Marten Bogren

Tractor Boys

Essay by Christian Caujolle

Exhausted, placated, perhaps both. Behind the car windscreen, through which the photographer gently catches them unawares, they are sleeping. A grey light, filtered, a visible texture, specks of brightness, everything is softness. Left by themselves, they seem even younger than they are, off in a world of their own, the reflections separating them from our world even more securely than the glass of the windscreen.

The explanation lies in the other images, the ones that set the scene. The viewpoint broadens out to a coniferous forest that shimmers in the light, to large areas of deserted nature, to these northern territories which breathe fully and whose nakedness, which can be exhilarating, is no less painful for teenagers than the boredom that lies in wait. They need to release the energy within them and explode this boredom eating away at them. And so, they get hold of these ‘tractor-cars’, these cars transformed into agricultural tools; they tinker with the engines to unleash the speed and the screech of tyres, they use excessive amounts of oil, all in order to indulge in the intoxication of speed.

These kids present themselves as tough guys to impress the girls. They meet up to confront themselves and others – to try to define who they are in a world that doesn’t constrain them. They smoke gallantly, they walk with a swagger, they take risks, but something isn’t right. As in all these complex moments of adolescence, childhood and adulthood clash, emerging as a basic and impossible contradiction.

All of this has the air of a spectacle staged by actors. What matters, and what makes this work so compelling, is the way it is seen. Photographer, Martin Bogren, has been accepted into a world clearly prohibited to adults. He doesn’t let himself be carried away by the exuberance of what he sees, or the excess, nor does he allow any complacency. A silent witness – it is truly remarkable that these images of moments of fury should be silent to this extent – he observes. In compositions as flexible as they are precise, as natural and instinctive as they are understated, he endeavours to report what he sees and what he perceives. At every moment he finds the right distance, one which states nothing other than the subjectivity of his perspective and he succeeds in combining a documentary approach with a sensitive affirmation of his vision. One thinks, of course, of all those photographers who – from Robert Frank onwards, from Anders Petersen to Michael Ackerman – have known how to give us the gift of their way of looking, telling us that they wanted to show nothing more than what they needed to show and to say.

Somewhere between a group portrait, delicately isolating faces and expressions, and a chronicle of a life dreaming of going as fast as possible, the photographer manages not to disrupt the world into which he immerses himself, with decency, with attention and acuity, and with respect, without judging – holding his breath. We feel this in the attention to light, the grey tonality contrasting calmly with the intensity of the action.

First kisses and first flirtations, cigarettes inhaled deeply, tracks that wind across the tarmac, hair blowing in the wind, life at breakneck speed – an episode repeated by appointment against the backdrop of the smoke of the factories. We cannot know anything of this world, it is not for sharing, it belongs to these young people who are leaving childhood and want to believe that they have become grown up. But the photographer, because he has understood the position that he should take, half-opens the door. He marks these minute moments that make sense and that we want to connect to each other to try to reconstruct relationships that we can only understand through what we can draw from our own memories.

There is something unreal and yet very present in these images; something that truly resembles photography in its dependence on reality. There is also a peculiar music, perhaps resembling that of The Cardigans, the band that photographer Martin Bogren toured with, and whose track Been It begins with the words ‘baby boy’.

All images courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing. © Martin Bogren

Christian Caujolle teaches, writes, curates exhibitions and festivals on photography. He was an art critic for the daily newspaper Libération in 1979 and focused on photography. In 1981 he became picture editor of the same newspaper and continued to write about photography books and exhibitions. In 1986, he created VU’ Agency, the first ‘photographer’s agency’ and ten years later he established the VU’ Gallery. He left VU’ in 2007.

Sara-Lena Maierhofer

Dear Clark, a Portrait of a Con Man

Interview by Natasha Christia

Erasing the past, tailoring a new identity, becoming somebody else; not just anyone, but a Rockefeller, the husband of a wealthy woman. The old, long-buried self used to be Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter from Bavaria. But he vanished a long time ago in a journey from Germany to the States. His initials were lost in a series of taken names; his skin appropriated a handful of aliases, all grandiose and luxurious in lifestyle. In 2008, after three decades of spurious identities, the lie collapsed and with it the man. Christian Karl Gehartsreiter, aka Christopher Crow, Clark Rockefeller to name but a few; to many a swindler, a con man, a crook; to others, a gifted storyteller, a man with a polished accent who dared to be whoever he wished.

Sara-Lena Maierhofer discovered Clark in a Süddeutsche Zeitung article in 2011. She became fascinated by the man with multiple skins and decided to approach him. After Clark refused to meet her, she decided to study him from a distance, to conduct her own criminal investigation based on the existing pieces of forensic evidence – the bits of newspaper, pictures, even Clark’s early drawings, and her letters to him. Still, Maierhofer needed to go further. In an attempt to penetrate the multiple layers of his lie and reach the core of his personality, she chose to approach him through fiction, following Clark’s lead. She imagined him in a world of clones and doubles, one where the borders of truth and lie collapse against the rigid confinements of the image.

Dear Clark grew into a multifocal installation and a book that carry both the rigorous yet awkward aura of an uncanny cabinet of doubles, Siamese twins, and the world’s most famous criminals. Departing from Clark’s case, Maierhofer took one step further and enclosed in her study a fascinating register of chameleonic apparitions and unresolved tales of hybrids and optical illusions, some real, others invented. Liquid definition and duplicity are omnipresent in this open-ended narrative that asks the viewer to join in piecing together the clues Maierhofer has collected.

Like other contemporary visual artists who use photography to explore the possibilities of fiction, rather than the forensic search for truth, Maierhofer seems not to consider her photographs able to tell her story on their own. She instead incorporates them in a systematic, non-hierarchical use of archival documents and resources as diverse as pure documentary, staged photography, texts and film studies, in order to unmask the subjectivity of vision and the fragility of perception. Her production process lies transparent on the wall and the page, inviting a series of playful and, at times, unsettling associations between images, words and media, in equal, democratic terms. As she explains, “it is all zooming in, zooming out, looking at different perspectives, reviving the joy I first experienced when compiling my material and browsing through it.”

Cinematic in pace, Dear Clark allows for mystery and intrigue. Maierhofer acknowledges her documentary roots and the influence of the German film director Werner Herzog who has extensively theorised about and mingled the languages of fiction and documentary. It is from him that Maierhofer draws her philosophy, one that defends tampering with the truth for the sake of storytelling. The elasticity that both the installation and the book possess reinforces this determination to engage multiple layers of meaning, interpretation and experience. “I was concerned”, Maierhofer recalled “about how much information I should provide without destroying the viewer’s imagination, without being didactic. The installation provides the opportunity to discover things. You can flip the pictures, read the texts underneath them or behind the glass vitrine. You can if you want, but you do not need to. I wanted to preserve this element in the book, hence the different paper layers and sheet lengths.”

The elliptical narrative in Dear Clark eloquently unravels the strong underlying parallels between the flux of fraudulent identity and photography’s unfulfilled promises of objective truth. The extent of the lie in Clark’s case – how he took it to its limits and imposed it on everyone – is another example of human credulity before the presence of a seducing image, imagined or real.

Says Maierhofer: “Identity seems to be after all a matter of persuasion. Clark did not just choose to be anyone; he chose to be a Rockefeller! He was not just like any other common crook out there who tries to make money out of peoples’ beliefs. What he was after was status. For months he studied the Rockefellers thoroughly, and managed to pass himself off as one of them. People bought into his lie and invested in it because it was so charming.

“All of us are drawn to storytellers, to people who make reality just a little better with their lies. In Germany there is a saying, ‘I will love you forever is the most honest lie in the world’. The same applies to photography. It wants to give us the truth but it can’t.”

Images direct our attention towards their confined surfaces; it is their unique, privileged bond with the real that renders them so appealing. They tempt us to believe there is more beyond the surface. The condensed meaning palpitating in one single photograph allows us the space to imagine multiple universes, a life of different options. And yet, when the hour of truth comes, it is so hard to specify the path to the final meaning. Charming and ambivalent, the Barthesian punctum resists being tied down to the norms of language. As does Clark. He becomes the punctum for Maierhofer: an exemplary subject avidly explored. A recollection of family pictures in the series shows him the way he was: blurry, unrecognisable, an awkward pose defying definition. Every time he had his picture taken, he would cover himself or make a face: he, the man of invention, chose to leave a weak imprint on film.

Clark is the man in constant rebirth. A series of chapters with Kafkaesque titles – The Promise, The Lie, The Transformation – allude to his duality and process of transformation, but also attempt to fully capture his complexity, to neatly outline him as the subject of a readable narrative. Maierhofer disposed of two portraits of him: a newspaper clip from the day of his arrest and the portrait of a smiling young man with sunglasses. This latter picture, which was taken in Germany when Clark was around seventeen, is the only photograph where we see him openly looking at the camera. “I love this picture”, says Maierhofer, “it delivers the naïve hope he had as a young man. When he first landed in the States, he spent some time in Pasadena trying to succeed as an actor. But he failed. When you travel to the US you just expect everything to be like in a Hollywood movie. The whole country is a particular setting of reality and fiction. This is what happened to Clark. He got the message of the American dream delivered by him in his living room in Germany, went there and expected that he could be anyone he wished.”

As an ideal, charismatic subject, Clark remains mysterious and blurry until the end. Still, Maierhofer confesses that romance gradually faded despite her initial fascination with him. The gloomy part of the story prevailed. “Inventing a fake persona and keeping track of the lie for thirty years takes a lot of calculation”, she explains. “Just imagine, Clark was never able to tell anyone about who he really was. I sometimes fantasise about him going out to these little drive-in bars, running across a stranger probably drunk, letting it all out and then going back home”.

Clark Rockefeller, or Christian Karl Gehartsreiter, is currently serving a sentence for murder in America. Sara-Lena Maierhofer carried out the project without meeting him; he never responded to her request. How would the work have turned out if he had said yes? “It would have certainly been less my project and more his”, responds Maierhofer. “Clark would have directed me. He is an extremely intelligent man who knows how to play the game of seduction. A con man is the perfect mirror. He gets into people’s heads, finds out about their desires and gives them what they want. In our case, it would have been the same. Clark would have sensed what I want and would have manipulated me. He would have been the rider and me the horse”.

All images courtesy of the artist © Sara-Lena Maierhofer

Natasha Christia is a freelance writer and curator. From 2005 until 2014 she was the art director and development manager of Kowasa gallery/bookstore in Barcelona.

Julian Stallabrass

Memory of Fire: Images of War and The War of Images

Special book review by James McArdle

When it comes to understand our own nature as humans the tables are often turned, for a very similar rigid prejudice in favour of high-level (and only high-level) perception turns out to pervade and even define ‘the human condition’.” Douglas Hofstadter

Do we need another book full of images of war and mortal cruelty? Julian Stallabrass leaves the reader in no doubt of this quandary in his new title Memory of Fire: Images of War and the War of Images, published by Photoworks.

It begins with a caveat about how his task as curator of the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial, from whence the material presented here originally came, was akin to that of the journalist, Vasily Grossman’s story of the Red Army’s jocular propping of frozen German soldiers’ corpses as the soldiers advanced south of Kharkov – insofar as arranging photographs of the dead into something coherent and meaningful. The book then proceeds with an extract from Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire, itself a story of lost history, which serves to remind us of the vital preservative value of the archive, and its vulnerability to destruction or revision. Its inclusion begs the question: should we lose these records of conflict; will history repeat itself without our knowing?

What follows is spreads of provocative war images from professional photographers, military amateurs and artists, some now all-too-familiar, each vividly introducing a chapter of the book including The Power and Impotence of Images; Making an Ugly World Beautiful? Morality and Aesthetics in the Aftermath; and Embedded with Murderers: Balad, Iraq, 15 July, 2003. Images of war and their use as agents of warfare (the war of images) are the two sides of the same coin and, throughout, Stallabrass confronts their corporate and mercenary potential.

Clearly, the pornography of war is irresistible. There is a masochistic rush in exposing oneself to the images included here; how “gruesome/awesome” (to quote Evan Wright of Rolling Stone Magazine) it is to witness the perennial opening image Abu Ghraib 11.51 pm Nov 7 2003. Cpl Graner and PFC England posed for the picture, which was taken by SPC Harman to be made involuntarily complicit in an act like that described by Grossman? Stallabrass judiciously tackles complexities in the imaging of violence, revealing conflicts between their instrumentality and aesthetics, which he tirelessly wrestled with during the process of curating the Biennial. That same year regrettably saw the passing of Philip Jones Griffiths, whose Vietnam Inc. is one sure instance in which images changed the course of a war. With the aim of scrutinising art, document and ethics in extremis, Stallabrass, asks whether Jones Griffiths oriented Vietnam Inc. while taking the pictures or as prompted by anti-war sentiment, eliciting the arresting reply; “I distrusted them […] suspicious of those weekend, armchair communists!”

Equally principled or fiercely independent reactions come from Rita Leistner’s and Ashley Gibertson’s frank accounts of the embedded versus the ‘unilateral’ photojournalist bringing deep perplexity over the compromises in either means of accessing a war, alongside insights into the aesthetics of flash or of typological portraits. Most impressive are these photographers’ demonstrations of high-stake, political potentials of relations between soldier, civilian, photographer and audience, and their steadfast belief in honesty despite the changing status of embedded journalists to targets of local anger and the undervaluing, misrepresentation or ignoring of their images by their editors.

At the heart of the book is the consideration of art in representing, rather than documenting, war. Questioning whether “[social] documentary photography is [any] longer…capable of representing today’s technological warfare”, in her essay Sarah James considers the failure or success of a people-less aftermath photography practicing a romanticising aesthetic of the ruin, to summon Adorno’s political sublime. Less equivocal, though more sinister, are Trevor Paglen’s remote imaging of US military-industrial black sites and spy satellites is espionage in an intriguing evidential/aesthetic relationship with heat mirages. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s acknowledgement of earlier failures to represent any of the traumas of soldiers’ injuries led to their eschewing conventional documentation. In their now notorious series The Day Nobody Died they adopt the conceptual, pragmatic strategy of exposing a roll of photographic paper directly to front line Afghan light and filming British troops, with whom they were embedded, carrying the heavy cardboard box containing it. Stallabrass queries why the resulting prints are portents of destruction, while the video is comic; their response reveals how taking performance and non-figurative art to the theatre of war might be legitimate.

Elsewhere, Coco Fusco engenders other players. The interdisciplinary artist demands of us to consider how women, and photography, have come to be used as agents of torture particularly during interrogations of Muslim prisoners; with the Pentagon publicly confirming that sexual tactics are used on detainees. To discomforting effect, Fusco brings these notions to the infamous snapshots of naked detainees at Abu Ghraib, deploying the technical drawings of her alarmingly burlesque, A Field Guide for Female Interrogators.

Stefaan Decostere is not interviewed but instead contributes an essay in which Paul Virilio and other theorists are given credit for a somewhat confused concept. Responding to Sontag’s unstoppable images of war as hell, and invoking Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, he proposes ‘impactology’ as a science of the techniques of impact, the product his surround display of combat video, Warum 2.0. Theoretical ballast makes this the least satisfying of the contributions, and one is relieved when Decostere candidly reveals himself as both experimenter and specimen; “I see myself sneering at my own grotesqueness.”

Earlier this year Paul Hansen’s 20 November 2012 photograph for Dagens Nyheter won 2013 World Press Photo of the Year. His confronting pietà-esque depiction of lamenting uncles bearing corpses of two and three-year-old children killed in an Israeli missile strike attracted accusations from Neal Krawetz on the grounds that it was a Photoshopped montage. Multiplying its politics of Zionist/Hamas tensions, the notion was taken up by the neoconservative Front Page Magazine to declare Hansen’s image a pro-Hamas propaganda photo and a fraud. In fact, Hansen did no more than heighten his picture’s dynamic range, consistent with many World Press Photo entries where the documentary is given the aura of art. In such case, Stallabrass, his co-authors and interviewees, engaging comprehensively in the festival back in 2008 with conflict in images, and now re-evaluating and refining their analysis in this 2013 book, empower the reader to conjecture, providing a place to stand in the unending vortex of war and its representation.

All images courtesy of Photoworks. Image 2 & 3 © Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales / Image 4 © Benjamin Lowry / Image 6 © Magnum Photos / Image 7 © Simon Norfolk / Image 8 © Geert van Kesteren / Image 9 © Coco Fusco / Image 10 © Bilal Hussein / Image 11 © Ghaith Abdul-Ahad & Getty Images / Image 13 © Geert van Kesteren / Image 14 © Ashley Gilbertson.

James McArdle is an artist and academic at Deakin University, Australia.

Daniel Gordon

Still Lifes, Portraits & Parts

Essay by Brad Feuerhelm

During the 1990s, an interesting phenomenon had taken shape in photography. Artists such as Cindy Sherman, Joel-Peter Witkin, Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, amongst others, began to question the then taboo discourses of religion, sex and death with such rigour and prevalence that Republican United States Senator Jessie Helms embarked on a battle to abolish National Endowment for the Arts funding largely based on a controversial Mapplethorpe exhibition at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery in 1989. Helms denounced the overt, graphic sexual nature and latent violence contained within images as “anti-Christian bigotry” and “morally reprehensible trash”.

Of course, this censorship controversy seems somehow antiquated given current trends toward the voluminous firewall of pornography and violent imagery of today. What has changed in the ensuing twenty years is the way in which telecommunications are increasingly geared towards an existence that factors a more amplified tradition of receiving images, in particular advertising and its manufacture of desire via screen based experiences. Now, more than ever before, we are also experiencing what it means to have our tolerance for image intake and understanding challenged. As images multiply and increase velocity, we are forced to adapt the pressures set loose by the tyranny of their distribution. With the onslaught of accelerated media and general blur of distance from our e-lives and the desires produced for our ‘real’ lives, we begin to harvest less meaning from the truncated and severed nodes of relational information that the photographic image provides us.

If one considers the loss of register through the torrent of imagery we live with, cynicism forms – followed by apathy. And this apathy of image non-reception correlates to a case for a new abjection. It creates a sense of impermeable loss of disconcerted space, an inability to keep up and a general feeling of being displaced in the great drive for technological second skins. We are often left empty or isolated within the stream, and our receiving/real body stagnates, recedes, ignores in part, pays attention by half and becomes simplified fodder for the break in the levee of images – an abuse against eye, body, and mind for consumerist practice.

And so we come to one in a series of new publications from Morel Books, Daniel Gordon’s Still Lifes, Portraits & Parts – a case for dysfunctional photo-cubism if ever there was one – with his intricate Internet print outs blown up and reworked physically into a series of horrific body dysmorphias.

The patchwork corporeality that is present recalls Cindy Sherman’s work with medical anatomy dolls during the 90s. The constant appropriation and recycling of images from the net back into a base material which Gordon then redistributes as a sort of quasi-Grand Guignol-sculptural-collage-cum theatre is also an idea that could possibly derive from American 80s children’s animation interludes. There’s also a nod to the artistic practice of Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy here too, in which themes of hypnagogia and the abject body combine to create heavily loaded works that abound with metaphors pertaining to over-production and post-consumerist fallout. The result is a series of harrowing and perversely warped-Frankensteins.

Similarly, a whiff of the uncanny lingers in the works by Gordon insofar as they appear to be akin to performance-based avatars when staged or rather actioned. These actions can be considered as ‘horrorisms’. Horrorisms offer discontinuity by way of methodology. In Gordon’s work, the fabricated collages are created piecemeal and permeate a general sense of dread through their disarticulations. They also seem to suggest the body/image can only ever be an effigy, a surrogate for our understanding of its meta-identity made real. In Still Lifes, Portraits & Parts, we proceed with an understanding of reference to portraiture or still life, but it further taxes our collective comfort by hinting at, but never giving more than a façade of, complicated and disjointed realism. The layering of elements culled from both the real world and the Internet remind us of the quilted miasma that is a single life, a single body in the twenty-first century – the confusion of misunderstanding where one body ends and one body begins, yet always having the unnerving doubt of its proximity to our selves. This creates a notion of self as a ‘collateral body’, unfixed by reason or metaphor, only a physical response or a will to concentrate and make singular one’s interest.

The tableaux also vibrate with pixilation images piled on less pixelated living flesh, which often pivots the object within frame to scale of believable realism. Patterns emerge and attempt to gel with the fragmented bodies, but fail for the aggregate summation of too many elements at work. It is another reflexive break in synapse and corporate metaphor of 2013. Gordon’s horrorisms, the theatre of the abject, is at a state of continual unrest, as our own secondary theatres of absurdity.

All images courtesy of Morel Books. © Daniel Gordon

Brad Feuerhelm is a London based, American collector and dealer in vernacular photography. He is also managing editor at American Suburb X.

Vanessa Winship

she dances on Jackson

Special book review by Michael Grieve

It is almost obvious that there is something paradoxical about photography. For the protagonists who creatively practice this medium it can be a perpetual search for meaning in their lives, a way to try to understand one’s reality in the obscure mist of attempting to solidify one’s identity while simultaneously constructing it.

The analogy of the road trip to the road trip of life derives from the literature of the epic poetry of Homer’s The Odyssey to the modest tales of Thomas De Quincey, the spontaneity of Jack Kerouac through to the disinterested orbital trajectory of Iain Sinclair. With the relatively new medium of photography the lineage of the road trip in the US is well versed and extends from the likes of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Alec Soth and now, temporarily rests with Vanessa Winship. Like Frank, Vanessa Winship is a foreigner, an English outsider inside. But unlike Frank, her work is not really an attempt to understand her relationship to America but rather an attempt towards the self-consciously impossible task of connecting with that society’s youth by simply showing, with little overt regard to rhetoric. Comparisons in her quiet technique are justifiably aligned to August Sander, who, by, attentive observation was able to extract meaning from simple description by allowing the sitter to find his or her own pose. Sander, in a manner similar to Winship, is little concerned with the projection of ego but rather with giving the space to allow the audience to project onto the portrait.

The unexpected is what makes life interesting. Serendipity triumphs. The photographer, like any creative, has to be alert to the unexpected and appreciate it. As Henri Cartier-Bresson once observed, you make your own luck, and be attentive to it. The French Situationists would traverse the city with a derive attitude, this is to say that they enter the city blind, following the contours and feeling their way through. With Winship’s photographs we comprehend that sense that she knows where she is going yet does not know what will happen when she gets there. She follows the unpredictability of the unbeaten path and finds metaphors waiting to be realised and fixed. An empty heart in a field, an improvised totem of unoccupied shoes hanging on a dead tree, a nervous deer precariously near a highway, ‘cautioned’ tape caught up in some trees and ‘Glitter & Glamour’ in a desolate urban landscape.

Vanessa Winship suffered a personal loss during the process of making this book with MACK. That a literal death occurred in her family is not obvious in her work and too much can be said of this. As an artist Winship was already on the path of understanding that photography has a particularly unique correlation with loss. The tragedy of loss is already a given and there is no need to amplify this as it gently rests inside and outside of the photographs. Though like a ripple effect her work resonates with a sense of longing, unimpeded by her sensitivity and humanity and thus embedded in the fabric of her subjects via the complicit contract between the photographer and the sitter. In the true sense of the word, those photographed act as mirrors to what Winship seeks. In describing she inadvertently imbues herself. The ability to work during a period of mourning is incredibly difficult and yet the attentiveness to the nuances of life is greatly heightened, the slightest moment and movement is intensified as the rawness of reality seeps into the purpose built bubble we usually occupy.

Our culture is a ‘Like’ culture, we press the key and the thumb goes up – it is becoming too difficult to disagree. Current creative photographic practices appear to be trundling down the path of gimmicks, gothic and retrospective, employing quasi-conceptual and aesthetic bells and whistles in attempts to be noticed. A distressed image is suddenly relevant by virtue of its effect yet invariably it carries little weight. Sterile installations, loaded with reels of theory, stand as puerile window displays. Fashion, never really sustains itself for very long; it is fleeting and invariably superficial, yet the impression is that people are impressed.

By contrast the timeless quality of she dances on Jackson is distilled and silent. Winship’s photography sits within the tradition of the descriptive documentary photography genre. In terms of technique it offers nothing new. There are no illusions of grandeur in this work, only a carefully crafted simplicity to show without filters or distraction a point of view that is relevant. This is less a work of look at me and more a work of look at you and look at this. Despite the t-shirts, tattoos and uniforms there is little in terms of signage to anchor the photographs to a contemporary America. The focus is set on the isolation of youth, already world weary, having been bombarded by all they should have but can never have, and in anticipating a future struggle to maintain a steady course.

The title lends itself to the author; to dance is to poetically manoeuvre yourself through life and embrace the verve. The mild-mannered lyricism of this work is evident as is Winship’s intention to dance to her own tune.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Vanessa Winship

Michael Grieve is a photographer represented by Agence VU’. He also writes regularly for the British Journal of Photography and is creative director of the newly formed Berlin Foto Kiez.

Lieko Shiga


Special book review by Gerry Badger

I begin with an admission. One of the most interesting essays ever written by John Szarkowski was his introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide. I find it so fascinating because, although Szarkowki could intuitively see the merit in Eggleston’s work, I think he also found it baffling and difficult to pin down in writing. And his essay explores this sense of puzzlement, his search for understanding. I feel the same about Lieko Shiga’s new book, SPIRAL COAST/album, which I think is quite special – and yet I’m not absolutely certain why.

Lieko Shiga has become the rising star of Japanese photography by employing a completely different style to everybody’s favourite Japanese photographer, Rinko Kawauchi. Whereas Kawauchi is serene and understated in her approach, Shiga is flamboyant and expressionist, unafraid to deploy every technical trick in the book, using both the documentary and the staged photograph approaches. Her imagery does not so much display a style as flaunt a sensibility. And that sensibility is poetic, ebullient, and endlessly inventive, certainly not that of a shrinking violet. She first came to attention with her book Lagoon in 2008, and now looks set to cement her reputation with her new, ambitious project, Spiral Coast.

The Spiral Coast project (which currently stands at three books) derives from the period, beginning in 2008, when Shiga went to live in the small community of Kitakama, in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture. She was invited to become the village photographer, which meant recording the religious festivals and other community events marking the year’s passage. Kitakama lies in an area of sand dunes and pine trees, designated by Shiga as the ‘Spiral Coast’, and these became a great inspiration for her work, although nature was to prove problematic. The area was badly hit by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Shiga lost her studio and many images she had made of the community. Far worse, Kitakama lost some sixty souls out of the 107 families residing there, and the village was flattened.

SPIRAL COAST/album might therefore be said to perform a memorialising function, although that is to simplify what is an extremely complex work. Frequently, photography is an act of claiming and holding on to something – memories, evidence, relationships, the world. Here, the medium certainly does seem to fulfil that brief, although in this case it is an act of reclamation – an act of remembrance and reflection before life inevitably carries on.

Shiga does this in an extremely proactive way; this is no passive process. She does not so much record the world as remake it. She does not so much fabricate photographs as inhabit them. From this one might gather that Shiga is no realist photographer. The other two books that comprise the Spiral Coast project deal more directly with the community of Kitakam, but the ‘trippy’ album (to use the Sixties vernacular) is the most personal, the poetic flight of fancy.

And it certainly is a dark poetry. Shiga’s images seem to be taken mainly in the gloaming, and the whole ambient feeling is one of darkness and uncertainty. Nothing is what it seems. Many of the pictures are dark, murky even. Shiga likes to shoot at night with a flash that doesn’t quite cover the frame, producing an unsettling vignetting effect. So in many of the pictures the image seems only half there – fugitive, tantalisingly ineffable – like a vague memory.

The book is full of phantasms and shadows, from the flickering, poignant images of damaged snapshots rescued from the flood to the references – in flowers and funerals to the uncertainty of life – exemplified in a repeated image of a washed-up corpse on the beach. Yet, amidst this gloom, there is also a strangely ecstatic element. Shiga is almost as much land artist or sculptor as photographer, and one of the book’s central metaphors is where she takes a pine branch and by sweeping makes spiral and other patterns in the sand, which may echo the meditative function, and the daily sweeping of the famous Zen garden of Ryan-ji in Kyoto.

Like many significant photobooks, SPIRAL COAST/album seems as much about the photographer’s relationship with photography as her relationship with the world. It seems that Shiga is not so much utilising photography to examine her relationship with the world, but rather using the world to explore her relationship with photography. Although of course she cares for the world and in particular the community of Kitakama. Yet her imagery’s singularity and flamboyance makes her one of the most expressionist photographers I have seen, and that makes me uncomfortable with them (in a good way), as I am not normally well disposed towards pictorialism, and Shiga’s work at root is a kind of contemporary pictorialism.

One of photography’s challenges is that it deals with the literal, the material. If you want to use the medium to talk about things you cannot see in the world, like feelings, relationships, or memories, you have to find a way of bending it – usually by employing, to paraphrase Walker Evans, “not only metaphor and symbol, but paradox and play and oxymoron.”

Shiga does this by constructing not only a dense and elliptical narrative, full of blind alleys, repetition, and doubling back, but also a panoply of formal photographic strategies – ranging from the semi-abstraction of the distressed snapshots, painted and drawn over photographs, double exposures, and cross processing to create strange colour distortions. Hardly one photograph is like another, but this remarkable book is held together by Shiga’s singular sensibility – elegiac, meditative, gloomy, playful, and ecstatic by turns. The result is a gigantic, ambitious, mood piece, but a very superior if somewhat baffling one.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Lieko Shiga

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 30 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he publishedThe Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.