Paul Kooiker


Essay by Brad Feuerhelm

The work of Dutch photographer Paul Kooiker occupies an awkward liminal space somewhere between legendary filmmaker David Lynch and the surrealist Hans Bellmer. Yet, he claims that he draws no such direct references from the aforementioned stalwarts. As for inspiration, it’s “just life itself,” he states.

Still, his use of overly lush and vivid technocolour springs a fountain of false nostalgias, an anachronism that results in a kind of new noir. Such a palette evokes the membrane of a honey-soaked eye, blinking in the burning sunlight of a bright day. When the eye reopens the colour appears drained, but then it begins to materialise again in pantone schemes that resonate with intensity. It’s an optimising effect for the evocation of a memory that we may have only seen in a film.

With regards to the spectre of Hans Bellmer, the work considers the mode of repetition and the sculptural if disembodied female form. “In general I am not interested in the single image,” explains Kooiker. “I like to show the study of a project. In the first instance the work is made for the book, the sequence of pages and the little changes of the model have a good rhythm, as a exhibition it would have a different seriality.”

Kookier’s work, in one sense, elevates his model to the status of art in the manner of a still life. (“She could be an object instead of a woman,” Kooiker notes.) At the same time, the sculptural plinth upon which the body of the woman is photographed and thus viewed from multiple angles almost presents a case for several photographers working together during their ‘hobby time’ away from their families. Kooiker attests to this: “This element of the amateur contained within is apparent in all my work.”

The erotic elements are still in place, but the images are far from explicit due to the genitalia not being represented. Nor are there the complicated incursions upon identity since the face is obfuscated for the most part. While we are at least lucky to escape the problem of model age, the subject within Sunday is also reminiscent of the women in Irving Penn’s Earthly Bodies series. Both Penn and Kooiker whitewash the models creating a somewhat ghostly suggestion. There is also a whiff of Bill Brandt in these distortions. André Kertesz as well. As we see, it is within the tradition of a certain European sensibility that these are images located.

There is also the notion that these illuminate a corner of Kooiker’s mind that he is being incredibly honest about. One could also say the opposite. One could read these as exploitative forms of a very specific hetero-European male practice of art making. It could be that the objectification factor and the loss of control through the model’s posing are at odds with clear presentation of its intent outside of the libidinal re-arrangement of female flesh ad infinitum and in tight quarters. It would not be an unfair assessment but the potential is not as resistant as the artist may wish.

Despite its subtle nuances, it does and will provoke a reaction on the part of its audience. Past the initial grappling with the large format of the work and satirising color effect, it leaves one questioning the pattern and its insistence on the body and its politicised body within the tradition of contemporary art and culture at present.

In further exchanges with the artist regarding these issues, Kooiker refutes the suggestion that the use of a more voluptuous woman might be based around the formalism in his work, or the fact that the softer, larger form could potentially be easier to produce a new tableaux with. Nor is it, he says, simply down to the particular model that being available on the day of the shoot. “This is a very special model,” he says. “She understands what I want. Why I did I use a larger model for this series? I cannot directly answer this. It is also a mystery for me.”

Likewise, he opts not to explain his intentions – for better or worse. He has even said that being conscious while making work that the female subject should be examined in a certain way that takes meaning to the edge without exploiting it is of no concern to him. Clearly though, the notion of the abject is not lost on Kooiker. He speaks of his early interest in medical photography which resulted in his photobook Utrecht Goitre – an incredible selection of unique historical images from a pathology clinic in Utrecht alongside his own photographs that depict strange but not uncommon features such as birth marks and moles, cracked heels and baldness. The grand themes of the grotesque and abject are of course valid forms of artistic currency and Kooiker’s specific form of voyeurism straddles certain uncomfortable truths.

There are quivering tensions between subjectivity and objectivity, beauty and ugliness, seduction and shock, observing and being observed that reside in the whole image. Kooiker’s work then is a revelation that obsession and the quest to qualify images of personal, near-obliquely-diaristic projections of to create an atmosphere of uncertainty is worth the identity it assumes within this series. The questioning of the work becomes reflexive. It forces the audience to think and leads to questions directed towards ourselves, of our perceptions of human form, of women, of ‘the other’ and of our own forced nostalgias that are created by colour or sensory perceptions of sound or smell.

Paul Kooiker (1964) was born in Rotterdam. He studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague and at the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. Since 1995 he has been teaching at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. In 1996 he won the Prix de Rome and in 2009 he was awarded the A. Roland Holst Prize. Paul Kooiker’s work has been exhibited widely including group shows held at Maison Européene de la photographie, Paris; Fotohof, Salzburg; Kumho Art Museum, Seoul; Arsenale Novissimo, Venice; Zabludowicz Collection, London. Solo exhibitions since 1996 include those held at Kunsthal, Rotterdam; Vleeshal, Middelburg; James Cohan Gallery, New York; Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, Foam Fotografiemuseum, Amsterdam; Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Paul Kooiker has published several books: Utrecht Goitre (1999), Hunting and Fishing (1999), Showground (2004), Seminar (2006), Room Service (2008), Crush (2009), Sunday (2011) and Heaven (2012). Between 2007 and 2009 he published fourteen issues of Archivo, a bi-monthly photo journal curated by himself and gallerist Willem van Zoetendaal.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Paul Kooiker

J Carrier

Elementary Calculus

Special book review by Bridget Coaker

There is nothing more enjoyable than spending time in a bookshop, leafing through books and dipping into the first few pages to discover what lies within and what new adventure will present itself.

I like the structure of the novel; the beginning, middle and end, travelling down the narrative road and becoming friends with the characters and anticipating the plot ending. Along the journey, I create landscapes, portraits and interiors in my mind’s eye – glimpses of what the characters look like and where they live. These images, like dream sequences garnered from my memory are fleeting, a jumble of places and people. It is a collaborative process where the author brings the words, and I provide the visuals. It is a linear process, starting on page one and finishing with the final full stop.

Photobooks work for me in a very different way; I dip into the pages and submerge myself in the possibilities of new ideas and new stories. I like the process of getting to know the photographs, reading them as single images and also as sequences that are part of a greater whole. It is a multi-layered visual experience, which once completed offers as much as the novel does but is an entirely different experience. The photobook responds best to an investment of time and an almost osmotic absorption of the photography and the story the photographs collectively tell. I rarely start on page one and follow the logic of turning page after page until I reach the final full stop. I approach photobooks in stages; picking them up, putting them down, starting in the middle, at the end, flicking through the pages. I go backwards and forwards, slowly discovering more on each visit. As with the novel this is a collaborative process. I provide the words while the photographer provides the imagery.

Book in hand, I began perusing Elementary Calculus by J Carrier by flicking the pages backward and forward, randomly letting a page fall open, hovering over a photograph, looking to see if the images were interesting and worth further investigation.

On first opening Elementary Calculus I saw bright sunlight, lemons, streets. I thought this was a book of random images, conventional snapshots of memory. Nice photographs but familiar and then I spotted a pair of images. It was the conversation between these two photographs across the book’s spine that intrigued me. A photograph of birds perched on telegraph wires sat opposite a photograph of a man’s arm with a tattoo made up of words. I was curious about the dialogue between these two images. Could the wires be the staves of a musical score and the birds, notes on the stave, music for the lyrics imprinted on the man’s arm? Was this the implied connection?

I continued to flick and found another pair of photographs, a mass of wires and phone parts laid out on a cloth facing a photograph of pigeons scattered on the pavement, picking at bread. The visual similarity, in pattern and tone was clear to see, even if the meaning of this relationship still needed eking out.

I was hooked. Here was a photobook that, whatever else it would turn out to be, was led by a visual impulse. More than the show and tell tactics of the documentary genre, this was photography that was using the poetry of visual language to tell its story.

Narrative photography is fixed within the real world. We recognise what it shows us. But simply knowing that a pigeon is a pigeon and a telegraph wire is a telegraph wire, does not help us necessarily understand what lies behind Elementary Calculus. So I opened the book again and started once more to look at what J Carrier had photographed and in particular how the photographs were sequenced.

If we do not read the signs properly we can be misdirected. It is easy for our brain to make assumptions about important parts of a scene. The title of the book and the bleached sunlit photographs came together to suggest that this was America, maybe the Texas border or even California. Actually the exact location was not of much concern to me. I was more interested in working out the story. A number of motifs were running through the pages: stray cats walking along sunlit walls were repeatedly interspersed with phone boxes; some in use, others empty with the handset left dangling. I began to fill in the conversations that the characters were having and imagined who was left on the end of the line and why their telephone call had ended.

I noticed for the first time the book ends. The photographs at the beginning and end of the book were of a repeated stone wall with a white bird nesting in the crevice. I liked the way the birds were positioned so they looked into the body of the book, suggesting everything I needed to know lay between these two photographs.

The cats and the phone boxes proposed a transitory life lived on the streets, without a fixed location. In a world where everyone is connected via mobile phones, the use of phone boxes took on a significance, begging the question – why were people using them and who were they calling?

And so I had begun to build up a picture of a warm place, where people were living a transitory life. Maybe they were refugees or migrants? It seemed clear that there was a sense of disconnect, of somehow not belonging.

But there was one image that jarred. It did not seem to belong to the warm streets of America that I thought I recognised. The photograph was of a young man leaning against a wall, hat on his head. The proximity of his body to the wall suggested a mournful posture, perhaps even crying and suddenly I realised that this was not America but Israel and that this must be the Wailing Wall – a site for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage for centuries. I felt simultaneously stupid and elated. I had cracked the code and could go back into the story and look with fresh eyes. And yes all the clues were there. Where I had casually assumed the phone boxes were American, closer inspection revealed Hebrew script on the keypad. Company skyscrapers, letters on the money notes, graffiti on the wall, details in the wrought iron gates, posters on the bus shelter all revealed their location, probably Jerusalem or maybe Tel Aviv, but certainly Israel.

And so the story of Elementary Calculus took on a political edge. The characters, seemingly not Israeli and not obviously Palestinian did not fit in the location they found themselves. Unlikely to be refugees, they would appear to be migrant workers, living on the edge of the society they found themselves in, calling home to their wives, girlfriends, mothers. Snatched conversations that could only last as long as the money would allow. This Israel is different from the one with which we are so familiar through its representation in the mass media and forms of visual culture. Here we have the story of the migrant worker, scratching about for work, always on the move, looking for ways to exist in a world where they do not belong.

Photobooks offer us a challenging experience and we need to take care and time when we read them. Elementary Calculus is a quiet, understated book. It does not shout its message out to us but it rewards those who take time out getting to know its plot and characters as its visual narrative slowly unfolds and reveals itself.

J Carrier was born in 1974 in Biloxi, Mississippi, USA. He spent most of the past decade living and working in Africa and the Middle East and now currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. Carrier has an MFA in Photography from the Hartford Art School. He was nominated for the 2012 John Gutmann Photography Fellowship and the 2011 Santa Fe Prize for Photography. In 2010 he was a ‘Director’s Choice’ in the CENTER awards, won first place in the Fine Art series, for the NYPH Photo Awards; and received an honourable mention in the Duke Center for Documentary Studies Photo Awards. His commissioned work has been featured in a variety of publications and media outlets including, The NY Times Magazine, TIME, Newsweek, Men’s Journal, National Geographic and CNN.

All images courtesy of MACK and the artist. © J Carrier

Daisuke Yokota

Back Yard

Essay by Peggy Sue Amison

There is a revolution going on in the works of emerging photographer, Daisuke Yokota, a revolution that links the past with the future of Japanese photography and reflects the artist’s desire to capture ideas of how memory is affected by the passage of time. His images appear at first to be the remains of a science fiction film set, illuminated by a silvery light that blasts everything like an atomic explosion to the point of removing all detail and origin. A futuristic vision, yet within its foundation is an ongoing thread continuing a tradition that emerged in the 1960’s – twenty years before the photographer was born.

This new way of seeing began with the emergence of Provoke, published by Takuma Nakahira and Koki Taki in 1968. The artists and publishers of this seminal magazine presented new visual ideas and explored more intimate realities, ripping the medium of Japanese photography from its past, more controlled origins of strict reportage and social documentary. The artists published in Provoke freed image making in Japan, pushing photography into an exciting new territory.

Daisuke Yokota takes an active part in this ongoing visual conversation. His use of experimentation as a vehicle to eliminate information and narrative, continues what Daido Moriyama et al began when they responded to life in post-war Japan with an aesthetic known as ‘are-bure-boke’ (literally ‘grainy, blurry, out-of focus’), which allowed photography to be considered strictly for its material nature and removed any sense of a record of reality. They reached out, as Taki wrote in the Provoke manifesto, “…to grasp fragments of reality far beyond the reach of pre-existing language, presenting materials that actively oppose words and ideas … materials to provoke thought.”

Similarly, Yokota says multiple processing and experimentation are also integral to his practice. “There are no stories in my work. There is only what the viewers find within it for themselves. I am more interested in exploring time and multiple possibilities that exist in reality.”

Yet Yokota also uses multiple layers of re-photographing to obtain happy accidents and thereby assimilate his ideas of how memory is shaped and evolved over time. He explains: “We recollect a single experience from the past again and again, but never in the same way twice. Memories are experienced in relation to the present. As we go through the act of repeatedly recalling our memories, I believe these memories change in relation to what is happening to us now. Although physical experience of time is singular, time at a conscious level can multiply with each recollection of memory and the different experiences of time generated by these actions pass in parallel to a physical time. By recreating those multiplying memories via a series of recollecting actions, I use them as important data that tell me about my current self and my surrounding world.”

The photographs that make up his series Back Yard illustrate this exploration. They are gracefully messy in their appearance. “During the development of my film,” Yokota says, “I stick rubbish to it and experiment with uneven development. I purposely add natural phenomenon to digital data.”

His endless re-photographing from colour to black and white, along with the use of traditional darkroom techniques, such as over processing and solarisation, break down each image to capture the passage of time in a physical way. Although barely recognisable on the one hand, there is a striking feeling of familiarity, which invites openness. “I try to keep away from figuring out the exact place, or person in my images. In this way the viewers can easy to put themselves into them,” he adds.

In terms of presentation, Yokota has utilised zines as a way of disseminating works such as Site and Back Yard; “The difference between zines, photo books and exhibitions lies in how the viewer participates with the work,” he says. “With a book, both the viewer and I must step back and think about photography in an active and intimate way. Publishing also allows the possibility for more viewers to experience the work through the mass production of zines.”

In these self-published zines, he makes his works accessible for a wider audience, but he also uses them to further experiment with his imagery and add another layer through his choice of paper and publishing methods. He has also created publications in dialogue with other artists, as evidenced in Nocturnes, six slim volumes by the photographic collective AM Projects of which Yokota is a member. Again, zines, flyers and photobooks also have a long lineage in Japanese photography dating back to the 1960’s. When the photo market was virtually non-existent in Japan, these outlets were the only means of accessing the medium. Japanese photographers included these methods of mass distribution to their practice out of a sheer necessity to communicate and exchange ideas within their artistic community. Ink, paper, methods of construction etc were all hugely important, making intense study and understanding of the details of publishing paramount to photographers.

The subjects in Yokota’s work balance earthy elements with looming banal architectural shapes and room interiors, sometimes featuring twisted, faceless silhouettes. In this way the artist takes his audience into a realm of surrealist expression, which balances urban materiality against nature’s organic forms, while striving toward a similar notion of ‘pure’ imagery as evinced by Daido Moriyama, Yatuka Takanashi and Taki.

Yokota compares his working methods to those of an electronic musician; he says he employs his own version of static, noise, reverb and multiple recording processes in a visual way to create a wordless ambience. Mimicking sound layers with visual noise and interference and purposefully blurring all traces of the original draws from his cultural past and explores new ground. Ansel Adams had a theory that each negative is comparable to a composer’s score and the print its performance. With Diasuke Yokota’s own brand of back yard magic he stretches this theory and again pulls it from a classical association, to something decidedly closer to punk rock.

Daisuke Yokota was born in Saitama, Japan in 1983. A graduate of the Nippon Photography Institute, he was selected for the New Cosmos of Photography exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Musuem of Photography in 2008. Yokota is included in the group exhibition with the members of AM projects in their first gallery show, All Colours Will Agree in the Dark at Noorderlicht from 6 April – 18 May, 2013.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Daisuke Yokota

Thomas Sauvin


Essay by Gordon Macdonald

Beijing Silvermine, naturally and without artistic pretention, documents the experience of ‘ordinary’ people stepping out from the shadow of The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, as China accelerated towards becoming the world’s second largest economy and its people began to experience all of the consumer pleasures that go along with such wealth. The subjects of the photographs are pictured posing with refrigerators, telephones and TV sets; they are lying on the beach in Speedo trunks and visiting theme parks.

This is a vast and complex project by French archivist/artist Thomas Sauvin, though definitions become tricky and maybe moot here. In order to understand Sauvin’s truly monumental undertaking, it is useful to look at the process through which he has managed to collate and catalogue the discarded snapshots of China’s capital city. Silvermine is the result of more than four years work collecting, digitising and ordering what now amounts to over half a million negatives and transparencies retrieved from a Beijing recycling dump. The material has been recovered from the rubbish bags of Beijing citizens in several stages, and while it involves various different people, it is clear that it would no longer exist as photography were it not for Sauvin’s intervention and orchestration. The photography – presumably thrown out because the original owners have moved to digital photography, have died or moreover no longer see the value in keeping negatives – is recovered from the tip by an ‘illegal recycler’ and taken back to a small lock up where the necessary equipment for silver nitrate recovery is sited. It is kept in large rice bags waiting to be submerged in acid baths, which strip out the silver nitrate, leaving the film clear and the images lost. This is where Sauvin intervenes by buying the film at a Renminbi per kilo price. The recycler, one would imagine, has no time to follow an interest in the images, their content or their history. By the look of his dingy workshop and description of his working day, he cannot afford such pursuits – it looks a bleak day-to-day existence, and Sauvin must be an oddity to him, paying to save him the work of extracting the precious commodity that is his livelihood. Sauvin’s idea of the value of the material is, of course, more culturally-based, and he takes them from the ramshackle workshop to the more salubrious surroundings of his studio for initial interrogation on a gigantic light-table.

Sauvin chooses only snapshots and separates out those images that could have had commercial use, before taking them to the small home of his scanning technician, whose job it is to scan the pile of negatives and transparencies. Having completed the scanning, he then delivers them to Sauvin on a hard disc some weeks later. This is where Sauvin’s intervention, and the work of viewing, ordering and cataloguing starts in earnest. It is evidently a task of truly overwhelming proportions considering the sheer scale of the archive and the rigour he brings to it, but one which would be hard to stop short of completion. Indeed, Sauvin has envisioned the end of his pursuits, saying “I’ll stop collecting negatives when there are no more to collect. I get less and less of them every month and it is quite likely to be over soon. Eventually this project will witness the death of analog photography in China.”

Surprisingly, the real shock of Sauvin’s Silvermine is the familiarity, not the exoticism. The poses, leisure activities, clothes, home appliances, relationships, landscape, expressions, vehicles, theme parks or food do not differ all that much from the photographs found in a typical British family album from the 70’s and 80’s. It is sometimes the case that collections and studies such as these can slip unnervingly towards a cut-priced anthropology, where western eyes are cast over foreign cultures, at worst resulting in a bizarre form of neocolonialism. But, thankfully, there is everydayness in this project.

Sauvin also makes the archive accessible to Chinese artists to view, reassess and use with the aim of producing their own interpretations of the material. Notable Chinese artist LeiLei, in collaboration with Sauvin, is one such example. An animation, the images flit unremittingly from one to another, sometimes pointing out the happenstance, which occurs so regularly when this many photographs are collected from one place, or sometimes the oddity within individual photographs. It is all set to the soundtrack of the collected white noise of the city – electric hum, helicopters, road traffic, dripping, screeching, overwhelming sound – which, with the pace and intensity of the images filling your peripheral vision, leaves you spinning. Every so often in the film, titled Recycled, a print of one of the images appears, held at arm’s length by LeiLei, up to the landscape in which it was shot, leaving you in no doubt that you are looking at photographic constructs, and the edited extracts of peoples’ lives. Having watched the film a few times now, I have had to limit myself to one viewing a day for fear that my brain might combust as a result of its greed for the visual information the film is feeding it with – I feel like a compulsive eater at an all you can eat buffet. It is a completely enveloping sensory experience.

This archival project is not without context – comparisons could be made to Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel; the epic Pictures from the Street (Bilder von der Straße) by Joachim Schmid, In Almost Every Picture by Eric Kessels (et al) or the magnificent Sputnik by Joan Fontcuberta – but Silvermine seems markedly different and unlike any archival project to have come before. There is a certain generosity to Sauvin’s non-curatorial approach and commitment to collecting and cataloging every image he possibly can. And, though some images necessarily creep to the top of the pile and become emblematic of the archive, Sauvin seems to treat every picture as equally important to the overall project. Silvermine, funded by the London-based Archive of Modern Conflict, seems genuinely to be about saving an important history that is in danger of being consigned to oblivion. If only the discarded images of every city could benefit from this process, but it is certainly well past the point of no return for analogue photography and far too late to start somewhere else. Maybe the next Silvermine will be made up of hard drives recovered from discarded computers, as digital files will surely soon be made redundant by the relentless march of technological change.

Thomas Sauvin is a French photography collector and editor who currently lives in Beijing. Since 2006 he works exclusively as a consultant for the UK-based Archive of Modern Conflict, an independent archive and publisher, for whom he collects Chinese works, from contemporary photography to period publications to anonymous photography. A glimpse into this collection is presented in the photobook, Happy Tonite (2010). Sauvin has exhibited at Dali International Photography Festival, China; Open City Museum, Brixen, Austria; Singapore International Photography Festival, Singapore; and FORMAT International Photography Festival, Derby.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Thomas Sauvin

Mårten Lange

Another Language

Special book review by Debra Klomp Ching

To say that the self-publishing of photo books is a practice that is popular, is quite an understatement – and is a practice that shows no sign of abating. Never mind the mantra “everyone’s a photographer now”, we can justifiably say “everyone’s a publisher now”. The phenomenon has gone mass-market, to the degree that there are organisations, such as Self Publish, Be Happy and the Indie Photobook Library, positively celebrating and encouraging it. We are awash, needing to wade through the flotsam and jetsam of titles, in order to uncover the minority jewel that glistens. That jewel can take the form of a specific book, and on rare occasions, it can also present itself in the form of a self-publisher.

Mårten Lange is a Swedish photographer who founded Farewell Books in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2007. Of the eleven titles published during its three short years – the project ran until 2010 – four were vehicles for the photography of Mårten Lange himself. Later, he published a book with the publishing collective JSBJ, which itself metamorphosed into Études Books.

In October 2012, Lange was published by MACK, the highly-regarded independent publisher that works ‘with artists, writers and curators to realise intellectually challenging projects in book form’. This transition, from publishing a wholly self-directed and self-published photo book, to one that is invested in by a third party of such note, is an important step for Lange. Although, the creative partnership between MACK and Lange can hardly be seen as surprising – the collaborative ‘fit’ seems like a perfect match – it goes some way to endorsing Lange’s self-publishing history and certainly attracts a good level of consideration by consumers and critics alike. It was only in 2009, that Mårten Lange was included in Humble Arts Foundation’s The Collectors Guide To Emerging Art Photography. With all of his previous books now listed as out of print, this new endeavour has great promise.

The book, published by MACK, is Another Language. Described by the publisher as Lange’s “first major publication”, it closely resembles Lange’s previous books, in that it is a collection of photographs that are sparsely presented. Across the 96 pages, are 59 tritone plates of rectangular photographs. The photographs are sequenced so that some appear as single images on a spread, whilst others are presented in pairs. Positioned centrally on the vertical line, but positioned higher up on the horizontal line, the visual design appears formal and restrained. Despite the use of blank pages, the edit does not project an overt rhythm. On the contrary, the edit is quiet and understated, drawing attention to a straightforward scopic relationship between images – the use of shape and positive/negative space is used to good effect. As you turn the pages, the transition from one image to the next is smooth and without any significant drama.

The images themselves continue Lange’s interest with the broad spectrum of nature. The various subjects contained in the photographs are positioned centrally, making for a highly deliberate use of the photographic frame. We see flora and fauna – isolated in the frame and easily studied. In one image a fish swims alone, a fossilised talon sits silently, a puff of smoke hovers upward, the eye of an elephant stares back, a sheep grazes and so they continue. Each subject equally revered. Lange is somehow successful in presenting banality in a most curious way. The highlight in this collection of oddities is the book’s most stunning photograph – that of a whirlpool. It’s an important one for Lange too, as it also appears on the book’s frontispiece, reworked as a blind-stamped image sitting centrally on the highly textured cloth that encases the book. None of the images carry titles. The absence of text is contradicted at the end of the book, with the inclusion of a quote from the nineteenth century Prussian, Alexander von Humboldt. The quote is drawn from Kosmos. Published in 1845, it solicited the idea of using universal laws to unify the sciences of the natural world. The inclusion of this text, potentially points to an attempt by Lange to propose a universality in his photographs – partly suggested through his use of the repetition of photographic tropes.

Universality in anything is a challenging thesis to propose. The title of the book – Another Language – suggests that Lange does not actually suggest this, but instead is suggesting that photography itself is a language, hence the absence of text and his reliance on the image itself to convey meaning. Indeed, the inclusion of the Humboldt quote becomes quite curious. Wherever it is that Lange is taking the reader on his journey of expression, we can acknowledge that photography is visual and the closest expression of language to it, is another form of visual language – that which is written. In this context, one might turn to literary theory to explore the tensions evident in Lange’s book – the tension between specificity and ambiguity.

The Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, wrote extensively on the philosophy of language in the early twentieth century. An important element of his writings was the concept of heteroglossia, which referred to qualities of language that are common to all languages. If photography is another language, as Lange suggests, and heteroglossia is universal, then a fixed meaning becomes impossible – because heteroglossia is extralinguistic – it is subject to the influence of context, ideology and perspective.

Mårten Lange’s Another Language is a fascinating and wonderful photo book project. It is full of contradictions, purposefully constructed by its author and publisher, and a challenging collaboration which leaves the reader in a cycle of unresolved questions. The lasting impression is that of being a highly covetable object, so it is good news to learn that a special edition will be published including a small selection of loose prints. It’s unresolved cycle of messages keeps it from being static, returning us to the abyss of the whirlpool.

Mårten Lange was born in 1984 in Mölndal, Sweden. He studied photography at University of Gothenburg in Sweden and the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, United Kingdom. He has previously self-published four books, including Machina (2007) and Anomalies (2009).

All images courtesy of MACK. © Mårten Lange

Tom Wood

Men and Women

Essay by Francis Hodgson

There is something hard to grasp about the lifetime of powerful photography produced by the Liverpool photographer Tom Wood. His pictures overlap with other things that we know. They overlap with other pictures, for a start. Wood does the ‘peculiarity of the British’ like a Homer Sykes or a David Levenson (recently published by Café Royal Books and The Sunday Times). He can do schoolgirls like a Markéta Luska?ová. He can do men at work like an Ian Beesley or an Ian Macdonald. Nightclubs, of course, he has done for years, and some of the pictures look like Billy Monk or PYMCA.

Wood is a sociologist, ethnographer, local historian, political campaigner, novelist, autobiographer. He has made long studies of the football culture, and hilarious one-liners which you just have to see to get. It gets worse: Wood uses medium format, panoramic, little cameras, big ones. He uses all sorts of lighting arrangements.

Here he is, in the transcribed interview he gave to annotate a file of brilliant pictures of the Cammell Laird shipyard he made in 1996 on a commission for the Documentary Photographic Archive, now deposited at Greater Manchester County Record Office: “I used different types of film for the sake of economy. When I started I tended to use what film I had in stock. So I had some date-expired Konica, but I also had free film from Jessops including Fuji Reala, so I used that. The negative film doesn’t make much difference at this size as long as you expose correctly. The colour balance is being altered all the time due to long exposures and different lighting sources – tungsten or welding or fluorescent. At the same time I would use fill-in flash. This messes up the colour, but that’s O.K.”

If we define a photographer by his technique, we get nowhere much with Wood. But that is OK; a photographer like Wolfgang Tillmans has much of the same elusive refusal to stay in one conveniently marketable box. If we begin to define him by his subject material, we get a little closer: as far as I know, Wood has not done much in the way of would-be Zen black pebbles, or shiny modernist architectural details. I rather doubt he has done many product shots of perfume bottles, either. Even so, it would be a mistake to prejudge the question. Martin Parr (who himself made great work at New Brighton, the garish beach resort at the end of the Wirral, north of Birkenhead, in the very heart of Wood’s hunting grounds) makes a lot of commercial pictures for fashion magazines, and so have people like Nick Waplington. There is no a priori reason why Wood should not do the same, although, again, I do not know that he has. So you cannot easily define Wood by what he does, and you need to be careful defining him by what he has not yet done.

Many years ago, when I worked at The Photographers’ Gallery, we represented Matthew Dalziel (who was not then yet Dalziel + Scullion) and held a particular set of pictures of his called Images for Hugh. They commemorated a friend who had died in an industrial accident. They were close large format views of a workplace, in colour, and there was something about the In Memoriam status they held that demanded the most exceptional care in the scrutiny. The photographer had done his looking harder than normal, and somehow as viewers it was only fair to do the same. I saw lots of people over a period of months look quite casually at those pictures, and then with a double-take, look harder, feeling the seriousness before they knew why. I pretty much consistently find that same experience when looking at Tom Wood.

He is one of those photographers who often publish with not much in the way of explanation. His recent show at The Photographers’ Gallery was strict and austere in the presentation – to the point, I may say, of letting him down a little. Two minutes in his company on the opening night provided me with five or ten little details about pictures which nobody who had not the chance of meeting him could have known. Indeed, Wood is one of the photographers I would like to sit down and listen to at length – I think it is fair to say he has not had the chance properly to put the back story yet. But one can see without knowing the details, if one looks hard enough. The details which matter will somehow spring to the eye. Wood demands that.

He includes, for example, a number of pictures of his family and of those around him in his work with no hint that they are closer than any other sitter. He might use their names in a caption, but since he photographs intensely in a relatively restricted area, he knows the names of a lot of people. He also is quite happy to shelter pictures by other people under his own umbrella without necessarily feeling obliged to use terms like ‘appropriation’ or ‘repurposing’. So he told Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian about his terrific picture of a woman lying collapsed by a road: “That’s not even my photograph. She’s my Auntie, but a friend of hers took the picture. I love it so I put it in there.” He is informal like that, irregular in his photographic habits and hard to pin down.

He is known for taking many hundreds of pictures on each project, and that has done him harm. I have heard him disparaged with remarks along the lines of the ten thousand hours principle (that Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his book Outliers) – that anybody can become good at anything if they put that time into it. My take on it is that I could not care less whether it is the hours or the most instinctive natural talent, but he must be the most remarkable editor, to take only what he wants from that volume and not be bogged down by it. Certainly, by whatever magic it is achieved, he does not often release pictures that are less than interesting. He is varied and non-formulaic, and his curiosity is piqued by different kinds of things in different scenes, but he is unerring.

Here is a picture of a man in a pub. It is suitably blurred, but the man is looking just near the camera, tie beginning to come adrift. His face is pleasant but his eyes are at the extreme edge of their orbits, as he turns towards the camera. The skin tones are too red – or just red enough for the cruddy lighting on licensed premises. A few golden flickers off gaudy joinery in the background provide the kind of twinkle that used to come from candlelight. A flare of light occupies about ninety degrees of a circle below the man’s chest, like a little reminder of what it’s like to look through the bottom of a glass. All in all, it is only a little study of a man in the pub, with bonhomie and potential threat in an easy balance. It is a subtle and fine picture, although like so many of Wood’s you could miss it if you are not concentrating. It is only called Untitled, 2010. Does it make any difference that this man Wood photographed is in fact Graham Smith, one of the subtlest photographers ever to have raised a camera (or a glass!) in a pub, the Hermann Melville of the drinking culture? You would not expect to know that, but it is another layer in the picture when you do.

Wood has been a connoisseur’s photographer. His publisher’s website quotes a nice compliment to him from Lee Friedlander. Chris Killip is known to admire some of what he has done. At long last he is now receiving his first ever UK retrospective at the National Media Museum in Bradford. It is well overdue, and I shall tell you why.

Over many years Tom Wood has deliberately put aside all that makes it too easy to latch onto this or that set of pictures. He has destroyed the familiar, often crude, pegs upon which we hang our approval. So many photographers grub about until they have a formula, and then force all their pictures into the same mould. Not Wood. Forever unsatisfied, never content to make a series when a single picture will do, his curiosity and his intellectual powers always fully engaged, he has roamed around making pictures of the world he lives in. Then he has roamed about in the pictures until he has found the telling details, the arrangements that add up to more than the sum of their parts. He is a brilliant but uncomfortable communicator: he reminds me often of Ian Dury, as it happens. He is brilliant at things like composition and sequencing and lighting and framing; but where most photographers end their pictures with those things, he starts with them. Enjoy those things, and then, if you look hard enough, you can get irony and wit and humanity in spades. But it is the looking that Wood demands.

I think of Tom Wood as quite a Dickensian photographer. His real subject matter is not this or that group or subculture, and the way they carry on. What he is really about is the pressure that morals and ethics and manners find themselves under from circumstance. People are often kind or gentle in Tom Wood’s pictures, even in the meanest-looking of circumstances. It is not a style, and it is not a technique, and it is not even really a subject. It is a mistake to think of what Wood does as reportage or street photography or this or that benighted project. He is just a man who has found the means to say important things to those who take the trouble to care.

Tom Wood was born in 1951 in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. He lived and worked on Merseyside between 1978 and 2003 before he moved to his current home in North Wales. Wood has published numerous books, including Bus Odyssey, People, All Zones Off Peak and Looking for Love. His latest book, Men and Women, will be published by Steidl in 2013. He has had solo and group exhibitions worldwide and his work is represented in the collections of major international museums. Tom Wood: Photographs 1973-2013 is a collaboration between the National Media Museum and The Photographers’ Gallery London.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Tom Wood