensive enough, but add to that bullet-proof vests and helmets, computers, satellite transmitters, possibly a bivouac tent and sleeping bag and, if you are a woman, an array of culturally acceptable garments—maybe even a fake wedding ring—depending on where you are going. The planning, organization, research and logistics of where to go, what to eat, where to relieve yourself, how to get around, and what to do once you arrive is formidable—before you have even taken a photograph. Once there, you need a whack of U.S. dollars to pay for a translator, a driver, possibly armed guards and a tracking device (in case you are kidnapped), not to mention a place to sleep and to charge your equipment. There are no bank machines, no hotels, often no electricity or running water. You have to rely enormously on the help of people who are already there, be they locals or journalists who arrived before you.
Peter Howe’s 2002 collection of interviews with conflict photographers, Shooting Under Fire, and Michael Kamber’s Photojournalists on War: The Untold Stories from Iraq (2012) provide many accounts by war photographers in the field.
There would be no war photography outside the military embed system without the involvement, assistance and cooperation of local citizens, drivers, translators and “fixers” (resourceful individuals with local knowledge who can help get a story) who provide indispensable help of all kinds including translation and logistics. It is usually a business relationship that is often called upon to become something much more personal because of the dangerous and extreme environment you share. What has made the biggest impression on me, is how often strangers and fixers have put their own lives at risk to save mine. No war photographer who has worked outside the military embed system is without similar stories. Even today I cannot think back to these times without being profoundly moved and affected by the kindness I was shown. (See Color Plate 5 for an illustration of just one instance of this.)
Plate 5 Kurdish members of the PKK risk their lives to smuggle photojournalist Rita Leistner into Iraq. After a day of hiking through treacherous terrain under threat of being shot by Turkish border guards, they settle down for the night in a hidden cave along the Tigris River. Taurus Mountains, somewhere between Turkey and Iraq, April 12, 2003. Credit: Rita Leistner from the book Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
Paul Watson, a Canadian writer and photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of the desecrated body of an American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, on October 4, 1993, describes in his autobiography, Where War Lives, the guilt of endangering the lives of others:
That’s always been the hardest part of the job for me: convincing good people, who get none of a newspaper bylines’ ego gratification, to put their lives on the line just because I’ve decided a story is worth dying for.
That’s always been the hardest part of the job for me: convincing good people, who get none of a newspaper bylines’ ego gratification, to put their lives on the line just because I’ve decided a story is worth dying for.(Watson 2007, 31)
As war becomes increasingly dangerous for foreign correspondents, and as it becomes easier to get photographs and reports from journalists already on the ground, local journalism is becoming more and more vital. In 2015 I spent a month working side by side with photojournalists from the Hebron press corps. They called themselves the Hebron Bang Bang Club after the original Bang Bang Club, a group of South African war photographers they admired: Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and João Silva (“bang-bang” refers to the sound of gunfire). Working as a photojournalist in Hebron, getting tear-gassed is so common it is barely a footnote to your day. Every photographer in “the club” had been shot at least once. They joked that if it was a rubber bullet it didn’t count. The Hebron press corps get shot at and tear gassed by day then go home to their families by night. For them, there is no “going to war,” because they are already there.
But whether photographers are traveling to cover wars or are covering wars where they live, a way to sufficiently monetize Internet and social media content is still beyond our grasp. Embedded photography, or the work of Military Photographers (employed directly by the military), could soon become the only economically viable way to cover war. A cursory look at the World Press Photo contest of 2015 shows that most of the winners work for a handful of the few surviving magazines and newspapers that can still afford to send journalists anywhere, or they are working alone. It begs the question of how long the responsibility of recording the visual history of human-made chaos can be borne by a volunteer army of freelancers.
The greatest statesmen, philosophers, humanitarians … have not been able to put an end to war. Why place that demand on photography?James Nachtwey (Linfield 2010, 60)
Journalism is often called “the first rough draft of history.” I was born the summer of the Tonkin Gulf Crisis in 1964, too young to remember much of the war in Vietnam from TV, and just old enough that it was being taught as history by the time I reached university. Today, at the University of Toronto, I teach as history events I myself witnessed and photographed only fifteen years ago to students who were one year old in 2001, the year of the September 11 attacks in New York. It is a fact for anyone fortunate enough to live to middle age, that our own experiences will become someone else’s history in our lifetime. It puts a perspective on the work of war photography, its value and necessity.
Most civilians think war reporters are nuts. Why would anyone voluntarily go somewhere that everyone else is trying to escape? Michael Herr—whose chronicle of the Vietnam War, Dispatches, has near cult status with war correspondents—describes how some soldiers felt about them in Vietnam: “They only hated me, hated me the way you’d hate any hopeless fool who would put himself through this thing when he had choices, any fool who had no more need of his life than to play with it in this way” (Herr 1977, 208–209). Sometimes the reaction is the opposite. Going to a war zone to take photographs can also be perceived as an act of generosity and solidarity by civilians or soldiers who want someone else to see and share their experience. This is the main reason anyone, anywhere helps another person to tell a story. War photographers are sometimes dismissed as being adrenaline junkies and danger-seeking tourists. But the best documentary photographers, photojournalists and war photographers have a strong empathetic side on top of being driven to witness history’s most dramatic events.
War photographers spend a lot of time looking into the eyes of injured souls. Trauma is all around. But the practice of reviewing and revisiting what we have seen, which is inherent to the job, is a kind of self-talk prophylactic therapy. In this way, part of our self-care is built into our work. Many conflict journalists spend the rest of their lives committed to the wars they covered, going over and over them again, like Tim Page, who started photographing the War in Vietnam in the 1960s and has never stopped writing and publishing books about the war, including the 2002 Another Vietnam: Pictures from the Other Side, which honors the work of Vietnamese war photographers.
After putting her long, storied career as a war correspondent behind her, Martha Gellhorn, who had covered wars from World War I, to the Spanish Civil War, to World War II, and the wars in Indochina, wrote: “For all the good our articles did, they might have been written in invisible ink, printed on leaves, and loosed to the wind” (Gellhorn 1988, 2). I would be lying if I said I did not wonder the same thing about my work in Iraq and my subsequent work in Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.
And yet, for journalists and war correspondents it is not just about the end goal, but about what we do along the way, our process and behavior on the ground, the people we meet along the way, the solidary and care we show other human beings, what we do with the work afterwards. Going to Iraq, publishing Unembedded, these were the right things for me to do, regardless of the outcome. Like Gellhorn, we have seen that, “victory and defeat are both passing moments. There are no ends; there are only means” (Gellhorn 1988, 3).
Every new technology necessitates a new war.Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan and Fiore, 1968)
The history of nearly every conflict has a parallel story of humans using the latest, most dominant technologies to document them. The Mexican–American War (1846–8) and the Crimean War (1853–6) were the first to be photographed with slow and bulky view cameras; the Spanish Civil War signaled the birth of modern photojournalism with the invention of lightweight 35 mm film cameras; Vietnam (1955–75) is considered the first “Television War”; the Iraq War (2003–) was the first to be defined by digital cameras and same-day transmission of media by the Internet and via satellite, while the Arab Spring (2011) changed the game entirely when civilians documented the uprising from within using their own smartphones. Today, the World Wide Web and social media are rapidly replacing newspapers and television altogether when it comes to the dissemination of news as well as how it is consumed.
I am part of the last generation of photographers whose careers have straddled the analog and the digital eras. My book Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan (2014) is a primer on the pioneering media theorist that looks at the intersections of war, photography, technology and language at the moment in history when smartphones first go to war in 2010–11. A key turning point was when Apple’s iPhone 4 became capable of making photographs of a high enough quality that professional photographers were confident using them for serious work. I had gone to Afghanistan in early 2011 to join an innovative social media journalism initiative called Basetrack—conceived by the savvy American photographer Teru Kuwayama—that was using social media and iPhones during a military embed with U.S. Marines. I joined Basetrack because I wanted to be a part of this moment in the history of photography and war and to see how the new technologies would play out in a military embed and in a country that technology seemed on so many other levels to have passed by. That experience was the jumping-off point for my book. (See Color Plate 9.)
Plate 7 Members of the Mahdi Army camouflage a remote-controlled explosive with a covering of asphalt in an intersection. The Mahdi Army buried the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to defend against American incursions into Sadr City during a period of large-scale Shiite rebellion against the American occupation. Sadr City, Baghdad, August 7, 2004. Credit: Thorne Anderson from the book Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
Plate 8 An Iraqi man shows his hand to snipers as he carries his terrified child across the front lines between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army at the wrecked outskirts of the old city. Najaf, Iraq, August 21, 2004. Credit: Kael Alford from the book Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq.
Plate 9 A view from the Musa Qala military base under American control. The base had over the decades been held by the British, the Taliban, the Americans, and since August 2015 has been back under the control of the Taliban. Musa Qala, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, January 29, 2011. Credit: Rita Leistner/Basetrack, courtesy of Stephen Bulger Gallery.
1838—View cameras on tripods
1861—Portable stereoscope cameras invented on the eve of the American Civil War
(Carlebach (1992, 48))
Mexican–American War (1846–8)
The Illustrated London News (1842)
Invention of high speed rotary press (1843)
Beginning of the Illustrated Press
Daguerreotypes (not reproducible)
Burmese War (1852–3)
Crimean War (1853–6)
Second Opium War (1856–60) (Felice Beato in China)
American Civil War (1861–5)
cartes de visites
Collodion Portable Wet Plate Process: printing copies on paper using negative/positive process photographs on paper of which unlimited copies could be made
Kodak Camera (1888)
4x5 Negatives, Tropical Field Cameras
Spanish–American War (1898)
Boer War (1899–1902)
Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905)
Invention of halftone photomechanical process
Leipzig Illustrirte Zeitung publishes first photographs using halftone process (1884)
Graflex Press Camera (1908)
Mexican Revolution (1910–1920)
Violence as entertainment
World War I (1914–1918)
Rise of the Picture Press in Weimar Germany, France, England, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Italy . . .
Rise of motion picture film technology to influence still camera technology
Weimar Inter War Period (1918–1933)
—35 mm cameras: Ermanox (1924), Leica (1923 but only commercially available in the 1930s)
Spanish Civil War (1936–9)
Life magazine (1936–2000)
(35 mm gage film with sprockets is first developed for use in motion picture films)
World War II (1939–45)
Korean War 1950–3
Der Spiegel (1947–)
—120 mm film cameras: Rolleiflex
Sync Flash, 1935
Combat Graphic 1942
Portable Motion Picture Film Cameras
Leica M3 1954
First SLR Cameras with in-camera metering
Vietnam War (1955–75)
“The Television War”
First Television Documentary Films
Falklands War (1982)
First Iraq War (1990–1)
1991 World Wide Web
Bosnian War (1992–5)
1994: Netscape Navigator
Digital SLR Cameras
Iraq War (2003–)
Beginning of the end of print newspapers and magazines (thousands will collapse in the next decade)
Web 2.0 (2004)
—professional quality photographs achieved on iPhone4 (late 2010)
Super High ISOs and ultralow-light-enabled cameras (still and video)
Consumer grade drone cameras
Iraqi Civil War (2014–)
Abduction of 43 students in Mexico (2014)
Social Media and Internet
Hipstamatic (2010): app creating retro traditional printing effects.
New interest in permanence, traditional printing and material printed objects.
Surge in “fake news” and “clickbait” sites
Rise of ISIS
Syrian Civil War (2011–)
Boko Haram kidnaps 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria (2014)
An essential part of the Basetrack project was a Facebook page created for the Marines’ families back home. I was astonished the military was not more worried about controlling information in and out of the base. In fact, the Facebook page eventually became a sore spot for higher ups because—and why this surprised them I can’t explain—the Marines’ family members would sometimes post articles or comments critical of the war. When Kuwayama was asked to censor the comments, he was within his rights to say no. The Basetrack embed was a big success, lasting over six months, even though it ended a few weeks earlier than planned. The Commanders reached their breaking point with social media, which they were only just learning was beyond their power to control.
Soldiers have always written, said, or photographed (from the moment cameras became accessible to them) things the military did not want to see published and the military has often blamed the media for it. During the Crimean War, Major Kingscote of the Scots Guards once said, “officers write more absurd and rascally letters than ever or else The Times concocts them for them, anyhow it is very bad and unsoldier-like of them” (Figes 2010, 309).
In Dispatches, Michael Herr describes the photo albums of American soldiers during the War in Vietnam and the gruesome souvenir photographs they’d made on their point and shoot cameras:
There were hundreds of these albums in Vietnam, thousands, and they all seemed to contain the same pictures: the obligatory Zippo-lighter shot (“All right, let’s burn these hootches and move out”); the severed-head shot, the head often resting on the chest of the dead man or being held up by a smiling Marine, or a lot of heads, arranged in a row, with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths, the eyes open (“Like they’re lookin’ at you, man, it’s scary”); the VC suspect being dragged over the dust by a half-track or being hung by his heels in some jungle clearing; the very young dead with AK-47s still in their hands.
There were hundreds of these albums in Vietnam, thousands, and they all seemed to contain the same pictures: the obligatory Zippo-lighter shot (“All right, let’s burn these hootches and move out”); the severed-head shot, the head often resting on the chest of the dead man or being held up by a smiling Marine, or a lot of heads, arranged in a row, with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths, the eyes open (“Like they’re lookin’ at you, man, it’s scary”); the VC suspect being dragged over the dust by a half-track or being hung by his heels in some jungle clearing; the very young dead with AK-47s still in their hands.(Herr 1977, 198–199)
Following the leak of the Abu Ghraib prison torture photographs to the CBS and The New Yorker in April 2004, Donald Rumsfeld, who had worked so hard to control media reporting on the war, complained: “[American military personnel] are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise” (Iraqi prisoner abuse hearings, May 7, 2004).
Using social media and smartphones in Afghanistan, I felt myself being replaced by technology and instant uploads that left no time for process, reflection or analysis. It was more about “feeding the beast” as we called it, than telling a story. Without a story, there was no context anchoring the meaning of my experience. Moreover, it seemed to me that the military itself, in the face of its failing mission in Afghanistan, was cracking under the psychological dehumanization and ineffectiveness of its own super-technologies. When the Battalion Commander complained about Facebook and social media as if we were somehow to blame for them, I told him that the media, journalists and war photographers were, just like him, trying to figure things out. When I got home, writing this book, Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan, was my way of processing this new technological turn in history, with the help of McLuhan, the Canadian media theorist who invented media studies, anticipated the Internet and the World Wide Web, and is best known for saying, “the medium is the message.”
Apocalypse Now, 1979. [Film] Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. USA: Zoetrope Studios.
Frankie’s House, 1992. [TV miniseries] Directed by Peter Fisk. United Kingdom/Australia: Anglia Television Films & Drama.
Harrison’s Flowers, 2000. [Film] Directed by Élie Chouraqui. France: Cinédia Films.
Salvador, 1986. [Film] Directed by Oliver Stone. USA: Hemdale Film Corporation.
The Bang Bang Club, 2010. [Film] Directed by Steven Silver. South Africa/Canada: Foundry Films.
The Killing Fields, 1984. [Film] Directed by Roland Joffé. United Kingdom: Goldcrest Films International.
The Road to Freedom, 2010. [Film] Directed by Brendan Moriarty. USA/Cambodia: Endocom.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 2013. [Film] Directed by Ben Stiller. USA: Samuel Goldwyn Films.
The Year of Living Dangerously, 1982. [Film] Directed by Peter Weir. Australia: MGM Studios.
Under Fire, 1983. [Film] Directed by Roger Spottiswoode. USA: Orion Pictures.
An Unlikely Weapon, 2008. [Documentary film] Directed by Susan Morgan Cooper. USA: Morgan Cooper Productions.
Full Disclosure, 2007. [Documentary film] Directed by Brian Palmer. USA: Humint Productions LLC.
Kandahar Journals, 2015. [Documentary film] Directed by Devin Gallagher and Louie Palu. Canada: Summit Road Films.
McCullin, 2012. [Documentary film] Directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris. United Kingdom: British Film Company.
Pictures from a Revolution, 1991. [Documentary film] Directed by Alfred Guzzetti, Susan Meiselas, and Richard P. Rogers. USA: GMR Films.
Restrepo, 2010. [Documentary film] Directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger. USA: National Geographic Entertainment.
Shooting Robert King, 2008. [Documentary film] Directed by Richard Parry. United Kingdom: Revolver Entertainment.
The Mexican Suitcase, 2011. [Documentary film] Directed by Trisha Ziff. Mexico/Spain/USA: 212 Berlin.
The Salt of the Earth, 2014. [Documentary film] Directed by Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and Wim Wenders. France/Brazil/Italy: Decia Films.
Under Fire: Journalists in Combat, 2012. [Documentary film] Directed by Martyn Burke. Canada: Juf Pictures, Inc.
War Photographer, 2001. [Documentary film] Directed by Christian Frei. Switzerland: Christian Frei Film Productions.
When we think about Erik Kessels nowadays, we probably think of photography and amateurism, vernacular photography, photobooks, and self-publishing. However, you also have been running a successful advertisement company for more than twenty years, and use photography in many different ways. How does this all fit together, and how did it start?Erik Kessels
I was raised as a graphic designer, and illustrator; later on I went to work in advertising and design. Over the years, I have a growing frustration towards photography that was used in advertising because the photography in advertising is pretty much cliché, very polished, there is a lot of fake in there—the false illusion of a beautiful world, in a way. So I decided to work with photographers that normally do not work in advertising. I hire documentary photographers to work for clients, for instance I did a fashion campaign for Diesel with Magnum photographer Carl de Keyzer; a beer campaign with Mitch Epstein; and in Holland I do a lot with Dana Lixenberg, Hans van der Meer, and Bertien van Manen. That’s how I got even more interested in the photographic medium, and I started with my own work. I got interested in vernacular and amateur photography of the mistakes, the imperfection that comes along. I really hate the type of photography that you find in advertising because if you look at pictures from ten years ago, nothing has developed, they still photograph cars in exactly the same way, perfume advertising looks exactly the same way—there are all these categories, and they constantly photograph things in exactly the same way over and over again, year after year …OE
And what is it that KesselsKramer does differently? I’ve read on your website that for you, “the idea behind the project” is the important thing. Could you explain more in detail?EK
Before I set up the company with my business partner, we had worked for other companies, so when we started with our own company, we wanted more freedom, or at least we wanted to decide ourselves who to work for, and how. We had our own values in a sense. That’s also very important because from the beginning we were quite strict on what we would do and what we would not do, and that is also a basis for what it is now because, twenty years later, we still feel that we never made a work that is happily compromising. Advertising is a very opportunistic industry, you know; if you bring enough money, all doors open for you … but not our door, because we sometimes refuse clients or stop collaborating with them, if it doesn’t work for us any more, even if they bring a lot of money. This is one of the things we find very important. All of us have an ambivalent relationship with the advertising industry; in fact, most of us really hate advertising, just like everybody else does nowadays. We work in a strange industry, but for me this is also a motivation to make things different and to change them. So, yeah, you could say that KesselsKramer is quite different from other agencies, but it has just grown that way; we did not plan this but we did have a certain mentality, a mentality to make our work look quite ironic, sarcastic, humorous, if you want. Irony is very important, especially when used against your own industry.OE
In the installation 24 Hrs in Photos [see Color Plate 10] you show how much we are invaded by photographs, how many pictures are made in a day—mountains! And that’s only the photography produced and uploaded by individuals to certain platforms. We are also exposed to thousands of images from advertisements. How is it possible we are not going nuts in this overexposure, over-saturation in our ultra-mega-photographed world? How can advertising photography still reach the customer? Isn’t everything said and done already?
Plate 10 24 Hrs in Photos, Installation shot, CCB Barcelona, June 2014. Credit: Marc Neumüller Esparbé.
Of course, an average person today sees more images before lunch than somebody in the eighteenth century did in their whole life, so that’s kind of the world we live in nowadays. Funnily enough, I think there are a lot of images that come to us through classic advertising but I think there are even more images that come to us through other channels—Instagram, Snapchat and all the social channels. One could almost argue that images on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat are also a kind of advertising, an advertising for individual people, who take pictures of ourselves and show how great we are, what nice food we have, or how we spend our holidays. We share it with everybody and that’s also a kind of personal propaganda. These kinds of images have long overtaken the advertising images you see on banners and billboards. Classic advertising has been overtaken by all the images that we share constantly. The lifecycle of an image nowadays is very short; we take pictures for the moment, not to keep them in albums or archives. The lifecycle is maybe half an hour, or a day, then the image is gone.
Returning to your question: yes, we are bombarded with images that come to us via advertising, but the problem has become a general one. We are at the peak level of image consumption; it’s like a renaissance of the imagery. It can’t go much more than this, I think, and at a certain moment, the volume might actually diminish, at least that is what is being discussed now. For instance, I plan to do an exhibition with only one image, as a counter-reaction. It’s quite nice to have only one image and do everything with that one image. But maybe you ask the wrong person because for me, the phenomenon as such is very interesting—the more the better, because I filter from it and I try to find new ways of looking at it. Generally speaking, though, people are getting tired of this situation, so we could speak of a photo life crisis, you know, people when they are twenty-three or twenty-four, they have so much information in their heads that they experience a total burn-out. They call that the quarter-life crisis.OE
I would also like to talk about the ethics and limitations of creativity in the advertising business. What are the limits, if there are, and how much say do your clients have in these aspects?EK
I think that’s a very important point. Our work in the advertising business is mostly concentrated in Amsterdam and London, and things work differently in different contexts, and different companies. Sometimes we have to do jobs that we don’t really like; however, for me it is very important that I have my own ethics and principles, a set of rules that cannot be bent. For instance, I try to fight stereotypical images in advertising, and I try to deliver the message in a different format. If you follow your principles, you have to make drastic choices; for example, we once “fired” a client that represented some 60 percent of our income, which was not an easy thing to do, but for us it was a decision of principles and thus a good decision, because we don’t want to make horrible work, we don’t want to cross that line. Maybe it was a strange discussion because one could argue that, when you work in advertising, you have already crossed the line, but I don’t see it that way. With the work we do, we’ve also proven that we can change things sometimes. For instance, we did a mobile phone campaign for many years in Holland and we used many different nationalities that were living in Holland, including migrants. Later I read an article by a sociologist who said that this campaign had done more for integration in Holland than any national campaign dealing with that problem, because it had such a wide reach in the media, and drew a lot of attention to the issue of integration. So that is very nice to see, that you can contribute to change things in a positive way, even if you work for the purely commercial sector of advertisement.OE
Do you have any preferred campaigns? Or most hated ones?EK
I think it is very interesting when you come up with ideas that make you feel uncomfortable, you get scared of your own ideas—that is very good. It doesn’t happen every week, it happens maybe a few times a year but it’s a great feeling when you are a little disturbed by your own ideas. For instance, we worked a long time for a budget hotel in Amsterdam. It was a very bad hotel, and still is; a cheap hotel. Twenty years ago it was our first client, and when I went there for the briefing, the owner said he didn’t want any complaints anymore, he was sick of all the complaints he got, and our job would be to get rid of all the complaints. But then I saw the hotel and it was a totally shit place, so we thought, maybe honesty is their only luxury, because there was no other luxury … So we had the idea that we would always be very honest, with a certain irony, but always saying the truth. For example, we made a poster for the hotel that claimed “Now a door in every room!”, or “Now with a bed in every room!” or, “Now even more noise in the main entrance!” and so on … It was very ironic and very real; in fact, it was almost anti-advertising, because we always positioned the hotel as the worst hotel in the world and that made the hotel very popular. They had 60,000 overnights when we started and now they have more than 150,000 overnights. The hotel never changed but it became a cool destination, which shows also that even with anti-advertising and a bitter irony you can reach a certain target group, in this case, backpackers and students. And it worked really well, for a long period of time.
As I have mentioned before, in twenty years’ time we never did anything that I really hate now or that I didn’t like to do, but of course there are works that nowadays I don’t even understand anymore; they were so weird that it’s almost a shame that we sold them to the client. Most of them probably fall in a time when the economy was going well, from 2000 to 2005, a period when everything was possible, also creative-wise. I think that creativity is better when the economy is good because then, creativity is almost like a bonus and goes further than necessary, a decadent creativity, so to speak. Of course, it also has to do with the fact that clients are more willing to take risks in times of economic wellbeing.OE
Let’s speak about your working process: When you do a shoot, can you tell us a little bit about the KesselsKramer way of doing it? Is there a special way of working? Any interesting photographers or trends in this field?EK
When I do a shoot I normally never go to the shoot itself. I select the photographer, talk to him or her, have eye contact and talk about what has to be done. I find it important to be able to have a fresh look at the work when it comes to me, without having been present, and having seen the pictures in the shooting. Of course, I can only do this because in Holland we are very much spoiled with photographic talent; there’s a huge reservoir of people to choose from and we also work with people from different countries. We work with photographers who make installations as well and really build photographs as an experience and then take a picture of it. If you ask for the trends, this is maybe one of them: you see a more performative part in photography nowadays and the photographers see themselves as artists who create the images. Ideas and images. Sometimes we ask the photographer to get involved in a much earlier stage in the process, so that he or she can draw from their own practice, rather than showing them a fixed idea that they only have to reproduce. This trend towards performance in the picture is getting more and more important, and I think it’s quite nice.OE
Curator, art director, editor, artist, designer, publisher … could you please leave something for the rest? You seem like a man of the Renaissance, in a moment when specialization seems the trend; you show off a transversal way of thinking and working. Is advertising as a specialized form dead—has it merged into art, social media, and publishing?EK
I have always been doing many different things at the same time: I liked drawing, I was an illustrator at a certain moment, then I went to art school where I engaged with painting and graphics. In the early 1990s, when you were a graphic designer you had to stick to that, but I always did different things, from an early age, including exhibitions and books, at the beginning not with photography but drawings and other media. I always wanted to break out a little bit and at a certain moment it became possible: with KesselsKramer we try to cross the lines between different disciplines—making products, publishing books, making documentary films—thanks to the passion of the people of our company and our own, it all came in a very natural way, and sometimes it is a handicap because if people ask me, “What do you do?” it’s very difficult to answer, but on the other hand it’s luxury. I realize that I’ve done many books and exhibitions with the vernacular images that I collect but I have never had a gallery because I’m not dependent on it financially so there’s a lot of freedom, because I have another income as well.
Having said that, I have to make clear that my art projects and the advertising business are two separate things. The ideas are mixed together but never those different worlds. They are totally separated, and I see it like a playground, where all the different disciplines take place, and I don’t feel any barrier or pressure. At this point, the company employs some fifty people, yet I never feel any pressure or bad dreams, because it’s also what I do and I try to do my best, and so does everybody else. And if it doesn’t work out, well, it doesn’t, and if it does, then we have a good time.OE
The campaign for the Dutch Funeral Museum “Tot Zover” is an example of your way of working, I believe. There is a lot of black humor in the title “Open Due to Circumstances.” Is sarcasm and irony the most common ingredient in your campaigns?EK
Yes, we always try to turn things upside down. Irony and sarcasm is one way to do it. Sometimes there is another way, for example, being very honest, or even a more humanistic approach, but that is another thing. We made a campaign about organ donation, where audiences were directed to a website, called jaofnee.nl (“yesorno.nl”), and they had the opportunity to vote Yes or No to questions such as “If you could save someone’s life, would you do it?” They could also register for organ donation but whether they did or not was up to them. Organ donation is an issue very close to the skin, so we showed the skin to make it more real. A simple but strong idea for an important issue. In contrast, with other products or companies it’s quite nice to not take yourself so seriously.OE
That leads to my next question, about your campaigns for Women Inc, such as “Treat Me like a Lady” [see Color Plate 11] or “Where is My €300,000?,” which were about raising consciousness of gender equality, another important issue, but treated quite differently than the “Yes or No” campaign, right?
Plate 11 Screenshot from www.kesselskramer.com website: “Treat Me like a Lady” campaign for Women Inc. Credit: www.kesselskramer.com.
It has been almost twelve years that we have been working for this client. The designers and account managers of these campaigns are all women. The client has certain topics and then we develop campaigns. For instance, the “Ladies” campaign is about healthcare, as it turns out that women are still treated differently in hospitals, and in the health system in general: Certain tests were developed only for male patients, as medical science is based on the male body, which has major consequences for the health of women. This is why the campaign is called “Treat Me like a Lady.” There is also a certain twist because when we do campaigns like these, we never use retouching to make models look perfect. I mean, it would take only two seconds to clean their skins in Photoshop, but I never use Photoshop in these cases, because an image is so much more interesting when there is imperfection in it.EO
So, which would be your personal conclusions regarding the role of photography in the advertising business?EK
The advertising photography that I have done for many years now is probably very different from what other people have done. If you write about the history of advertising photography you can probably fit it into a small chapter because it has followed very clear patterns, based on clichés. When I started, Advertising Photography was still “a profession,” there was a pool of many photographers in Holland that worked for advertising, at a certain moment, but that has all gone now. Today, photographers who work in advertising are also artists who do their own exhibitions, publish books, work editorially, and do other projects, besides occasionally taking on commercial projects. I think that is a more healthy way of doing it because the traditional advertising photographers are like master copiers, you know, they can do anything, like the painters in the seventeenth century who were given concrete tasks, such as “you have to paint a still life with flowers” and they made it perfectly—that’s exactly the same with advertising photographers. But those are not the ones that I have hired for my campaigns for more than twenty years. Luckily that has also changed a little bit; at least in Holland this kind of stereotypical photography is substituted with a more creative approach, which is good I think. The strange thing is that the advertising industry thinks that it is better not to use artists for advertising jobs, because they could be too risky for the client, but clients really like it, they like to have a photographer that has an original point of view, with an original take on their product. The advertising industry is very narrow minded; it’s all based on fear, everything, fear of losing a client, fear of not getting paid anymore, and so on. I am normally very open to my clients: if they are not nice people, why would you work for them? I mean, life is too short to spend it with assholes, isn’t it?
There are many stories about people who, if their house was on fire, would make sure to save the family photo album before all other material objects. And many have experienced it as a tragedy that their computer crashed or their mobile phone disappeared and their personal photos were not saved. Family photography is the most emotionally charged and personally significant genre of photography. Historically the family photo album is a material object of immense importance to many families. It is an object of both banal conformity and deep affective value and personal meaning. Family photography is practiced all over the world, and it is an enormous consumer culture as well. Nevertheless, it is an understudied part of visual culture. It is not until the last few decades that museums, academic scholars and even collectors have really started to take an interest in family photography.
A family photo album is an object, which is the product of a practice: doing family photography. Like other forms of vernacular photography, family photo albums are objects at the same time related to personal, affective, social and cultural communication. All these aspects must be included in an analysis. Family photo albums are about social and emotional communication; they can be interpreted phenomenologically as ways of understanding and coming to terms with life, happy moments and life developments as well as more traumatic events; they can be interpreted discourse-critically as a way to shape peoples’ lives and make them adapt to cultural norms; and at the same time they document sociological aspects of daily lives that we do not have access to from other historical sources.
In order to write about a given family album, we need to maneuver between the global and the local, the general and the particular, the macro and the micro level, ideology and emotion, and to be methodologically and theoretically inclusive rather than reductive.
The family is crucially linked to the concept of “the good life,” and the family photo album has historically been a place to articulate or perhaps even stage our own family and our ideas of the good life. Photography was born in the first half of the nineteenth century, around the same time as the modern nuclear family was formed under industrialization and the growth of urban life. Gradually family portraits, and later on other kinds of snapshots of the family, became a way to represent, define and consolidate the modern, urban nuclear family, and family photography became one of the most widespread practices since the invention of photography. Most families own one or more albums, at least before the more recent advent of digital photography technology. In his book La photo sur la cheminée. Naissance d’un culte moderne (1983) French photo historian Bertrand Mary traces two major steps forward for family photography: the first one was in the wake of Kodak’s launch of the box camera in 1888 under the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest,” which made photography easy and affordable for at least a middle-class audience; the second was in the years around World War I, where all the soldiers and their family members were photographed before the soldier went to war. Following in Mary’s footsteps, a third phase could be defined as the late 1960s and early 1970s, where the cheap Instamatic cameras were introduced, the cassette-loaded color film, the flash cube, first in the United States and Japan and shortly after in Europe. Bertrand Mary states that out of the 15 billion private photos produced worldwide in 1970, Americans alone produced 6 billion (Mary 1983: 255). The 1970s meant an explosion in family photography, with teenagers as a huge new market.
But in the last decade there has been a radical change. We have entered a fourth phase: The age of ubiquitous computing, web 2.0, social media and the camera phone. Today, private photographs are widely produced, consumed and circulated on computers, mobile phones and on the Internet. On Instagram alone, more than 80 million private photographs are uploaded every day, circulated and shared by more than 400 million daily users. Where traditional analogue family photographs were taken for a future audience, photographs taken by the mobile phone are most often taken to be seen immediately by people at a distance. And we can now access our private photos dynamically, while we travel with the morning train to work, or make them circulate in the night life a few seconds after they were taken on the dance floor. The photographic practice related to ubiquitous computing indicates that photography has become a much more embodied and daily practice than before. Increasingly, everyday amateur photography is regarded as a performative practice connected to presence, immediate communication and social networking, as opposed to the storing of memories for eternity, which is how it has hitherto been conceptualized. Has the – relatively new – scholarly attention towards vernacular photography kept pace with these new, radical changes? What implications does this change have for the family photo album? Today each family member most often uploads his or her own personal images to various sites and social media accounts. Is it a farewell to the family album?
Most writing and analysis within the history of photography is about art and documentary photography. Much less has been written on family photography, despite the fact that it is the most widespread genre, especially since the 1970s when amateur photography exploded. So basically there is a huge amount of material wherein we can study how people live their daily lives, how they conceptualize the family, and how larger societal changes and developments are experienced, negotiated, handled and understood via the personal gaze.
The family photo album depicts the history of “the family,” on an individual as well as a larger sociological scale. On a personal level it has a psychological meaning to most people. In family photos and albums we create and perform our identity and we construct, shape and secure our memories. On a philosophical, phenomenological level the family photo album gives us a sense of living in and over time. Photography is an invention linked to early modernity. Since the advent of modernity and industrialization, which on many levels made traditional values as well as notions of time, space, distance and speed “melt into air,” to paraphrase a famous sentence by Karl Marx, we have used family photography to secure a feeling of living in time, including a feeling of a past, a now, and a future death as the end-point. As Richard Chalfen writes: “Making family photographs and organizing albums are modern additions to a human’s many ways of symbolically defining and ordering the world” (1991: 14).
Family photography and albums can be used to construct alternative histories to the official history writing, for instance based on material studies and affect studies of the visual, and more recently many books, exhibitions or web-projects have had that focus. Kim Yeon-Soo’s The Family Album: Histories, Subjectivities, and Immigration in Contemporary Spanish Culture (2005) documents immigration lives under the Franco regime, like Richard Chalfen’s Turning Leaves: The Photograph Collections of Two Japanese American Families (1991) gives new insights into how cultural and diasporic experiences are negotiated in an immigrant culture like the Japanese-American. In Lengselens bilder (Pictures of Longing, 2009), Sigrid Lien studies the role of private photography among early Norwegian immigrants to the US. Many have been interested in and much has been written about the Norwegian–US emigration, but few have focused on the images as historical sources. Ed Jones and Timothy Prus’ book Nein, Onkel: Snapshots From Another Front 1938–1945 (2007) is a photographic survey of daily life in the Nazi Third Reich, with highly personal, but previously unpublished, images made by soldiers. At the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington one can also leaf through a private Nazi officer’s family photo album, which thus gives access to another, hitherto rather repressed visual, affective history of the perpetrators. Many amateur researchers are occupied with finding, restoring and spreading private images as alternative historical narrative, for instance “The Rescued Film Project” (www.rescuedfilm.com), which presents itself as
an online archive gallery of images that were captured on film between the 1930s and late 1990s. Each image in our archive was recovered from found film from locations all over the world, and came to us in the form of undeveloped rolls of film … We believe that these images deserve to be seen, so that the photographer’s personal experiences can be shared. Forever marking their existence in history.
an online archive gallery of images that were captured on film between the 1930s and late 1990s. Each image in our archive was recovered from found film from locations all over the world, and came to us in the form of undeveloped rolls of film … We believe that these images deserve to be seen, so that the photographer’s personal experiences can be shared. Forever marking their existence in history.
During the last decades there has thus been an increased interest in family photography and albums. This invites several explanations: A commercial explanation might be that the fine art photography market has been drying up. There are no more hidden “Atgets” to be found in attics, so collectors are turning their attention towards amateur snaps. An academic explanation might be the cultural and anthropological “turn” within the humanities, and a more vernacular explanation might be that a shift to new (digital) technologies often increases interest in old, dying technologies, in this case analogue prints and physical albums. Today there are numerous websites for collectors of “vernacular photography,” and especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s a number of leading art museums mounted exhibitions of this type of visual material. Large international publishing houses have published books – often in relation to museum exhibitions – using such snapshots. Common to these books, catalogues, and exhibitions, however, is a lack of deep analysis of the material reproduced. A typical example is Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, which was the title of both a book and an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2000 that featured amateur photos from the 1910s to the 1960s. Photographs in the show were obviously collected and exhibited because they were apparently innocent or honest and, moreover, contained surreal or poetic qualities that were either latent or unconscious. Collector Thomas Walther wrote in the book’s afterword that the photographs on view “document a profound innocence, tremendous pride and a unique sense of humor in American society. There is no faking, no strain, no theory here, only the simplicity and directness of capturing moments of life” (Walther 2000: n.p.). Other typical examples are: Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998); Close to Home: An American Album (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2004); Snapshots: From the Box Brownie to the Camera Phone (Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, 2005); The Art of the American Snapshot (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2007); Michel Frizot and Cédric de Veigy, Photos trouvées (Phaidon, London/NY, 2006), followed by the exhibition Every Photograph is an Enigma co-produced by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (Paris) and the Musée Nicephore Niépce (Chalon-sur-Saône) in collaboration with the Fotomuseum Winterthur (Switzerland); and Christian Skrein, Snapshots: The Eye of the Century (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz, 2004).
Another aspect of the new interest by museums in family and everyday photography – inspired by new museum discourses about inclusion and citizenship – is that museums often invite their audience to contribute with their own images. An example could be Tate Britain’s large exhibition of the history of British photography in 2007, How We Are, which was accompanied by an exhibition called How We Are Now, consisting of ordinary people’s contributions added through Flickr. This was the first time that Tate Britain included such material. An institution such as Photographer’s Gallery in London regularly invites people to contribute with their own family snaps, most recently with Family Photography Now, a 40-week Instagram project led by the gallery in 2016 in collaboration with publisher Thames & Hudson, which “invites us to reflect on the emotional rollercoaster of family life today on the love, fear, trust and attachment that exists between brothers and sisters, parents and children, step-families and in-laws, outcasts and adoptees,” as the project’s Facebook page announced (www.facebook.com/pg/FamilyPhotographyNow/about/?ref=page_internal).
If we imagined a pool of images consisting of all the photographs produced on a global scale in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, less than 10 percent would probably fit into the classical genre categories of art and documentary, whereas more than 90 percent would be vernacular, amateur and commercial images. If we regarded the academic literature on photography in the same way, the proportions would be reversed. It is not until recently that family photographs have been given serious academic attention. The best-known survey histories of photography, from Beaumont Newhall’s to Michel Frizot’s, included very little on family photography.
As Geoffrey Batchen has stated:
the snapshot, precisely because this is the most numerous and popular of photographic forms, represents an interpretive problem absolutely central to any ambitious scholarship devoted to the history of photography. Oblivious to the artistic prejudices that still guide much of that scholarship, family photographs challenge us to find another way of talking about photography, a way that can somehow account for the determined banality of these, and indeed most other, photographic pictures.
the snapshot, precisely because this is the most numerous and popular of photographic forms, represents an interpretive problem absolutely central to any ambitious scholarship devoted to the history of photography. Oblivious to the artistic prejudices that still guide much of that scholarship, family photographs challenge us to find another way of talking about photography, a way that can somehow account for the determined banality of these, and indeed most other, photographic pictures.(Batchen 2008: 124)
What tools, then, do theories of photography and critical scholarship give us to write about the “ordinary” family albums? One of the most cited and influential theoretical works on family photography remains French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s Photography: A Middle-brow Art (Un art moyen) from 1965. Through empirical studies in a local context, Bourdieu and his research assistants demonstrated how deeply conventional and ritualized family photography can be. In contrast, one could address another photo theory milestone, Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (published posthumously as La chambre claire in 1980), which takes a phenomenological approach to photography, identifying the deeply personal affection and even grief that family photos can offer viewers. Although both were informed by the tradition of French structuralism, the two books by Bourdieu and Barthes offer very different perspectives; the former focuses on the social redundancy of the material, the latter focuses on the personal affect of the user. Neither has much of an eye for the producer of the family album, or for the album’s uses in the performance of identity and its role in ordering the world. Such a focus can be found among a later generation of scholars, such as Christopher Pinney, Martha Langford, Gillian Rose, and Elizabeth Edwards, in addition to Batchen and Chalfen, many of them mixing methodological backgrounds from art history, cultural studies, anthropology and sociology. Scholarly attention towards personal photography has been growing since the early 1980s, including seminal early work by Marianne Hirsch, Julia Hirsch, and Jo Spence, among others, inspired by feminist theory, discourse analysis, psychoanalysis, semiotics and the development of cultural studies in the 1970s.
Much recent research has found inspiration in the tool box of the anthropologist, such as ethnographic field work, drawing attention not only to the individual image, but to the cultural as well as personal use of family photography regarded as a practice. In her book on family photography, Suspended Conversations (2001), based on Walter Ong’s theories of the importance of sound and voice in cultural analysis, Martha Langford talks about photography as an act of communication. Elizabeth Edwards, moreover, has stressed the importance of touch and talk in family photography and considers it part of an everyday oral culture. In many of her publications (Edwards 2005, Edwards & Hart 2004), she stresses the importance of considering private photographs as material objects and thus to consider concepts such as intention, production, distribution, and perhaps even destruction or subjugation of these private photos. Edwards calls family photography an interactive medium, because it creates history and makes feelings emerge that otherwise would not have been articulated, if the images had not existed. Anthropological studies such as Edwards’ work can contribute to regarding the photo album as relational, communicative, active, and non-static material. Moreover, recent theoretical framings, such as material studies, affect studies, and visual anthropology, have proven to be fruitful supplements to the earlier more ideological and discourse-critical approach to photography as representation. Studying family albums and everyday photography in general thus stimulates an interdisciplinary approach and an urge to be methodologically inclusive rather than reductive. We must critically study the sociological and ideological aspects of family photography, while simultaneously recognizing its emotional and affective qualities and its ambiguity and mutability.
Contemporary art works can give insight into these subtle functions of family photography, and nuanced insights can be gained from studying the family photo album, including its recent and very radical digital changes, as it is treated, appropriated, imitated or re-circulated by artists. For several decades now French artist Christian Boltanski has re-used all sorts of vernacular and family photos in his photo-based installations, often centered on the Holocaust. In installations entitled Alters he has mourned the fate of the many European Jews by using official school photos of children from the 1930s. Or in the photo-book Sans-Souci (1991) he appropriated a full family album from a German Nazi family in order to focus on what Hannah Arendt has called “the banality of evil.” Among images of picnics and birthday parties, recognizable by anyone, images of Nazi officers or Nazi flags appeared in these absolutely ordinary, everyday life situations.
By appropriating their own family photo heritage, American artists such as Larry Sultan (Pictures from Home 1992) or Ed Templeton (Deformer 2008) have critically discussed the notion of the nuclear family structure in today’s Western welfare society. German Joachim Schmid has recirculated amateur snapshots and family photos, in the beginning found at flea markets but today on the Internet, in various exhibitions and book projects. With great humor as well as phenomenological affect he thus points to the alternative everyday history and narration to be found in this kind of material, not unlike his German colleague Hans-Peter Feldmann, who became famous for his small photo-books with appropriated vernacular photos in the late 1960s and onwards. In the wake of the dissolving of the Soviet Union, artists like Ilya Kabakov and Igor Savchenko have also re-used family photos in order to bring focus to the alternative histories located in this kind of material and to propose a new discussion on Post-Soviet identity, with this private material as a starting point.
Many of these art projects took place during a period when academic studies showed little interest in vernacular and family photography. Through studying these art works, theoretical insights can be gained regarding the function and the phenomenology of photography. Recently, many artists have started to include and thereby to discuss the role of everyday digital photography in people’s lives, most notably an artist like Erik Kessels. In his installation 24 Hrs in Photos (Color Plate 10) he harvested an enormous amount of amateur photos from 24 hours on Flickr and heaped them into huge piles – almost mountains – on the exhibition floor. By giving the concept of photo-sharing a material, physical representation he conceptually elevated a critical discussion of the absurd visual depiction of our everyday lives that is not only taking place on a daily basis, but is spread and shared on the Internet as some kind of meaningless pollution. In the American Hasan Elahi’s web project Tracking Transience (2002–present), he uses mobile phone, GPS and self-blogging techniques to document and upload all his daily activities, resulting in an absurdly vast amount of photographs as a radical form of self-surveillance. In this parody of modern authorities’ control of visibility he points to how mobile phone photos and digital sharing possibilities have opened up new ways of self-monitoring as well as of public surveillance.
The works of Kessels, Elahi and Schmid point to the fact that today photography, once again, is changing dramatically. Over the last decades, analogue snapshot photography has more or less died out as digital photography has become commonplace. Digital technology has not only changed the way the images are produced, but also the way they are used, circulated and communicated. Photographs are now very widely produced, consumed and circulated on computers, mobile phones and via the Internet, especially through social networking sites. Web 2.0 affords an open online participatory culture in which connected individuals not only surf but make many “products” through editing, updating, blogging, remixing, posting, responding, sharing, exhibiting, tagging and so on.
So what happens with the family photo album after Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Picasa? Can we still speak of it as one practice, or has it diffused into all sorts of varied individual Internet practices? Insights from the old practice are still relevant, as Sarah Pink says:
New amateur photographic practices are undoubtedly emerging, I caution against a focus on the “new” so much as on how more subtle shifts are taking place as “new” and “old” meet. New digital amateur photographic practices are better understood as emergent in relation to both older photographic media and technologies and practitioners’ understandings of their potential.
New amateur photographic practices are undoubtedly emerging, I caution against a focus on the “new” so much as on how more subtle shifts are taking place as “new” and “old” meet. New digital amateur photographic practices are better understood as emergent in relation to both older photographic media and technologies and practitioners’ understandings of their potential.(Pink 2011: 93)
So certainly, many of the aspects and functions of family photography mentioned above, remain the same. But the practice has also changed radically: Concerning what we find worth photographing in today’s digital everyday mobile photography we find less family and more friends; more everyday experience and hitherto-less-photographed objects such as food, pets or clothes and other daily life occurrences; more young camera users (as photography is a part of teenage culture more than ever); more self-portraiture; and not the least: the everyday life made public. As Nancy Van House says: “Whereas printed images and negatives are under the control of the owner, digital photographs have slipped the bounds of materiality and may have a life of their own outside the control of their makers” (Van House 2011: 128). Family and everyday photos are increasingly having short-lived and ephemeral lives, on the one hand, and more mobile and public lives, on the other. And with the growth of photographs in our daily lives, and the extreme diversity of images, the notion of “family photography” as a specific genre might have become obsolete as a result of the contemporary use of mobile phone photography. Today, taking private photos is more about communication, sharing a “now” as opposed to a “then,” and as opposed to photographing for private storytelling for the future of the family, chronicling its life for future generations.
The new digital possibilities have also paved the way for new possibilities of using amateur photography as a political tool. From the involuntary spread of the American soldiers’ snapshots from the Abu Ghraib Prison, to the so-called Arab Spring or more recently various police killings of black Americans, the spread of amateur images on the Internet has affected the political discourse. The police have also used data mining of photography on social media to investigate cases such as the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing.
Photo sharing sites can also be used for collective commemoration, for creating awareness of a specific issue or to complement “official history” with other, “minor” narratives. In the “Lost and Found Project,” family photos found in the debris from the tsunami in Tohoku in Eastern Japan in 2011 by firemen and the official clean-up mission were collected in a local school, cleansed and digitized by volunteers and both returned to their original owners, if possible, and shared digitally as well as through exhibitions. As the project website states:
These pictures offer visceral feel for the presence of the people and their lives in the photos, something that the press reports, videos and casualty figures cannot communicate … Today, we can take pictures whenever and wherever, but one is reminded that a single photograph can have a value that nothing else can replace.
These pictures offer visceral feel for the presence of the people and their lives in the photos, something that the press reports, videos and casualty figures cannot communicate … Today, we can take pictures whenever and wherever, but one is reminded that a single photograph can have a value that nothing else can replace.(http://lostandfound311.jp/en/about/)
Apart from a whole variety of individual photo albums on social media platforms depicting a person’s everyday life, friends and family relations, the Internet hosts a forest of specific photo- (and text-) sharing sites dedicated to specific issues, such as parents’ commemoration of their deceased children or photo series following individual gender transformation procedures, just to mention two examples.
Even though the traditional concept of “the family photo album” has thus propagated into a variety of new forms, the importance of the genre related to identity construction, a phenomenological experience of time and many other aspects, still applies to the genre and its many sub-genres. And indeed many still take photos of family life highlights such as celebrations and vacations. Instead of mounting them in a physical cardboard album, storing it on a shelf in the living room, digital family photo albums are created in various forms or images are just stored in endless digital “piles” or sorted into files on the hard drive, on social media sites or in the “Cloud.” But increasingly, cameras are part of our daily lives and the images we take with them, to keep or circulate, are important to study as well as the very act of communication and connecting via digital everyday images. So yes, in many ways it is a farewell to the family photo album, and a hello to an extreme variety of alternative forms. But to look at photography as representation – which has dominated photography theory – must be complemented. Today, what we used to call “family photography” must be understood simultaneously as a social practice, a networked technology, a material object and an image, and therefore new practice-based, ethnographic or participant-oriented studies are needed. Examples of such studies can be found in Larsen and Sandbye (2014) and Cruz and Lehmuskallio (2016).
Having argued that family photo albums provide insights into people’s daily lives and offer alternative narratives to official history, what one might fear for the future, is a loss of images and access to images. This is a paradox, since we have never photographed our daily lives and produced private photographs as we do today. But what happens when or if the Cloud breaks down, when new technology and storing systems are introduced, and our old digital images can no longer be retrieved or translated into new formats? Which kind of, and how much of this contemporary ubiquitous visual knowledge, experience and memory will then be lost?
Today, we often experience the world through photography, and it is no longer possible to go back to some kind of “photo free” society. The photographs are sometimes all we have to understand ourselves and the world, as Susan Sontag argued in her latest book on photography, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). In the light of the recent explosion of private family photo material on social platforms on the Internet the urge to do fieldwork and research on contemporary family photography, recognizing its emotional and affective qualities as well as its ambiguity and mutability, is even more relevant and needed. This kind of visual material opens up another, and maybe more subtle, understanding of cultural similarities and differences, which is much needed in a world where globalization sometimes cements cultural differences rather than encourages understanding.
As outlined in the first half of this chapter, family photography is the most emotionally charged and personally significant genre of photography. It is a genre highly visible in modern culture, but nevertheless it has been largely unrecognized and untheorized. It is not until the last few decades that museums, academic culture and even collectors have started to take an interest in family photography.
The commercial, professional studio portrait is also one of photography’s many “middle-brow” genres (to use the title of Pierre Bourdieu’s much-quoted book on family photography, Un art moyen, or Photography: A Middle-brow Art), which has not really been considered interesting and worthwhile to deal with other than for the photographer and the person who paid for his or her own portrait.
One might claim that wedding photography combines these two genres: family photography and the portrait. And if those genres are already quite underestimated and overlooked in critical photographic theory, this fact is even clearer when we talk about wedding photography. If we consult the most important, internationally recognized and comprehensive books on the history of photography, there is not a single line on this genre. This is strange, because wedding photography is so common, so globally widespread, something we all know and remember, even if we are not married ourselves nor possess pictures of the “happiest day of our lives.”
In the last 150 years the wedding portrait – most often taken by the professional photographer immediately after the ceremony and before the celebration itself – has been a central part of the rituals behind and the celebration of a wedding in most parts of at least the middle-class of the so-called “First World,” from Japan to Europe and the US. Among family photographs, wedding pictures occupy a special and very important role, and they are often situated in a place of honor in the family home: In fact, it is here where the family begins.
Today, weddings – and their professional visual representations – are a major industry deeply imbedded in bourgeois consumerism. The couple, or sometimes still their parents, may spend tens of thousands of dollars on the event. Today’s wedding photographers offer a whole range of “photo packages” depending on the couple’s budget.
But here we will concentrate on the cultural history of the classical wedding portrait. In spite of the ideology and the celebration of traditional heterosexuality as well as bourgeois or middle-class values adhering to the genre, concentrating exclusively on a Marxist, critical approach to wedding photography would be to miss important other aspects such as an enduring longing to step into rituals, as well as the deeply emotional significance or implications of this kind of photography.
Often the central or most important, classically posed portrait of the newlywed couple – the object of this article – is supplemented by a whole series of photos, sometimes including more “documentary” motifs such as the exit from the church and the couple cutting the cake, or material objects related to the wedding such as the bridal bouquet, the cake, the gift table, the limousine and the dinner or reception table decorations. All these images are collected in a wedding album, which serves as a strong mnemonic tool for the couple and the family ever after … or at least until the divorce. The album or the framed photo often holds a privileged place in the home: it is shared, stories are added, it represents a cultural continuity and a feeling of community across time, and it is preserved with affection and strong emotion. It is thus important to regard the wedding photograph not just as an image of something, but as a material object tainted with affect. As such one can easily imagine a fictitious Hollywood movie where a person tears apart a wedding portrait or erases the face of the beloved in the wake of a break-up. Wedding photographs are emotional objects.
At a first glance, wedding photography is an immensely conventional genre. A white bride and her groom dressed in black, posing front-on in the studio. Such is the typical wedding portrait in the 1870s. And this is how it is still looks, from Madrid to Oslo, from Tokyo to Chicago. But as recent research (see the first half of this section) has highlighted how family photography as a genre tells a multitude of stories, both private and collective, and therefore is an interesting object of cultural analysis, these insights apply to wedding photography as a genre as well. Behind the seemingly unchanged conventionality of wedding photography from the second half of the nineteenth century until today, there is a whole anthropology of both latent and manifest meaning and insights in the genre when we take a closer look.
Wedding photography, as conventional as we might think it is, actually follows the history of photography and its technical as well as sociological developments. At the same time, wedding photographs are a testimony to the “grand cultural narratives” around them. If history has changed, so has the wedding photograph. The imagery expresses the couple’s ideals about happiness and the good life, and at the same time it is a mirror of the wider societal development. Wedding portraits most often amplify social conventions, or sometimes play slightly critical or humorously with them – with our view of marriage, gender, body, sexuality, economics, and even photography itself.
The tradition of the genre started in the 1860s, partly in the wake of the French photographer Disdéri’s invention of carte de visite photography, which was a much cheaper technology than photography’s earliest form, the expensive daguerreotype with an exposure time of many minutes. In the slightly frightened, or at least dead-serious, look of the people portrayed in the earliest wedding portraits one can see that it was not an ordinary man’s everyday technology but rather a quite unfamiliar situation to visit a portrait studio.
Long into the twentieth century, the genre of the frontally posed couple in the studio apparently remained quite unchanged. We look at painted backdrops with fabulous upper-class architecture with balconies, pillars and enormous front steps, a romantic forest (Figure 3.1), or we meet the bride and groom in imposing indoor environments located in front of voluminous velvet curtains, gilded small tables and flower displays, surroundings that are probably not matched by the couple’s own middle- or lower-class home.
Most brides are dressed in white, the color of innocence. But in the beginning the bride was dressed in black. In the upper-class we find the white wedding dress dating back to the 1870s, while the lower-class black wedding dress lasts well into the twentieth century. If the bride was a widow, had children or was already pregnant, she still wore the black dress and made sure that the bouquet covered the pregnant belly. During World War II in Europe, it was difficult to buy silk or other fabric traditionally used for the wedding dress. Instead parachute silk became common.
The man, the powerful breadwinner of the family, should preferably be the tallest, and here a top hat or a stool would help. He is often also the graver of the two, carrying the responsibility of the new family’s survival, while the woman may well have a smile. Another example (Figure 3.2) shows a married couple from a rural village in Denmark in 1910. The wife is wearing her black “Sunday best,” supplemented by a long white veil. Traditionally, the veil represents innocence. The groom is standing on a box, covered by the floor tapestry, in order to appear taller than the bride. On the bride’s right side, we see a glimpse of the backdrop carpet not fully covering the brick wall behind the blanket. This indicates that the photo might have been taken outside. Their facial expressions are rather somber, but they hold hands, which is not that common in the period. The most common is the man slightly bending his arm, supporting the woman’s arm resting in his. Or there is no physical contact, as in Figure 3.1, which is from the same period as Figure 3.2, yet probably from a more urban environment, judging from the elegance of their clothes – his gloves, her dress embroidery – as well as the slightly shorter length of her dress. The painted backdrop illustrating a romantic wood setting in the first image might paradoxically also point to a more urban photo studio than the second one.
Figure 3.1 Wedding photography from the early 1900s. Anonymous, Belgium.
Figure 3.2 Wedding photography, from 1910. Photographer: Johanne Nielsen, Denmark.
The genre remains relatively unchanged long into the twentieth century. The studio portrait was the most common form of expression; in the early decades this was because of the dependency on strong skylights for the heavy tripod camera with the big glass plate negatives. The invention of the small-format portable, light-sensitive cameras with small negatives in the 1930s paved the way for reportage photography, which had an effect on the wedding portrait as well. Now it became increasingly possible to photograph outside the studio, and wedding photographers slowly began to borrow from reportage photography’s faster and more spontaneous expression. The event itself, including the guests, started to be documented in the years after World War II, but the conventions and traditions of the posed indoor studio portrait still dominated. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that the official staged outdoor wedding portrait became common. Today’s wedding photographers can work almost anywhere on land and under water. Hiring a professional to document and celebrate the big day often means the production of a whole variety of images apart from the traditional portrait of the newlywed couple thus constructing a whole visual narrative around the event.
Figure 3.3 is the official wedding photograph of the Brussels-based Vafeas couple, probably taken after the marriage, when the couple has changed into more modern, urban clothing. The photograph is the first, official marriage portrait in a larger wedding album. It is accompanied by a printed card saying: “Ady M. Hildersen, Michel Ch. Vafeas ont le plaisir de vous faire part de leur marriage qui a eu lieu dans l’intimité à Bruxelles le 24 avril 1971.” (“Ady M. Hildersen, Michel Ch. Vafeas have the pleasure of informing you of their wedding, which took place in private in Brussels, April 24, 1971.”) The album also consists of more snapshot-like photos, documenting their Greek–Catholic marriage act in the church, as well as photos from their later honeymoon. Yet it is this image which is used as their official wedding portrait. It is made in a classical and simple portrait style, where we only see their faces and upper breast. They pose with a gentle smile, hardly touching each other, apart from her hair almost touching his chin. She is in white, he is dressed in a suit, but nothing indicates that we are witnessing the formal union of husband and wife.
The dress is typically long into the 1960s, where a simple and streamlined style came into fashion. This was true for cars, architecture, design – and wedding dresses. Figure 3.4 is a Danish lower middle-class studio portrait from 1962. The dress is short, cut just below the knee, and the design is simple, as is the studio, with no romantic backdrops or lighting effects. Also the veil is now shorter and more practical; the woman’s mobility is increased literally as well as symbolically. A hint of a rising sexual emancipation is seen in the fact that the groom has his arm around the waist of his bride. But he is still posing as the dominant, responsible person, whose smile is not quite as bright as the bride’s. Although this couple has now been married for more than 50 years, the portrait still holds a central place in a frame on the living room shelves, now adorned with portraits of their three children and the children’s new families. Had this 1962-wed couple been divorced, this living room celebration of the family genealogy would probably have been put away in a drawer, if not torn apart.
Figure 3.3 The Vafeas couple, Brussels, 1971. Anonymous wedding photographer.
From the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s a whole new kind of wedding photography gradually appears, in pace with women’s rebellion, the hippie movement and the general “rebellion against the bourgeoisie.” Society and all the bourgeois, patriarch and materialist ideology adhering to the concept of the wedding, was changing and under pressure. From the 1960s onwards, the traditional wedding uniform is challenged as well. Men suddenly also wear white, topped with an untraditionally patterned purple bow tie, as in the photograph of the wedding of Alasdair Foster and Kirsty Jenkins in Scotland, August 1976 (Color Plate 12). Typical for the period, the bride’s dress is homemade; also worth noticing is the similar length and style of the couple’s haircuts. Likewise the photograph has a much more informal and non-professional character, as it is shot outdoors, as the couple is about to cut the wedding cake.
Plate 12 The wedding of Alasdair Foster and Kirsty Jenkins, Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Scotland, August 21 1976. Courtesy of Alasdair and Kirsty Foster.
Still, the ideologies and the amplification of social conventions of the genre are rarely questioned. In today’s wedding portraits we do meet all sorts of “rainbow” families, including “yours and my” children. Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, the wedding (again) became extravagant and glamorous, and the clothes are sometimes exaggeratedly glamorous with meters-long veils. The photographers started experimenting with a mixture of stagings of formal and dignified postures and seemingly candid, frivolous or often rather erotic motifs, pretending that we are viewing a moment of intimacy between just the couple.
Figure 3.4 The wedding of Nelly Bruun and Ib Jensen, 1962. Photographed by Buch & Co, Nakskov, Denmark.
Spanish wedding photographer Juan de la Cruz Megías’ portrait from 1997 (Color Plate 13), taken in southeastern, rural Spain, is a typical, and very beautiful, example of today’s outdoor wedding portraits. The car and the dress signal wealth and indicate status. Regardless of class and economic status, many wedding couples subscribe to upper-class values, objects and symbols on their wedding day, at least playing out a fantasy of future wealth. The placement of the couple is somewhat untraditional and not without humor; the groom is sitting on top of the trunk of the huge white limousine, the bride – dressed in a white dress with an almost absurdly long and voluminous train, filling up the whole front of the image – is standing in front of him as if honoring her husband. It seems that both the couple and the photographer at the same time step into marriage as a patriarchal system where the woman is submissive to the powerful man, and (maybe?) slightly mock it. Another typical feature is that the car is placed in a kind of “original” landscape, which seems almost untouched by modernity and civilization. This setting anchors the couple to eternity and unchanged traditions and values.
Plate 13 Juan de la Cruz Megías, Santomera, Spain, 1997. Courtesy of Juan de la Cruz Megías.
Historically, wedding photographers have often posed the couple inside some kind of framing, to express the unity of the couple as well as the experience of crossing a “threshold” for good when you enter marriage. After outdoor posing became common, we often meet the couple in a doorway, framed by the shape of a tree or a wooden avenue, posing on stairs or centered in various forms of “gates.” Another image by Juan de la Cruz Megías (Plate 14) plays with this idea by posing of the couple in a human-size concrete tube, literally showing the marriage as a rite of passage. Also here, the groom signals protection of his bride but at the same time she lifts up her skirt in a slightly sexualized and inviting pose.
Plate 14 Juan de la Cruz Megías, Senda de Granada, Spain, 1998. Courtesy of Juan de la Cruz Megías.
Today’s wedding ceremonies are usually extremely photographed events. Both the couple and the guests are constantly shooting with their own smartphones, and many share the results on social media, seconds after the shooting. In some churches it is not allowed to photograph during the ceremony because all this snapshooting is understood to ruin the concentration and the gravity of the event. Photography has never before been so trivialized, and at the same time it has turned into a social here-and-now technology where it is about sharing a stretched now with others across time and place. The established, ritualized wedding photographs, however, still consist as dream-mirrors for our own and society’s ideas about marriage, life, happiness and the future.
As, for instance, Lozada (2006) and Adrian (2003) have demonstrated there are indeed global, cultural differences and specificities as well as local framings in the look of, the use of and the emotional – as well as cultural – meaning of wedding photography. Photographs are never context-free and comparative studies of wedding photography practices and images across the globe are waiting to be done. Having said that, it is nevertheless one of the most historically, sociologically and culturally consistent photographic genres.
The wedding portrait points to the fact that even though photographs might be highly staged, conventional, uniform and ritualized, they at the same time carry deep cultural as well as emotional meanings – in the 1800s as well as today.
“… God said, ‘Let there be light, and light there was.’ You can say to the towers of Notre-Dame, ‘Place yourselves there;’ the towers obey. Thus have they obeyed Daguerre, who one bright day transported them to his home …” (Janin 1839, 438). When Jules Janin described the method of photography on the example of an architectural site, the word ‘photograph’ had not yet been coined. Architecture was the first model of photography – and at the same time it had the name of being the most boring application ever invented for this form of image making. In his historical account of the first hundred years of photography, Erich Stenger gave architectural photography no more than fourteen lines out of two hundred pages; other authors in 1939 did not even mention it (Stenger 1938, 17). But these authors had simply forgotten that there had been Modern Architecture, and that this would not have been possible without photography (Sachsse 1997, 119–121). By becoming a medium after being a method of recording for half a century, photography established itself around 1900 as the motor of mediating anything new in architecture, especially anything naming itself ‘modern’. There had been forerunners like Edouard Denis Baldus who took photographs of the new railroads in France in his laconic style today looked at as a form of pre-modern vision (Pare 1982, 27/229).
His whole room was panelled with paper boxes containing photographs set into order by indices; on this material he used to play like on a piano with an infallible memory, and thus, he could make appear instantaneously any type of tiny images from this treasure when drawing or giving order to someone… . All pictures honoured to be included in this collection had been occurrences of his lifetime; the collection was a herbarium of his artistic delights.(Schumacher 1935, 181)
Figure 3.5 Edouard Denis Baldus (ph.), Louis-Jules Bouchot (Arch.), Toulon Railway Station, 1861. Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005.
What the architect and city planner Fritz Schumacher describes about his teacher Gabriel von Seidl, represents the common practice of the media foundation of nineteenth-century architecture, namely any type of historistic practice – picking details from history as samples of ornament and decoration, not from personal study in front of the actual edifices but from widely distributed collections of photographic images for tourists and construction builders. (Sachsse 1997, 66–77). Other architects of the late nineteenth century, for example Henry Hobson Richardson, began to use photography in two directions. Besides the collection of samples for Richardson’s own practice, he started to distribute images of his works in magazines, books and newspapers (Woods 1990, 155–163). Though hindered by technical obstacles in printing and binding, his employment of photography for both archive and advertising shines a first light on modern media practices before these practices began to change architecture considerably.
With dry plate and autotype printing, photography had become a medium in the 1880s and 1890s, and its common practice began to change many aspects of everyday life and thus architecture, too. With the introduction of the picture postcard between 1890 and 1907, millions of images began to flood into the life of average people even if they could not afford to produce images themselves or to buy expensive portraits being made by professionals. Each bar, restaurant, sports ground, and railway station had picture postcards made of its own premises, and these were sold in thousands to passers-by (Baumann & Sachsse 2003). Collecting photographs had begun even before the picture postcard. After portraits of opera singers, dancers, and famous politicians, people had collected images from the World Fairs in Philadelphia, London, and Paris. And photographers like Eugène Atget had already started to produce vast collections of architectural views; as in Paris, nearly every city around 1900 had its own “Atget” to record streets, places, markets, and singular houses (Sachsse 1983, 69–98). Thus, architectural photography was omnipresent before World War I, and in the Great War it was the most important medium to show the destruction and loss created by enemy bombardment (Schmidt 2016, 13–51).
But the most important role of architectural photography was yet to come. The newly established medium helped to constitute two significant elements of modern architecture: the concentration on straight three-dimensional volumes and the loss of ornament, including the preference for the simple white wall plus the curtain wall of glass and steel. The medial quality of photography in this development was so overwhelming that it helped to plant the notion of an “International Style” as Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson had named it in their exhibition of 1932 (Hitchcock & Johnson 1997). Roughly outlined, this development can be attached to four names, each representing a different shade of the adventure of modern architecture in Europe. Walter Gropius changed the archive from which samples could be chosen; Le Corbusier radically changed the use of archives; Erich Mendelsohn implemented modern advertising in modern photography to modern architecture; and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe looked neither at archives nor at advertising but used photography for the constitution of his architectural work in the most revolutionary way conceivable. These architects chose their photographers carefully and developed their own practices within the medium; Gropius and Le Corbusier took, at least, amateurish photographs of their own building processes – they had Lucia Moholy, Alber Renger-Patzsch, Lucien Hervé, and a group of photographic celebrities working for them. Mendelsohn became an accomplished photographer himself, besides cooperating with Arthur Koester, Herbert Felton, and Alfred Bernheim. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe always claimed not to be interested in photography but not only did Sasha Stone – one of the best photographers in Germany – work for him but he produced perfect photo-montages himself. Within less than a decade, photography had established itself as the most important medium of bringing modern architecture into sight. Most importantly, from the late 1920s on, modern architecture became a topic of the illustrated papers which, at the same time, propagated the new vision in photography (Roessler 2009).
The result was a considerable change in the relationship between architecture and media. From now on edifices were erected to be photographed, filmed, and communicated in mass media (Zukowsky 1993, 15–31). Architecture was seen as an important part of advertising and propaganda. Be it the state propaganda of Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Hitler’s Nazi Germany, any building of a sufficient size was immediately published in magazines and books, on posters and displayed as large-format photographs in exhibitions (Czech & Doll 2007). Without photography, architecture would never have become a matter of self-representation for people like Walter Chrysler – the New York building named after him is mostly known through the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White – or for companies like Ford in Detroit – its River Rouge plant famous through photographs and paintings by Charles Sheeler. The metaphorical and political power of architectural photography can be understood by looking at the first cover of the newly founded magazine Life in November 1936: Margaret Bourke-White’s image of the chain of dams at the huge Columbia River Basin near Fort Peck, Montana, is as emotive as any propaganda photograph issued in the 1930s, clearly showing that U.S. president Roosevelt’s New Deal program was as effective as the positive outcomes of the European dictatorships – and this all shown by a magazine cover with an architectural photograph.
Stylistically, architectural photography had changed substantially since the turn of the century. From the yellowish to greyish soft-toned recordings of ancient and historic buildings which still formed the basic vision in the photographs of, e.g., Eugène Atget, over the mild shadows provided in pre-World War I photography as in the English Country House book offerings by, e.g., E.J. Bedford Lemere, to the expressionist views with stark contrasts as provided by German photographers of the early 1920s such as, e.g., Hugo Schmoelz senior or the brothers Dransfeld, runs a long line of aesthetic developments within the depiction of edifices. And there were a number of sidelines given by panoramic views, by images taken at night, and by the early evolution of photographic journalism. Parallel to this, there is a similar history in the stylistic approach of picturing architectural models which become more and more important in the establishment of the modern movements due to the growing number of competitions (Sachsse 2012, 25–28). By the late 1920s, a canon of interpreting modern architecture had established which most of the photographers followed, around the world. Rectangular views on white facades under dark skies were the base of showing the volume of buildings without decoration, thus creating a strong sculptural effect. Where the straight axis could not be taken as a viewpoint, there were strictly defined diagonal views from either 45° or 60° to the main facade; early morning or late afternoon are the best times for taking these photographs as the shadows are long and strong, and the sky can be filtered into a dark grey, nearly up to black. This canon can be viewed best by looking at the picture postcards of the Stuttgart Weissenhof exhibition in summer and fall 1927 (Baumann & Sachsse 2003, 16–35). It can also be exemplified in one photograph by Hugo Schmoelz from August 1931: The image of a small church for Catholic tourists on the Northern German island of Norderney, erected from plans by Dominikus Boehm, displays all the elements of modern architectural photography in order to praise modern architecture (Figure 3.6).
Astonishingly enough, the aesthetics of modern architectural photography stay the same in the 1930s despite the fact that the architecture begins to look different. Be it the elegant late modernism of the Italian fascism, the clumsy neo-classicism of Paul Troost and Albert Speer in Nazi Germany, the cake-like volume of Stalinist monumentalism, all of them were depicted as if they were utopian dreams of the International Style made out of glass, steel, and concrete. The monumentalism of these images refers to visual approaches from antique, especially Greek, architecture. While Le Corbusier preferred to use a rather dry recording of antique buildings, as given by the work of Fred Boissonnas, later authors were more impressed by the dramatic settings of, e.g., the Acropolis in Athens by Walter Hege who used lenses of 2m focal length to obtain visual results not seen before (Kestel 1990, 185–207). By the mid-1930s, Hege had not only received one of the early artistic professorships in photography but a number of commissions from the Nazi regime, taking photographs of many newly planned and erected buildings for Adolf Hitler and his government. During World War II, architectural photography underwent another important change that was already underway in World War I: the documentation of destruction executed by enemy troops, either in the air or on the ground. In all cities suffering from air raids, there were – either privately motivated or officially instigated – campaigns to record the damages; in some areas, there were even campaigns to document endangered buildings and their fixtures for eventual reconstruction (Fuhrmeister et al. 2006). And, of course, in many European cities, the photographers documented the destruction after World War II, resulting in famous books like Hermann Claasen’s Gesang im Feuerofen (Singing in the Oven of Fire) or Richard Peter’s Dresden: Eine Kamera klagt an (Dresden: A Camera Accuses), both from 1949. In Cologne, the architectural photographer Karl-Hugo Schmoelz produced an album of 52 photographic pairs showing pre- and post-war scenes of the city and its buildings; this album was handed over to the decision-making bodies of the town for their political engagement in the reconstruction of the city.
Figure 3.6 Dominikus Boehm, Touristenkirche Langeoog, 1931.
But soon the war was over, both in Europe and in East Asia and the U.S., and there were dreams to be made true. As early as in August 1945, the magazine Arts & Architecture started the Case Study House program. The magazine’s editor, John Entenza, invited numerous architects to plan and execute cheap houses for young families in the strictest terms of modernism conceivable (Smith & Gössel 2002) The program ran until 1966 and produced 36 designs; nearly 30 were eventually built. More important was the publication of these designs in the magazine. The photographs of Julius Shulman and his Californian colleagues produced the dream world of 1950s’ wonderful life, of prosperity without energy limitations. This dream world was settled by a media mix to which architectural photography delivered the background: home stories of Hollywood movie stars, politicians, and big business entrepreneurs under the bright sun and the blue sky of both California and the Mediterranean sea. The story of endless success and modern luxury swept over to Europe and changed its view on architecture as well, mixing elements of the new fashion design with ideas of shaping the interior of built dreams (Honnef 2012, 43–66). Magazines like the British House & Garden or the German Film & Frau settled the imagination of the Post-War West in a bright consumerism, mediated by beautiful architectural photographs in sets of five to eight images.
Dreams were not only realized in the private areas but in business and even in social services as well. When the chemical industry in West Germany was fruitful enough, a company like Hoechst could afford to erect a concert hall in the most modern of forms, and a photographer like Heinrich Heidersberger placed himself in front of it until the weather conditions were fine enough for him (Figure 3.7). The straight view, the mirroring of the roof in the front water basin, the placed car as a scale model instead of a human being – all this is applied modernism as in the best U.S. photographs. Only the dark sky with bright clouds is missing and has to be replaced by a photomontage, still an average operation in the architectural photography of the 1960s. This procedure was an easy task for black-and-white photography but a bit more difficult in color, but by the end of the 1960s almost no one printed anything but color photography in magazines and books on architecture. The new connection between architecture and design which developed within this decade moved away from its vicinity to fashion and turned to advertising – a new car was placed in front of a new building, people posed before modern architecture to promote canned food or pieces of furniture (Sobieszek 1988). Soon enough, architects would seek new commissions by submitting perfect color photographs to any form of publication imaginable.
Figure 3.7 Heinrich Heidersberger, Jahrhunderthalle Hoechst, 1966.
But there was an important interlude. It was based on photography but then abandoned the medium for concept art using film, video, and network communication, and it started with a huge opposition against any form of consumerism in architecture – basically with an opposition to any strictness in form and execution of architecture, most of all against any form of beauty (Meyer 1972). Again, the discourse was fought in photographs. Opposing against too much modernism in architecture meant replacing facades of steel and glass with big brutal blocks of concrete; it meant proposing short-lived experiments in the context of art exhibitions, and it meant using simple and badly taken photographs when there was something to be documented – and even these documentations were declared unnecessary from time to time. Forerunners to these developments were the members of the Independent Group from the UK, and their photographs were deliberately taken without expertise, just like the cheapest amateur images taken on family holidays (Robbins 1990, 55–122). From this point, there was a divergence in development in the U.S. and the European continent. Whereas simple photographs were used by the conceptual artists in the U.S., leading to cooperations by, e.g., the artist Ed Ruscha with the architectural office of Robert Venturi, or Denise Scott Brown and their graphic designer Steve Izenour (Venturi, Scott Brown & Izenour 1978), the European tradition followed the student movements around 1968. Groups like Archigram in London, and Coop Himmelblau and Haus Rucker Co. in Vienna conceived concrete utopias of living in contrast to the average urban dwelling programs, and their medium was short-term actions in public documented by journalistic photography (Dueesberg 2013). The results were raw montages of grainy images printed in low quality – from today’s viewpoint clear forerunners of Facebook and Instagram imagery.
The utopian megastructure debates and the political activism in architecture during the 1970s was a manifestation of a criticism on the modernity of the first half of the twentieth century, but there was another epistemic critique of modernity, too. By the mid-1970s, modern architecture and town planning had destroyed more buildings and their surroundings than the bombardments of World War II. In 1972, the UNESCO commission released the World Heritage Convention, referring to the loss of both natural and cultural heritage in the long run if there was no action taken. The preservation of natural heritages had been instigated by the report of the Club of Rome on the future of Earth on the assumption of ongoing industrialization; the cultural heritage was constantly under pressure of new development in architecture and city developments. Interestingly, all arguments were fought with photographs, and just like the collectors at the beginning of the twentieth century, numerous photographers started to catalogue and index all forms of architecture that could soon be lost. At the beginning of this movement, one can name Hilla and Bernd Becher with their “anonymous sculptures” (Becher & Becher 1970). European photographers followed in large numbers: Reinhart Wolf, Manfred Hamm, Michael Schmidt in Germany, the New Topographic movement in the UK. At the same time the national trusts and administrations for building preservation started to produce large inventories of edifices worth being kept in their existing form; and in 1975, the European Committee launched the European Architectural Heritage Year.
This development eventually began to form a global position of using architectural photography as a new form of interpretation – both as a document of the architect’s intention (which it had been before) and as the reference on the formation of history in itself. This could lead to the re-investigation of even modern architecture, as in the work of the Japanese photographer and publisher Yukio Futagawa with his monographies on Global Architecture. But it can be best shown in the work of Ahmet Ertuǧ who had worked as an architect and town planner before he led the earliest building preservation campaigns in Istanbul and finally turned to photography. His image of the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne displays all the elements of strict modernism in imagery, a preservational attitude to the subject depicted, and the rich decoration of oriental art – all in one image (Figure 3.8) (Ertuǧ 1999). In his later books, Ertuǧ integrated old and new architecture under the roof of one topic – like libraries, opera houses, or domes – and exposed the next quality of medial usefulness in architectural photography: the openness to all forms of coding, decoding, and re-coding. With different attitudes, this work is comparable to the oeuvre of a number of other important architectural photographers, e.g., Gabriele Basilico, Gilbert Fastenakens, Waltraud Krase, Klaus Kinold, Tomas Riehle, Margherita Spiluttini, or the early works of Lewis Baltz.
Figure 3.8 Selimiye Mosque, Edirne (Architect: Mimar Sinan), 2000. Credit: Photographed by Ahmet Ertuǧ.
This is, of course, the program of post-modernism, and this development would not have been possible without the large archives of architectural photographs that had been produced in the first century of this medium (Caraffa 2011, 11–44). When Charles Jencks propagated the lectures of post-modernism as a fundamental critique of modernism in the early 1970s, he could not foresee how fast the architectural practice would assimilate to it, and how fast architectural photography would grow into big business (Niall 2016). Aesthetically, anything was now possible. Color photography reached its technical peak by the 1960s, and most of the post-modern edifices were imagined under conditions of subdued light, at sunset or in the early night, thus creating references to the inside out and the outside in. Technically, there were no boundaries in making anything possible, from new lenses with extreme wide angles to emulsions of enormous qualities in large-format film sheets. Soon, the average format for good architectural photography was 8’ by 10’, used not only by professional photographers but by artists like Stephen Shore, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Christian Schink, André Merian, Stéphane Couturier and others who started to flood the galleries just at the moment when photography was taken over by digitalization. This was a slow development. At first, digital techniques were used in print preparations, then in scan technologies, before they finally grabbed the primary tools in camera and processing; in the 1980s the software development ran under the heading of the digital darkroom. Today, some of the photographers named here still use hybrid technologies: They take their photographs on large-format films, then scan these and print digitally.
Digital photography has a totally different relation to reality than the processes used before: Any reference is free to be changed by digital processing. This is, of course, equally relevant to architectural photography, and it has changed the view on architecture considerably. And it has changed the usefulness of architectural photography, too: The printed magazine is less and less important compared to the internet presence. Thus, there is less need for singular photographs depicting the full building or its facade but rather to show a sequence of images that simulate the tour around it – each photograph simply presenting one detail or two. Even architecture has changed under these conditions: Edifices from the offices of, e.g., Zaha Hadid, Daniel Libeskind, or Frank Gehry do not have a front or back to represent the character of its owner; they have to be seen by walking through or flying over. Developments like these lead to a double conclusion of the photographers’ approach to architecture: Artists like Armin Linke and Iwan Baan work like bloggers or experts in social media, they produce hundreds and thousands of simple images – thus following the lines of Concept Art in the 1970s – which have to be placed in installations, with projections, or on sufficiently programmed web-sites; even books can only give hints on what they produce (Linke 2016; Baan 2013).
On the other hand, perfectly styled and technically mastered photographs are needed by the architectural offices, and there are still numerous photographers who produce these images in large numbers. But, as can be seen from the example of H.G. Esch and his works for offices around the world, even their work has changed considerably (Figure 3.9). Nearly every building that he depicts already exists in perfect 3D renderings which fulfill all the needs of the architectural photography in use until the 1990s. Thus, he has to concentrate on details of the erected building which communicate important elements of being there. The office buildings in Hamburg’s eastern Wood Harbor look like nearly every other nearby edifice being built by large-scale investors with their own constructing workshops, so the photographer has to find a view symbolizing the topographic – in Michel Foucault’s terms, even the heterotopic – quality of the place. In the case of Esch’s photograph, this is the look out on the harbor through large glass frames giving the whole scenery the setting of a film still. Deliberately, this photograph was taken in black and white although all digital imagery is basically colorful. Any of today’s photographers have to find similar solutions for their work – depicting a building is no longer the most important part.
Throughout the last decades, architectural photography has undergone enormous changes: Some of the technical difficulties of the older practice disappeared into a coherent use of software applications, like the use of sharpness or the shift of focal points. Most important is, as this history may show, the new definition that photography has to give to any new form of architecture – if there is no facade, the access of the camera has to be different to the monumental approach common in the century before. Color or black-and-white is a decision of taste and symbolic quality, not one of technique. But what has not changed since photography came into existence is that architecture needs the photograph as much as photographers can live on architecture.
Figure 3.9 Astoc (Arch.), Office Building, Wood Harbor, East Hamburg, 2006. Credit: HG Esch (ph.), Astoc (Arch.), Office Building Wood Harbour East Hamburg, 2006 © HG Esch.
The photo booth as we understand it today was invented in New York in the 1920s by the Russian Anatol Joseph. This new invention was the subject of much interest from the outset and, owing to its rapid global success, contributed to the democratization of photography that had begun with cartes de visite in the 1850s and, somewhat later, with the appearance of the Kodak camera in 1888, which allowed a distinction to be made between the photographic practice and the technical work.
The device consists of a booth with a curtain located in a public space, which users enter to photograph themselves: anonymously, without an intermediary. The process is simple, fast and accessible. The machine dispenses four to six different portraits on paper within approximately 10 minutes. The portrait’s formal simplicity and the fact that it is a single print, with no copy, is what has generated a fascination with the photo booth image since the beginning which, together with the nostalgia about its disappearance, is still with us today.
The photo booth primarily emerged in response to the need to generate portrait photographs for official documents. This use was almost immediately subverted, however, and the photo booth space became a place where couples, families and friends posed in a casual manner, between the recreational and the ritual, and thus changed the rigidity of the photograph imposed as identification for legal validity. From an artistic perspective, this dual official and recreational function made it possible to link the photo booth with other approaches that questioned the regulatory, standardized image. The aesthetics generated by this device have given rise to numerous viewpoints encompassing various aspects treated in twentieth-century art, which will be developed here as follows: photography as identification or proof; the questioning of authorship owing to the technical characteristics of the photographic medium and the appropriation of images; and, finally, self-analysis and introspection derived from the exercise of the self-portrait and the political demands generated by the body itself.
Photography emerged in a positivist context and, owing to the mechanical and exact reproductions enabled by the procedure, soon won acclaim and was used in scientific research. In the mid-nineteenth century the photographic process was seen as a way of capturing reality, something which was unimaginable some decades before. This explains why the early years of the photographic medium were dedicated to documentary records. The apparent reality and objectivity offered by the photographic image led to it being perceived as truth, a confusion that still persists today. In the era of the daguerreotype, photography was already being used by the police for identification purposes. The photography service of the Paris Prefecture of Police originates from the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, when photographs were taken of suspects, and it was consummated in the 1880s with the anthropometric system set up by Parisian police officer Alphonse Bertillon. The Bertillonage system, which included reports containing physical measurements and characteristics, was widely used as a universal police identification system until it was replaced by fingerprinting.
Despite some initial doubts regarding the possibility of being able to capture the physical reality of a person, since the person undergoes a constant physiognomic transformation, judicial photography was used as a tool for identifying people at the end of the nineteenth century (About 2012: 265), consisting of police files that allowed citizens to be checked and legally identified. How the requirement for photographic identification arose is symptomatic of what started to become a new way of relating identity to image. With the birth of the identification photography industry, the identification photograph has since become a constitutive part of identity itself. In 1920s France, the number of foreigners grew considerably and they were therefore obliged to hold a special identification card. The economical cost of the photo booth, combined with the modest economy of the migrants, saw the medium impose itself as a technology for police use (2012: 268). From then on, the photo booth was installed in all European cities, allowing widespread use of the personal document with photograph, and it contributed to the citizens’ acceptance of their obligation to form part of a record that would allow the State to control them. In fact, the early adaptation of the new system of identification coincides with the emergence of totalitarian regimes. Since then, the photo booth image has imposed itself as proof or confirmation of an individual’s existence in society.
The photograph used in official documents as proof of identity is a strictly coded image. This type of official portrait must reflect the identity of the individual portrayed as objectively as possible, which is why certain recognizable features have been recorded from the outset: a simple pose; face centered in the frame (although some also took full-body portraits); sharp, white background; neutral light and no shadow. The instructions provided in the machines for obtaining an officially valid photo are clear, but revealing: do not smile, maintain a neutral expression. The photo booth, by virtue of its formal constriction and its automatism, imposes itself as the perfect device for achieving this sought-after neutrality, capable of creating a standardization of the individual image. These portraits are the opposite of those made by an author, where the intention is to highlight the physical or psychological aspects of the photographed subject or the photographer’s gaze. However, this normativity of the photo booth image is contested, not only in terms of appropriation of the device for recreational purposes, but also with regard to artistic reflection.
Portrait, the work made by photographer Thomas Ruff in 1987 in which he portrays his fellow students at the Düsseldorf Academy, was inspired precisely by the aesthetic norm of the photo booth. In his portraits, which are flat, without relief, there is a shift from the “neutral” to the vacuous, emphasizing the dangers of seriality and uniformization as the death of individuality, as demonstrated by the different totalitarianisms. In this respect, we can also interpret the process of the disappearance of the subject in the video Very Last Pictures (2006), by Hansjürg Buchmeier, in which the artist covers his face and hair with paint until his image, true to the aesthetics of the photo booth, disappears (Figure 3.10). Also similar is the work of Anne Deleporte, ID Stack (1991), where she uses the fragments of ID photographs—recovering the margins, not the part required for official purposes—to compose faceless figures, manifesting the abyss of an absence and an emptiness that we can relate to the vacuity shown on the faces portrayed by Thomas Ruff.
Figure 3.10 Allerletzte Fotos [Very Last Pictures], 2006 (video, frames), Edition Typoundso, Emmenbrücke, Switzerland. Credit: Hansjürg Buchmeier.
Official identification photography makes the photographed person an individual, but in a different way: they are now a civil and legal individual. Under the guise of freedom of the automatic device, what is generated is an image that is already indelible, a process whereby the authority records and registers the face. As stated by Ian Walker (2010: 29)
as for the photo booth, it could now only be read through a Foucauldian lens, aligned with the police photo, the anthropological photo and the medical photo as an instrument of power and knowledge, putting the subject firmly in their place in a prefiguration of the surveillance society which we all increasingly came to inhabit.
as for the photo booth, it could now only be read through a Foucauldian lens, aligned with the police photo, the anthropological photo and the medical photo as an instrument of power and knowledge, putting the subject firmly in their place in a prefiguration of the surveillance society which we all increasingly came to inhabit.
In this respect, the found photographs of Michael Fent (No Title, 2009) show how official identity is coercive, and that the process of standardizing the image involves an exercise of intrinsic oppression. This is achieved through the use of five ID photographs found on an Italian beach in 2003, where a boat filled with migrants from Kurdistan had landed. Similarly, Tomoko Sawada, in ID400 (1998–2001), deals with the alleged identification capacity of the objective machine, by interpreting 400 different identities, and Mathieu Pernot, in the Photomatons (1995–1997) series, focuses on the brutality of the identification process by depicting a group of children being photographed in the photo booth.
The very rigidity of normative photography, which is intended to be the purpose of the photo booth, simultaneously and almost immediately generates a desire to subvert it, either through an amusing group portrait or an artistic reflection that questions the very concept of identity. The intimate space, the absence of witnesses and the unique nature of an image without a copy incite and encourage the subversion of the normative.
The automatic nature of the photo booth is related to the history of the automaton, which generated a powerful fascination throughout the nineteenth century and was the subject of many literary works. It is no surprise therefore that the first photo booths were placed in spaces for leisure activities, such as in fairgrounds or shopping centers. People were awed by the booth itself and by the object it produced: a portrait of the photographed person on paper. The advertising of the time referred precisely to this fun aspect, which explains that not only is our identity captured in an image, but that it is also a game in which an identity is represented.
The first artists to use the photo booth were the Surrealists, in Paris at the beginning of the century. Attracted by the “magical” nature of the device and captivated precisely by the automatism of the photographic action of the device—it takes, develops, fixes and dries the photos—the photo booth became the artists’ favorite medium for portraits. André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Louis Aragon and René Magritte, among others, used the booth either alone or in groups. They used it as a plaything, breaking with the orthodox aesthetic of the booth, putting it out of focus or extending the depth of field (Pellicer 2011: 91). The desire, obviously surrealist, to break with or transgress the socially established explains, beyond the eminently playful, the face-pulling, the expressions of derision and the visionary alienation of their portraits, common characteristics that reinforced the character of the group. Moreover, the Surrealist project of the depersonalization and manifestation of a self that overrides the conscious self finds in automatism, as is well known, a method capable of fostering the emergence of the Surrealist image, one that reveals an unprecedented reality. And in this sense it is possible to relate the automatic writing of the Surrealist project with the automatism of the photo booth. In both cases it is a way of revealing a hidden reality, that of the unconscious self and that of the reality that escapes the human eye, and whose relationship Walter Benjamin thematized here:
it is another nature which speaks to the camera compared to the eye: “other” above all in the sense that a space interwoven with human consciousness gives way to a space interwoven with the unconscious … It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.
it is another nature which speaks to the camera compared to the eye: “other” above all in the sense that a space interwoven with human consciousness gives way to a space interwoven with the unconscious … It is through photography that we first discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis.(Benjamin 2004: 27)
This optical unconscious that Benjamin speaks of applies, in a similar way to Roland Barthes’ punctum, to that which eludes photography and goes beyond the will of the author, i.e. the photographer. In this regard it is interesting to note that, although it cannot be developed here, the concept of photogénie—developed by Delluc and Epstein and closely linked to Surrealism—which at the same time began to be applied to cinema to define its specificity, refers precisely to the ability of the image to reveal an underlying reality. It is the plus de réel of Surrealist tradition that Epstein identified with film.
For the Surrealists, therefore, the objectivity of the camera does not correspond to an alleged empirical objectivity but rather to a revealing objectivity. The work of art, in turn, becomes artefact or revealing object, in the same way that the creative process and even the artists themselves are depersonalized. It should be no surprise then that Breton said, in this respect, that he preferred his portrait to be generated by a photo booth than done by Man Ray (Chéroux 2012: 30). This dual ontological status of the image as understood by Surrealism was illustrated in the last edition of the journal La révolution surréaliste, about Magritte’s Je ne vois pas la (femme) cachée dans la forêt, in which almost all the core figures of Surrealism had their portrait taken in a photo booth, with their eyes closed. The image captured by the camera, the image of the figures with their eyes closed, alludes to another image, not manifested, which is the inner image in which we assume their gazes converge.
The automatism of the photographic action in the photo booth and the formal neutrality of the resulting image are related—as indicated by photographic historian Clémont Chéroux in the catalogue of the exhibition Derrière le rideau. L’esthétique Photomaton, held at the Musée de l’Élysée in 2012—to Roland Barthes’ two fundamental concepts of thought: the death of the author and writing degree zero. The semiologist criticizes the notions of originality, genius and inspiration, and argues that the author was an artificial figure constructed by capitalist societies in search of individual prestige. On the other hand, automation and formal constriction hinder the possibility of an aesthetic linked to the notion of author. Barthes applies it to a writing that cannot overlook the fact that it is itself, as language, a symbolic code that escapes and goes beyond the meaningful intention of the author. Literary modernism, with Mallarmé in the forefront, is about putting language itself into effect in order to reveal both its expressive possibilities and its limitations in showing reality. The ontological reflection on the expressive medium characterizes modernity: narration is relegated and the critical proposals, while they inaugurate new possibilities, are also at risk of falling into solipsism.
Barthes finds, however, the possibility of a “neutral” writing, a writing without a desire for style that stresses its indicative ability. Barthes found this possibility for the neutral in a particularly powerful form in photography. Photography that does not seek through the skillful use of its resources the choc photographique, discursive and stylistic intentionality, but rather photography that in a simple and fascinating way makes absent reality present. This fascination with an image that transcends all meaning is especially present in vernacular photography and for a great part of the twentieth century the photo booth was the most widespread and accessible medium for this type of image. Stripping the author of the creative role and position of central figure and analyzing this as a complex and variable function of discourse, as proposed by Foucault in “What is an author?” (1969), may lead to the inclusion of numerous voices as part of a common discourse.
Therefore, because of their popularity, these types of images have the capacity to record a collective identity, and even an entire era, beyond the great names under which similar artistic discourses are housed. In the 1970s, Jared Bark made a portrait of the United States, asking the inhabitants of different cities to take a picture of themselves in a photo booth. He then assembled and composed these portraits to create a new reading. Also similar is Dick Jewell’s work Found Photos (1977), where for over a decade he recovered discarded images that were considered scraps or remnants—many of them creased or torn and then put together again—from photo booths in Brighton and London, thus reconstructing and enriching the collective memory of an entire society already in demise.
The image produced by the photo booth is a direct positive, without a negative. The photo booth creates a single image in a moment and, as such, is unique. While we have pointed out the standardizing nature of the image established as public identity, the fact that it is a unique image highlights the interesting duality between the standardizing seriality of the image (in the famous “age of technological reproducibility” as stated by Benjamin (2003)), manifested clearly in the photo booth, and the uniqueness of the image it produces compared to the mass of reproducible and interchangeable images. The image of the photo booth recovers the auratic force of the image, being a manifestation of and the only link to a past moment and its memory. This, among other aspects, explains the fascination with photo booth images. The photo booth image becomes a fetish, charged with symbolic and testimonial force, iconic, both for people reconstructing their personal memory and for the growing number of collectors who bid in Internet auctions on images whose value lies, in many cases, more in the capacity to satisfy the nostalgic desire for possession than in the aesthetic value of the photographic image. The largest collections currently belong to Michel Folco and Joachim Schmid. Their work is nourished on found photographs where, in a surrealist way, the chance of encountering them reveals an urban subtext. The collectors inscribe data on the images which generate a discourse and, again, a pseudo identity: place, date, time found. In some cases the fetishized image is carefully framed.
In 1957 Esquire magazine invited photographer Richard Avedon to photograph some of the celebrities of the time using a photo booth. The title of the work, 25 c. a Celebrity, provides enlightenment on the symbolic transfer value of the photo booth image as a fetish. Avedon believed that photographic talent was not restricted to the technical limitations of the camera.
Thus, the challenge was to exhort the automatism of the photo booth until the fragile concept of authorship was restored in it. Avedon’s images serve as fetishes, the fascination with which has little to do with the authenticity of a subjective gaze; on the contrary, it is through automatism that the image of the “celebrity” is given more presence and supposed authenticity. It is a procedure by which to generate that plus de réel of the image that possesses a somewhat magical element, associated with the aforementioned fantastical qualities that are atavistic to the photo booth.
Aware of the recreational attraction of the device, Italian artist Franco Vaccari proposed placing a photo booth in a different fairground environment, the Venice Biennale 1972, where he conducted a social register. The work, Exhibition in Real Time, documents the public’s passage through the installation, where they were invited to take pictures of themselves in a photo booth. Vaccari carried out a work of appropriation. The images were juxtaposed on the wall of the installation, the people fixed their own photo booth strips to it, and the sequences were manipulated and they interacted with each other. What they clearly show is that the photo booth inexorably activates the pose of the photographed person owing to a constant awareness and positioning: a split between see and be seen. In this way, the exercise of showing oneself results in an impossible neutrality that manifests the tension between private and public. Vaccari declared himself opposed to the change that was institutionalized that same year: in 1972 the Venice Biennale was centered around the concept of behavior and, a few months later, the Documenta V exhibition in Kassel proposed a return to the “mythologies of the artist” as one of its themes. It is a nostalgic return to the concept of author, which is now derived from the work itself, based on enquiries into identity. The link that modernity had tried to break, that of artwork with any form of exteriority, including the exteriority of its authorship, was re-established as the refuge of the authentic.
Although the photo booth questions the concept of authorship owing to its automatism and formal constrictions, it also allows a use whereby performative and narrative identity construction are enhanced. The term “identity” is derived from the Latin identitas and refers to that which is identical. As explained by historian Estrella de Diego (2009: 24), there was a change in the typical formulas of the eighteenth-century portrait in terms of identity understood as the identical (the more significant group characteristics that an individual shares with others) which evolve towards identity as the “quintessence of the uniqueness that separates one person from another.” The photographic self-portrait became an alternative to the mirror (which had historically been where one would look at oneself, together with the pictorial self-portrait, to which not many people had access) and an ideal tool for exploring individuality and the concept of identity. The camera helps to create alternative representations of oneself, one’s gender, class or race, gradually becoming the main mechanism for creating, modelling, questioning and advertising one’s identity, both as an amateur and as a professional.
The photo booth also collaborated in the positioning of the photographic camera as a key tool for representing oneself. Its specificity is constituted by a series of elements that go beyond the strictly photographic frame of the image it produces. In this respect, it can be considered an artistic genre in itself, as Raynal Pellicer sought to demonstrate in Photo Booth: The Art of the Automatic Portrait (2011). The photo booth is first and foremost a place, with its own peculiarities, designed for generating a kind of image inevitably linked to the specific nature of this space. The booth is a space of symbolic representation. Clément Chéroux (2012) uses the metaphor of the confessional to explain what the photo booth permits: a public place that invites intimate confession. As with any intermediate place, as we have seen, it is susceptible to hybridization and play. There, the private and the public, the internal and the external, are intertwined and respond to each other. In 2013 the artist Tracey Emin—following in the footsteps of many artists who make the private public, a key artistic trend of the second half of the twentieth century—created the work entitled My Photo Album, a visual autobiography compiled from albums that she had kept since childhood. The images show her family trips, her student days, her exhibition openings and self-portraits with famous people. The book devotes several pages to photographs taken in a photo booth, and even includes her university student card and passport. Emin, starting from the aesthetic of the family album, embarked upon an introspective journey looking at different stages of her life and observing the evolution of the self. In a similar way, the artist Brenda Moreno in her work B to B (2016) used a collection of workbooks that included photographs and collages, and searched for her past through her identity (see Color Plate 15). For this purpose she chose her own family photographs and photographs of other people and horses that had in some way formed her past. One of the collages consists of ID card photographs that show her during different periods in life, thus demonstrating the exercise of memory that marks the work. In Self-portrait in Time, Esther Ferrer photographed herself every year from 1981 to 2014 using photo ID format. She creates dozens of portraits assembling self-portraits from different dates and showing the concern about the passage of time that dominates her artistic corpus.
Plate 15 B to B. Credit: Brenda Moreno.
It is important to point out that it was precisely at the end of the nineteenth century, shortly before the birth of the photo booth, that new forms of understanding identity and the self emerged. The notion of self-portrait evolved towards a conception in which it was understood to represent the artist’s state of mind and his existential or social conditions. Among other reasons, this was due to the influence of the psychoanalytic theories promoted by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung at the beginning of the twentieth century, which led to the self-portrait being understood as the production of a new self and not as the reproduction of an already existing self, thereby demonstrating its multiplicity. The self-portrait evolved towards a more psychological profile, leaving aside physical appearance and social position. The artists of this time, moving away from naturalistic representation, explored their creativity by producing more subjective interpretations, as occurred with Cubism, Expressionism and Surrealism.
The importance of the photographic camera in the evolution of the self-portrait is also linked to the device itself, since, as we have seen, it is a device that “guarantees” greater reference than other artistic disciplines; a feature that is even more pronounced owing to the absence of a photographer in the photo booth. The easy access to this new device is reminiscent of the new escalation of democratization of the photographic medium that is occurring these days with mobile phone cameras, giving rise to the “selfies” pandemic. Paradoxically, however, despite its formal freedom the selfie has become, as an epitome of the hyper-exposure of individuality, just the opposite of the self-portrait, as it is used for gregarious identification and almost always falls into a cliché, i.e., into normative standardization. Although the use of the photo booth may have participated in an imposed normative, both in the official area and the recreational, the creative discourses generated allow the gaze to be broadened with respect to one’s own identity. This trend started at the end of the 1960s: the increase, at that time, in psychoanalytic and new post-modern theories that revisited the notion of subject partly explains why the self-portrait became a frequently used vehicle for artists who wanted to express themselves in autobiographical or identifying terms. The photo booth became a perfect ally for this type of research since the intimate space of the booth multiplies self-awareness and attention on oneself. Manifested in this space is the concept of extimité (extimacy), coined by Lacan (1990) in the 1958 seminar “The ethics of psychoanalysis,” by adding the prefix “ex” to the French word intimité (intimacy). This term explains the opposition between inside and outside, represented in the artistic corpus of authors such as Francesca Woodman and Antoine D’Agata. The most intimate would be forced to recognize itself outside—the unconscious being an intersubjective structure—and thus the inside/outside opposition would no longer make sense, by revealing the inside, the intimate, in the outside, in public.
The photo booth is an intimate space with no witnesses, similar to the private space of the home. This space is conducive to developing all the issues that revolve around self-representation as the multiplicity of the self or the consequent recognition and rejection produced by the image of oneself. As with any self-portrait, the photo booth image always involves a doubling of the self. In Sabine Delafon’s work I’m Looking for Myself (2005), the sosías (one’s double) is manifested as absolute otherness through a collection of self-portraits made in the photo booth. Another artist who works with these narratives of identity with the photo booth is Michel Salsmann. The formal constriction and the supposed neutrality of the environment seek, as we mentioned above in relation to police identification processes, a standardization of the image. Salsmann, in MS. 6594 (1965–1994), uses this formal similarity to reconstruct a temporal arc that documents the changes in his face, immobile over time within the frame of the photo booth image. This procedure allowed him to document the variants, but he was particularly interested in finding the features that do not change. Using a scanner, the artist manipulated and superimposed the photo booth images to generate synthesis images in which a blurred face appears, which questions the clarity of identity while simultaneously pursuing the desire to find that unchanging essence, capable of substantiating the self. It is again a critical exercise that is not without nostalgia for a lost psychological and metaphysical strength, where the metamorphic and the changing refer to an attempt, a hint, of ultimate origin.
At the same time as the introspective analysis of this medium, from the 1960s and 1970s onwards, with the rise of social movements—especially the feminist movement—and gender studies, many artists used the self-portrait for socio-political demands. Through art, they started to give a voice to issues that did not traditionally form part of the great narratives. Artists begin to express identity not so much in the first person but in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexuality, issues that had been overlooked in a predominantly Western, white, male art circuit.
The case of Cindy Sherman is key to understanding this type of work since she took self-portraits of herself for over 40 years, although her work cannot be considered autobiographical (Respini 2012: 12). Sherman conducted a study on the construction of identity in our society by using a broad visual imagery, including cinema, advertising and the Internet, compiling an album of portraits that reflected Western society. In 1975, the artist photographed herself in a photo booth, producing a work composed of 23 photographs (Untitled #479) in which she transformed her appearance by changing her hairstyle and clothes and applying make-up even to the extreme, thus exaggerating the artificiality of the pose. This early work, carried out when she was still a student, already shows how she uses her body and face as a blank canvas on which to project multiple identities. The series also reveals the artist’s admiration for the work of Andy Warhol who, in the 1960s, had placed a photo booth in the Factory, and portrayed the people who visited. The artist made the impersonal photographs his own through his famous serigraphs, marked by the idea of seriality and repetition that also exists in photo booth images but which are considered a brief sequence.
In a similar way to Sherman, where the discourse is about collective identity, the artist Lorna Simpson has been exploring issues of race and gender since the 1980s, from her position as an African American woman. In 2008 she created Photo Booth, an installation composed of 50 photo booth images from the United States in the 1940s, accompanied by drawings of abstract black forms that represent the elusive nature of identity that lies behind the social code. Most of the portraits are of black men and children, highlighting the inequality of gender within a system that is also racist.
The three thematic blocks presented here are related to the aesthetics of the photo booth—proof, appropriation and identity—and can also overlap, i.e. many works deal with several issues. For example, Lorna Simpson’s work, produced from found images, is related to the issue of appropriation and authorship as well as to collective identity. Similarly, the work of Hansjürg Buchmeier could also fall under the identity issue, as well as illustrating the subject of official and proof photography. The numerous artworks based on the photo booth illustrate key issues about the history of photography, particularly about its evolution and recognition as an artistic discipline. The first two—proof and appropriation—are intrinsic to the medium owing to their nature and technical characteristics. The third—identity—forms part of one of the strands of photography in the second half of the twentieth century, becoming a fundamental instrument for autobiographical purposes. In this process, the photo booth brought a new style, and thus a new viewpoint of photography in particular and visual arts in general.
Swaantje Güntzel and Chris Jordan—two artists who use photography, film, performance and other media to speak about environmental issues, among other things, and who are occasionally labeled as activists. How useful is this term for you, and in case it is not, how would you describe the focus of your work?Swaantje Güntzel
I checked Chris’s Wikipedia entries in different languages, and while the English entry calls you an artist, the German one describes you as filmmaker, photographer, social and eco-activist, and in French, they call you artiste engagé. I believe that in countries like Germany, unfortunately, we are very keen on categories, and as we are very fond of environmental activists, it is easy to put you into that box. I mean in the end it’s more about our own conception, isn’t it?Chris Jordan
Well, I think it’s a funny thing that there is even a category of activist, especially environmental activist. If an environmental activist is somebody who loves the world, then we should all be in this box, we should all be activists!SG
I think that many people still expect artists, in general, to detect weak points in the system; we are supposed to change the world, or at least point out the problems. With the environmental topics, in particular, I have the feeling that people are relieved to see that I am dealing with them, so they don’t have to do it themselves. It seems that the label “environmental activist” helps a lot with that because you can separate the activists from your own world and can pass the responsibility over to them. Especially when it comes to the subjects that Chris and I work on since at the end our work reveals that we are all responsible for problems such as plastic pollution. Interestingly enough, artists whose work deals with political issues like the refugee crisis or wars, for example, are not being labeled as “human rights activist.”MN
There is a category called Social Activism …SG
Yes, but I think the environmental activist category is different because, as Chris said, we should all feel involved, because our mere existence on the planet causes this problem.CJ
It sort of goes without saying that every artist who is seriously engaging with the world is an activist in some way or another. They are all trying to shift something, but at least in the US, the term activist or the whole world of activism is deeply infused with hypocritical judgment and telling people how they are supposed to behave … it’s divisive! And being hypocritical is not effective. This is why I feel so strongly that the arts have a transformational potential because art is not about telling people how to behave. The great power of art is its ability to hold an issue, to hold the complexity, to hold the irony, to hold the hypocrisy and hold our sadness, and our rage, and our anger.SG
Absolutely. It is like holding a mirror to reflect what people are doing, but without judging, and not as if we were on a crusade or on a mission. Honestly, it’s not my first goal to change people’s behavior. I want to make them look into the mirror and look at themselves. And either they change something, or not. The activist fights a neverending war though, to make people change. Before studying art, I studied anthropology and for me, the whole idea of being an anthropologist is that you observe people’s behavior and then you try to understand and categorize it. The freedom I have now as an artist is that I can interpret it and draw different conclusions. As an anthropologist you have to stick to certain schemes; you have to pretend to be very objective. As an artist I do have the freedom to take it a step further—I can have a subjective opinion. But that still doesn’t mean that I want to pressure people.CJ
You know there’s another aspect to the world of activism that has grown in the last ten years, and it is the annoying Call to Action mentality. Every time I give a talk, someone during the Q&A asks “OK, so what should I do?” and it’s the weirdest thing because people expect that nowadays. Lists are very popular, and every single time it’s a list of these pathetic tiny gestures that do not change anything. At the end of An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore presents this massive catastrophe, and then he suggests that you pump up your tires to full pressure next time you go on a road trip so you get the best gas mileage. My favorite “solution” to a plastic waste problem is that when you order a martini at a bar, make sure to ask for no straw! To me those kinds of calls to action are disempowering and have the exact opposite effect than they should have because, first of all, what they’re saying to the viewer is: “Now that you know this gigantic problem, the only thing that I have faith in you to do is something completely pathetic,” and even if everybody in the world did it, it wouldn’t make any difference.SG
Yes, it’s depressing because, I mean, isn’t my work obvious enough to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing? Instead of asking, people should just look and think and then come to a conclusion by themselves.CJ
I think what’s actually happening is that this person feels uncomfortable and that’s the exact intention of our work: To give them some kind of piece of information that breaks their heart, or maybe breaks their heart open, and tweaks their mind, their whole worldview in some way. And now they are feeling that they raise their hand and ask what should I do so that that feeling goes away, at the end of a talk, or a documentary film or when seeing your work in an exhibition. If we tell them what to do, it diffuses the entire effect of our work. If we say for example all you have to do is go to a website and pay five dollars then that person will feel relieved, even if they never go to that website. So the answer should be: “Feel whatever you are feeling! I am just the artist, I will not tell you what to do.”SG
This might have to do with the perception of contemporary art in general because many people think that they need instructions for viewing an artwork. I have had so many discussions with friends, especially with people who are not into art, who were begging me to give them a code or to tell them how to read art. I think that even with unsettling art, the best way to deal with it is to just open up and allow yourself to have an innocent immediate interaction. When it comes to work like ours, the immediate impact might be very strong and you have to allow yourself to go through this experience. [See Color Plate 16.]
Plate 16 Swaantje Güntzel, MICROPLASTICS III/Discofish, backlit print, lightbox, 50 x 80 cm. Plaice (pleuronectes platessa) covered with glitter particles extracted from beauty products. Credit: Henriette Pogoda.
Both of you work in the photographic medium, but also explore other media such as film, installations, and even performance. What is special about photography, and how does it serve you in the context of your work?SG
As far as I can judge, we both work very conceptually. It is one thing to take a picture but it is another to create a concept behind a series …CJ
The thing I love so much about photography is the way it portrays the real world. In the New York Fine Art world, the whole conversation has been all about how photography isn’t real and that there is no real world, but still, when compared to all other artistic media, be it sculpture, painting, dance, music, and so on, photography is still quite a representational art form.SG
True. Yet, the reality is always the reality of the photographer. You can make a lot of choices, starting with what kind of camera you use and what kind of frame, how you will compose the image, how you will retouch, and so forth. There is always a reality behind the photograph, which is not the reality on the photograph …MN
And still, and despite all we know about the reality behind photography, if we look at the image of a dead bird, with its belly filled with plastic parts, and we realize that this is not a painting, but a photograph, it is like looking down an abyss. We are captivated by the possibility that this actually could be “real,” and that we are witnesses of some terrible crime. Lens-based images tend to touch us in a different way than those which are not … don’t you agree?CJ
I totally agree that we work from our own perspective, and sometimes we don’t even know that we are bringing our own agenda when showing the world in a particular way. However, people trust that when they look at a photograph they are actually looking at something real, and of course, many photographers have riffed on that, by tweaking the edges of the medium and pushing its limits. I call myself a documentary photographer because I do not construct a composition—I just put my subject right in the middle of the picture. I don’t want people to look at my photographs and think of me as a great photographer. I want to put people in my shoes and allow them to see what I saw. When people look at my photographs of the dead birds they don’t think about me—they think “Oh my god, look at that bird’s body filled with plastic”—and that’s why I love photography because, despite its limitations, it is the furthest you can go to depicting the real world.SG
It is interesting to see that we both work on the same themes and maybe even cooperate with the same marine biologists, but our way of working is very different. I do not go to Midway; instead, I get boxes full of marine debris shipped from Hawaii to me. I sit in front of the plastic objects spread out on my table and start to think how I can work with them. Then I set out a trap by combining the debris with materials that have a positive connotation, like embroidery or vending machines for gum balls [see Color Plate 17], for example, something that everyone in my generation grew up with. The moment you see these things you always think about something nice, warm and funny, but then I put the disturbing content inside and it’s like a time bomb: First you swallow it, but it might explode at any moment. Working with these subjects also helps me to cope with them. I am a typical child of an era that in German we call the era of “ecopessimism”: the term describes the late 1970s and 1980s, when the whole society was convinced that the planet would explode and that children wouldn’t have a future, that the trees were dying, the rivers were polluted and on top of everything else there was Chernobyl. We were brought up by teachers who were part of the 1968 Revolution, who had the idea of creating a new society, where citizens would be responsible for preventing another world war and environmental disasters. So what happened at the end was that they put a lot of responsibility on our shoulders by telling us that they had messed it up but now us kids would have to solve it. As a child, it was literally too much to think that it was on me to prevent the next war and to save the planet. This was so stressful that I spent nights crying, sitting in my bed thinking how I could solve this problem by myself. And even though I am an adult now, it still haunts me, since at the end of the day the problems are still there, so I guess my art at least allows me to find a way how to cope with it because otherwise, it would destroy me.
Plate 17 Swaantje Güntzel, Stomach Contents XXL, 2014, height 145cm, metal, plastics: Vending machine filled with toys swallowed by Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) in the Pacific Ocean.
The world of activism just tells us how fucked up the world is, and the energy of despair doesn’t motivate anyone to do anything. We still have to look into the darkness but we also have to look to the other side, to see the incredible beauty and mystery and miracle of our world. We have to understand that every single one of us won the lottery ticket of the universe to be here and to be alive, and to me, this side outweighs all of the bad news by many magnitudes …SG
If you look at the media coverage from the 1980s, it seems that the main aim was to shock people, to frighten them and to freak them out, in order to change their behavior. But if you traumatize a whole generation, the only thing they will want is to protect their own small niche where they can live their life. Back then I believed that my biggest fault is that I was born because I am the one causing the problem and at that age, you don’t have the intellectual capacity to respond to the problem or put it into proportion. In my work, I try to provoke positive feelings and mix them with the negative content, so you have more options, not just this terrifying image.CJ
What drives our society today is the fear of pain, we look at all the bad news, and we feel so much pain that we fall into depression and hopelessness and paralysis. When we push aside our pain we are also pushing aside the deepest part of ourselves, which is our innate natural love for the miracle of life and for each other. What I am trying to hand over as a lived experience in my Midway film is that grief is not the same thing as pain or despair. Grief is the same as love, a felt experience for something we are losing or have lost and when we feel grief we reconnect with this deep part of ourselves. As an artist, my wish is that my work helps people to reconnect with the deepest part of themselves and then allows them to act, instead of staying paralyzed.MN
Maybe this feeling is already present in your series on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was a “documentary” work in the sense that you went to the same places as the photojournalists who were covering the story for the news industry, but you used another methodology—a large-format camera—and the pictures you took there are very different from theirs. The news pictures after the hurricane mainly showed people carrying their last belongings, or their life in the shelters, whereas you show what is left behind, the destroyed houses that have something sculptural, maybe even poetic. In your series Running the Numbers, however, digital manipulation becomes a dominant factor, something that would not fit the classic definition of documentary photography. I am thinking of your interpretation of Hokusai’s Great Wave, which is composed entirely of small plastic objects. [See Color Plates 18–20, and the title page of this book.] These are the same kind of objects that you find in the bellies of the albatrosses on Midway Island [see Color Plate 21] and, of course, the same objects that Swaantje uses in her works, such as the bubble gum machines …
Plate 18 Chris Jordan, Gyre, 2009, from the series Running the Numbers II: Portraits of Global Mass Culture.
Plate 19 Chris Jordan, Gyre, 2009, from the series Running the Numbers II: Portraits of Global Mass Culture [detail 1].
Plate 20 Chris Jordan, Gyre, 2009, from the series Running the Numbers II: Portraits of Global Mass Culture [detail 2].
Plate 21 Chris Jordan, CF000668, 2009, from the series Midway: Message from the Gyre.
Well, my Running the Numbers series is really an attempt to comprehend the enormity of these issues and I believe it is just a skill we all need to acquire, to be able to understand what is happening on a global level. The problem is that the only information we have about these global phenomena is numbers: the number of plastic bottles we consume, for example, in the United States, is 210 billion plastic bottles, last year, and in the same amount of time, we emitted 36 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere, which means 72 trillion pounds of carbon. We read these numbers, we see data and graphs and pie charts and we think we comprehend it but there are all of these studies that show that the human mind cannot comprehend numbers on a scale of more than a few hundred or maybe a few thousand. In fact, there is a radical difference between the way we comprehend the number one and the number two. There is a study where they showed a picture of one starving child to a test group and they asked how much money would you give to save this one starving child and the average amount was around 50 dollars. When they showed a picture of two starving children the amount goes down to 5 dollars, and if you go above the number seven, the amount goes down to 0.
Every day we are bombarded with news of billions and trillions and we can’t comprehend them, thus my wish with the Running the Numbers series was to provide some comprehension of the issues at stake. To use Swaantje’s terminology, I am making these time bombs, in form of a journey: From a distance, you look at my pieces and it’s always something beautiful or at least non-threatening, such as a painting or a forest or a whale, or the Japanese wood print you mentioned. So hopefully the person comes up close and sees that it is not a forest, but lots of paper bags or huge quantities of plastic, and when they go up and read the label on the wall, the time bomb explodes! My intention is to lay a trap and to feed someone information that they otherwise wouldn’t digest and help them comprehend and connect with these issues on a global level.SG
It seems that we use the same mechanisms to attract people through positive, aesthetic experiences and then make them aware of the sad truth behind it …CJ
The Tibetan Buddhist practice called Tong Len, meaning giving and taking, consists of breathing in all the horror of our world and passing it through your heart, and as it goes through your heart, you transform it into love and beauty, and as you exhale, you exhale love and beauty into the world … I like that idea and try to do something similar in my artistic practice. I don’t want to just hand the horror to the viewer. I really love the experience of when horror and beauty are combined so seamlessly that you can’t even tell the boundary when it is so horrible that you can’t even look at it but so beautiful that you can’t turn away …MN
Is this something you can relate to, Swaantje?SG
Beauty and horror … well, this spring I did several interventions and performances that were dealing with plastic pollution in the public space. One intervention was staged in the Greek city of Thessaloniki. There are a lot of archeological sites in the city, and they fill up with the trash from passing pedestrians. So we collected that garbage and brought it to the beach promenade. The people of Thessaloniki are very proud of this promenade; it is the place to hang out, it is clean and nice. We rented a bike for two people that sit next to each other and drove down the promenade. I wore a very obvious retro vintage dress and high heels, so I could not be confused with a normal tourist, and my partner looked a bit like a sailor. In a very performative gesture, I started to throw the garbage on the promenade while we were driving the bike and people got so mad that they started spitting at us, they hit us and yelled at us, they tried to stop us, it was amazing. [See Color Plate 22.] I still have no real explanation but it seems we really hit a nerve there. It takes me months to recover from such strong experiences, as I am not looking for the attention. I just think it is the next logical step within the logic of my work but it is not that I am looking for a reaction in the first place but I want to take my concept to the next level and as part of my job I have to live with the consequences.
Plate 22 Scheibe & Güntzel, Plastisphere, Thessaloniki Promenade, 2016. Plastic garbage collected in the “Galerius Palace” archeological site in the center of Thessaloniki, Greece was relocated in the course of an intervention at the promenade of Thessaloniki. Credit: Giorgos Kogias.
We have spoken about the message, of how you transform it, exhale beauty and build traps, but what I am still missing is the “final product”: how it is packaged; how it reaches the spectator, the museum or the art gallery; how attractive is it for a collector to buy such a piece? Is the market a necessary part of your working cycle, how much importance do you give to that and, if I may ask, how do you pay your rent?CJ
I have a general dislike for the art world and the more I learn about it, the more I dislike it, so I try to avoid as much as I can. When I am creating a piece, I think about it as my duty, I never think about the market or the audience, but instead I think about the subject. If it needs to be 20 feet wide then I make it 20 feet wide, and if it needs to be some strange thing that no one will buy, like birds filled with plastic, so be it. In fact, no one is buying my birds filled with plastic, even if they are priced very low, but I don’t really care about that, although in a way I am damaging my own ability to put my work out there without having a fixed stream of income, so it is a difficult situation, really. I am just now sort of waking up to the realization that I need to be accepted in the art world and I need to play the game a little bit because I want my work to be in galleries and in museums.SG
Really? I mean … everybody knows your work, everybody. I talk to so many gallery owners and whenever I say I work with marine debris swallowed by albatrosses they always mention your work as a reference, and at least here in Europe everyone believes you are a big star in America.CJ
I would love to show my work more in Europe, but you know it is hard because I’ve sort of shot myself in the foot by making works that are so big … to print them is very expensive, and shipping can cost up to 5000 dollars, so when I get invited to exhibitions, I have this bad practice of sending my image files to the venue and they make a print and at the end of the exhibition they destroy it. I leave a trail of destruction behind me everywhere I have an exhibition and I always wished that somebody would buy it there and it would go into a museum and sometimes I just donate it to museums after the show. I wish I had smaller pieces, and this is something I love about the Midway film: it is going to fit on a thumb drive that I can put in my pocket.SG
It is just now that for the first time I am negotiating with a gallery who wants to sign me. For many years, gallery owners openly told me that my work is too hard to deal with and they didn’t want to take any risks, so I had to sell to people who either know me personally or have been following my career for a longer time. As my work is not in the high-end segment of the art market yet, collectors don’t trust my market value, but just look at the work in terms of “Would I want to have this in my living room?”—and they don’t. Galleries who work with topics related to social responsibility are very rare so now I’m happy that this gallery found me and is giving me the opportunity, because before I was very much on my own.MN
So do you think there will be a change in the art world that gives more space to positions like yours?SG
Well, in the case of plastic pollution it is something I’ve been observing for a long time now. When I started to do my first work on marine debris in 2009—after reading stories about birds swallowing plastic and after seeing Chris’s and David Liittschwager’s work—no one knew about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch at that time. In California, Captain Charles Moore began to talk about garbage floating in the Pacific and began to deal with the topic, but it took many years until people started to talk about it, at least here in Europe. Now, many years later, it is everywhere, in the news, in museums, in popular culture, so this might help me as an artist to find a niche but still it might take a while before I can really pay my rent from making this kind of work.CJ
Even if I’m completely broke at the moment and my wife and I are in the process of declaring bankruptcy, I don’t want my work to be a commercial product. I wish I could create my work and donate it for free to museums and that is what I want to do with my film, I want it to be a public artwork so I’m trying to figure out ways to distribute it in the absence of any money. Hopefully, there are enough people who want to watch my film in the first place.
The interview took place via Skype on August 22, 2016.