Matt Lipps


Essay by Chris Littlewood

Starting in 1970, Life-Time magazine published images from their immense archive of mass-media and fine art photographs in a series titled Library of Photography. It was a 17-volume hardback edition delivered to people’s homes at a time when analogue SLR cameras were sweeping through America. After more than a century confined to exclusivity, across the country Polaroids were being pulled, family albums built. This was the moment when automatic photography became part of the mass consumer market. Demonstrative and diagrammatic, the Library of Photography began by showing depictions of darkroom equipment and cross-sections of camera bodies. From the instructional to the iconic, the series was illustrated with gravure reproductions of work by celebrated photographers, including Irving Penn and Bill Brandt. One volume was dedicated to some of the most recognised photojournalism of the time while chapters ranged from techniques to genres to the conservation of photographs, this was an all inclusive visual aide – everything you could possibly need to know about photography.

Matt Lipps is a California-based artist known for his astute examination of pre-digital photographic material. By way of dissecting, mounting, reassembling and lighting, Lipps’ ornamentation of found photographs delivers the images out of antiquity into a meaningful present. By bringing together the amateur with the professional, the procedural with the artistic, Lipps’ approach is nothing short of democratic. Together with overtly stylised coloured backdrops or lighting gels, the overall effect is at once retro and contemporary. They are hybrid images – visual seesaws between past and present – that places Lipps’ work within a critical mass of predominantly American artists engaging with a post-Photoshop, post-internet image culture.

“We live in a photographic mind-set, creating memories for the future,” Matt Lipps has said. And with it, Western society now carries a camera in its pocket. That an unprecedented number of photographs are being produced daily is not in doubt. We are visually saturated and photographically dependent. Increasingly people experience life through the lens of social media platforms, where digital photography becomes less a tool of candid documentation and more a constructed reality. We manufacture moments that look like photographs that will become memories we will treasure. Concurrently, ‘art photography’ is experiencing a surge in techniques that seek to dissolve observed reality with digitally generated imagery, studio assemblages and appropriated material with sculptural installations. ‘Constructed photography’ has become the term of the day.

In his essay from the current issue of frieze magazine, entitled Construction Sight Aaron Schuman places Matt Lipps alongside Daniel Gordon, Noemie Goudal, Chris Wiley, Hannah Whitaker, Lorenzo Vitturi, Sara Cwynar and Asger Carlsen as the frontrunners of this generation. Linked by their focus on photographic form over informational content, these artists utilise photography as both a technical endeavour and a physical medium. It is the “scaffolding of the photographic medium [that becomes} explicit and intricate”. Lorenzo Durantini writes of a similar group in his essay Tool Objects: “These artists allow us to witness the evacuation and fragmentation of the object and the emergence of the tool as the primary focus of this new hybrid practice” in an article from The British Journal of Photography in 2012. The same year Durantini curated Brush it in at Flowers Gallery. Taking its title from a colloquial expression associated with the act of digital manipulation using Adobe Photoshop, the group exhibition was an assembly of works – including photo-sculpturesthat engaged with the pictorial tension between virtual editing and physical intervention. There have been a handful of exhibitions in this vein, notably Foam Museum’s Under Construction – New Positions in American Photography.

It is easy to see why the photographic convention of studio-based still life has been adopted by many of these artists. It has long been associated with a heightened sense of looking and perceiving. It is also deployed as the primary language in the advertising world’s relentless campaign to sell goods. As Durantini states: “The inevitable disappointment of mass-produced commodities has created a sort of haptic half-life where the image produces more pleasure than the object itself.” This has created a fertile borderland between representation and experience, where artists are able to explore and enact revenge. No longer relevant as a genre in its own right, the devices associated with still life have all but been consumed by ‘constructed photography’. In many ways the role of the early travelling photographer helped to free artists from the confines of the studio. Now it seems the reverse is true. The studio practitioner is now freed through their ability to exert full creative control, to roam across modes of practice with seemingly little regard for tradition.

Alongside still life, there has been much talk about appropriation in a critical sense. It’s possible that Matt Lipps and others represent a kind of optimistic appropriation where the artist is partly naive. The word ‘curator’ has now become a ubiquitous term synonymous with anyone able to edit, sequence and share images. Blogs along with websites like Instagram and Pinterest enable users to not only produce unique content, but to intersperse it with existing and often anonymous material. It comes as little surprise that artists too are drawn towards this curatorial impulse.

Operating as individual case-histories, Matt Lipps’ Library presents us with the artist’s edits as single pictorial planes; an overview of what a particular area of photography might show if viewed all at once. Playful yet unnerving, bizarre juxtapositions of subjects and scale jolt the viewer out of a traditional reading. Images are blended together in such a way that their individual histories and scale are not important. By freeing images from a rigid and linear context, Lipps’ grid-like compositions display content more akin to a Google image search. By referencing the layout of bookshelves, the viewer oscillates between the dimensions of screen-based and print-based media.

Library comprises of 17 works based on each of the original Time-Life volumes. Lipps begins by cutting out images and staging them like theatre props on glass shelves. Likened to cabinets of curiosities, the tableaux also resemble fossil samples in their pseudo-scientific means of display. Lipps creates static scenes for the camera, fabricated in order to be photographed from a specific angle, with specific lighting at a specific time. Through striking economy, Lipps breathes life into each cast of the outsized characters and oddities. Polarised with seductive colours, the backdrops are scans made from the artist’s own archive of early 35mm negatives. Although Lipps himself did not learn photography from the Time-Life publications, he was educated in a similar manner. Ignoring the advice he now offers students, Lipps goes about breaking every unwritten rule of Photoshop – deliberately oversaturating and applying gimmicky filters. By combining the personal with the canonised, the compositional unity conjures an objecthood that is wholly surreal. Library contains shapes that the viewer apprehends, but cannot necessarily perceive in his/her spatial environment.

When photography replaced painting as the instrument of factual representation, it allowed painting to go through a process of self-exploration where formal qualities such as composition or colour became subjects worthy of artistic endeavour alone. As computer generated imagery replaces photography, perhaps the medium of photography is also experiencing a similar process of introspection. In the work Photographers, 2013 doors open to unknown places, chains, artefacts and memento mori cover an obscured self-portrait of Lipps. A reflection of the artist’s camera stares back and suddenly the observer becomes the observed. Superimposed in the centre sits Salvador Dali’s In Voluptas Mors, a form which blends beauty with death. Six female nudes are materialised as a pair of hollow eyes, jagged teeth and a skull. A giant cyan hand emerges from behind the trophy cabinet of moribund misfits as if to wave them off to an impending doom. Part Requiem to an analogue craft, part evolution, Matt Lipps’ Library may come to represent a key moment in photography’s new found formalism.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Matt Lipps

Chris Littlewood is a curator and writer based in London, who currently works as the Photography Director at Flowers Gallery. The programme at Flowers has included exhibitions by represented photographers Boomoon, Edward Burtynsky, Nadav Kander, Mona Kuhn, Robert Polidori, Simon Roberts and Michael Wolf.

Thomas Demand

New Photographs

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles
24.01.15 — 04.04.15

In the beginning was the model. And the model demonstrated that the idea worked, at least on paper. And what began on paper, was in turn mediated by it, and has returned to it, becomes it. In most accounts of his work to date, we have known Thomas Demand for his paper sculpture, and what we might also think of as his constructed, or staged photography of these objects. We are familiar with their laborious production, their 1:1 scale, and their origins in pre-existing photographs. Such contexts inspire a wonderment – upon the first viewing of Demand’s project we are drawn to its labour and spectacle, and perhaps justly so. But for those who return, what of the strange balance of familiarity and the novel? Is a different set of longer lasting questions at work?

It is strange that we might account for the role of paper in the work of Thomas Demand, and not that of the model. Apparent in Demand’s most recently completed work, in his exhibition at Matthew Marks in Los Angeles, is the evolving status of this very object. The philosopher Vilém Flusser wrote, in a lecture to L’Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie, in Arles, France, that photographs were models. He stated: “The true photographer intends to make pictures which may be used as models for the experience, the knowledge, and the evaluation of their receivers.”

The photographer, for Flusser, did not simply accept the apparent ‘realism’ of the image, but actively constructed it. For Demand, the model is a unifying theme, which brings together the artist’s method and subject matter. He is at once the maker of physical models, and the surveyor of photographs as models of meaning and information.

On the one hand, a model might be retrospective: it is an historical image existing as a blueprint. It functions as a marker or trace, the flicker of an event whose significance is only now becoming fully apparent – in Atelier, the brightly lit studio of Henri Matisse is represented at a late and overlooked stage of the artist’s career, at the moment of his cut-outs. Coloured paper is strewn on the floor, as if we were witnessing the moment after they were formed from their paper – just as they were made, and about to go out in to the world. More than simply a product of the artist’s age and ill health, which usually attempts to explain his move from painting, the cut-outs suggested a different strategy of art-making, made of paper and scissors, rather than brushes and paints. They point to reinvention, and the quick joy of assemblage over the slow process of painterly construction. In Demand’s hands they seem to return us back to one of the artist’s core obsessions: paper as material. Paper is both the material of proposition and the tool of historical record.

If Demand often portrays scenes from the past, so too are recent events made visible. Backyard represents the side steps up to the house of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombings that took place in 2013. It is a work reminiscent of many of Demand’s accounts of recent history, presenting banal or familiar spaces – kitchens, homes, bars and gardens – loaded with the weight of the events that haunt them. This image of Tsarnaev’s home presents the vernacular wooden architecture of the Boston suburbs. The proximity of each house to the next suggests both density and community, but also sets a stage for a certain honest or straightforward living. Such an idyll is disrupted by objects strewn across the little patch of grass. These signifiers, in a culture in which one’s garden is often manicured to maintain the social contract, allows the portrayal of Tsarnaev to quickly form his status as an outsider.

It is worth noting Demand’s taste for criminals and their stories, not so much for the language of the crime scene photograph – as has so often been remarked upon – but for their subjects’ clearly defined and quickly formed place in our historical consciousness, as evil, unimaginable, other. Tsarnaev was crafted as a kind of model, or anti-model. Not interrogated for motive so much as simply represented to the public, he is held up as the very antithesis of reason, of sense. Caught in a context in which his immigrant status prefaces his brutal acts, Tsarnaev is suspended in history as an abstraction, as are many of Demand’s villains.

Thinking historiographically – rather than historically – permits a view of history subject to alteration, to the will of its authors, and to its casting and re-casting. Demand’s reconstruction of Matisse’s studio is similarly appropriate. It falls at the time of a re-evaluation of the artist’s collage in exhibitions at Tate and MoMA. At the very moment the viewer comes face to face with the notion of Matisse as a master collagist, history is recast, recomposed. Matisse himself becomes a model – an object of study, and a means of projecting into the future.

Usually, we think of the model as a forecast, as a form of pre-visualisation. A sleight of hand, which turns photography from an object obsessed with the past, into one concerned with the potentiality of the future, Demand began in 2011 to photograph the architectural models of John Lautner. The rough, scuffed and annotated cardboard structures in Model Studies showed the anticipation of an architecture yet to be built (of course, some of an architects’ models are realised, whilst many are not). Demand’s new photographs show working models by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of celebrated Japanese architects SANAA. Shaped and crumpled, and cut out by hand, what emerges are overlapping, opening and compressing volumes. Cleaner than Lautner’s models, they produce an architecture as space, and envisage the model as a vision of a built environment yet to come. They are as real as images of space as are photographs of architecture itself, for Demand is something of a realist, despite or perhaps because of, his paper constructions.

And so what is the status of the model after Demand’s treatment? It might be clear that – beyond our initial wonderment – the model is something that is made, crafted and forged, though it is not simple labour. The model is history written and brought into being. It is not a passive object, but a process of shaping: hence Demand’s distinctive matching of the model as process and subject of enquiry. Realism is the model that we opt to manifest.

All images courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery. © Thomas Demand

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also course director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Dominic Hawgood

Under the Influence

Essay by Lucy Soutter

As I write this, a portion of Dominic Hawgood’s project Under the Influence is on display at TJ Boulting gallery in London’s West End. The gallery space has been re-floored and re-skinned as a spotless white set for a show that is as much a light installation as a photography exhibition. In this series the photographer uses the whole toolbox of advertising photography, including lighting, digital image manipulation and CGI. He tests the limits of image-making to depict the limits of human experience. These images are drawn from scenes the photographer witnessed in Pentecostal churches in London, as mediated through the ways exorcisms and healings are documented and disseminated by the churches themselves.

If you just walked in off the street, the experience would be intense but possibly bewildering. The images oscillate between the visual rhetoric of photographic realism and the contrived seduction of advertising photography. They depict a world of sensation in which frozen hands grip, reach and claw, a world of high detail in which chipped nail polish, the down on a girl’s cheek or the texture of institutional carpet provide forensic clues to a mystery that lies somewhere out of frame. With titles for individual images such as, I Command You Get Out, and Rise Up You Are Free, this is the vocabulary and material culture of deliverance: crutches thrown aside, microphones thrust forward, and redemption conferred by the squirt of a spray bottle.

The experience of the work extends beyond this content to the atmosphere produced in room. Lit from below by the slightly headachy blue glow of hidden LED lights, the five black and white vinyl images of figures appear both to recede into the wall and to float a few millimetres away from it. The matte vinyls are punctuated by two extraordinarily slick objects – sculptural light boxes propped on the floor like a pair of giant iPads. These cast coloured halos into the room and also glow eerily from behind. The overall effect is of slight disorientation. These photographs do not behave as they should. It is as if disembodied screen images have taken on unstable new forms to meet us in the space of the gallery.

Only parts of Under the Influence can be seen in this installation. As with many contemporary projects, the work exists across several platforms, which may be considered in relation to one another for a fuller picture without necessarily looking to the photographer for an explanation. On the artist’s website vivid text by writer Pascale Cumming-Benson describes what actually happens in the church services – extreme bodily experience is looped through microphones, screens and speakers. At one point, “A woman runs to the front and casts herself down on the floor. She vomits and spits into the tissues placed in front of her. Another runs forward. Stretched out on the floor, they are surrounded by the ministers and cameramen.” Interspersed with the website’s text and images are hypnotic black and white video clips, YouTube extracts posted by the churches reconfigured by the artist into elegant vertical rectangles, unfocused and slowed-down. Too vague to act as documentary evidence (it would not be possible to identify a particular person or activity), they offer a strangely distanced view of physical and spiritual fervour.

Under the Influence also exists as a high-resolution three-dimensional architectural render. In this format Hawgood develops an interactive walk-through of how the specially lit images and videos would be look in an impossibly ideal environment, without the constraints of money, labour or architecture. The current installation was developed to approximate this render as closely as possible. The artist’s own photographic documentation of the live exhibition provides another level of feedback on this loop of virtual and actual.

In Under the Influence, as in previous projects, Hawgood has photographed subjects with first-hand experience of the phenomena depicted, but he does not tell us how or why. Reconstructing events from the world, Hawgood might recall Jeff Wall or Philip-Lorca diCorcia, but I think more appropriate reference points would be Ed Atkins or James Bridle (the latter currently showing nearby at The Photographer’s Gallery). Like Atkins in works like Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013), Hawgood plays on our visceral reaction to the intersection point of flesh and pixels. Both artists use digitally heightened, impossible images to explore what remains of our stone age physicality: the brute sensations and inchoate longings that make us feel real. Like Bridle, whose recent work Seamless Transitions provides a CGI fly-through of forbidden spaces of the UK immigration and asylum system, Hawgood’s work also considers the politics of imaging, how we participate in the surveillance of our own existence, and how that documentation helps to shape our reality. Hawgood also cites as influences Tom McCarthy’s novel Remainder, and Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 film The Act of Killing, both works that include painstaking recreations of traumatic events. In an era of simulacra a consciously fictive reenactment may get closer to the truth of an event than more traditional forms of documentation.

A decade ago, narrative photography was all about the tableau, the grand staged scenes that Julian Stallabrass dubbed ‘museum pictures’ for their grandiosity and historical aspiration. For writers like Jean-François Chevrier and Michael Fried, the tableau needs to be self-contained, a world unto itself, into which we can project our thoughts without being caught up in any external trappings of theatricality. Hawgood’s use of lighting and installation, external text, supplementary video and virtual documentation openly flaunts this model of picture-making. In his hands photography provides less a totalising vision than a contingent, complicit mode of exploration. This is less a ‘model of experience’ (Chevrier’s claim for pictorial photography) than a quest for experience, using various forms of unreliable imaging to re-activate the jaded viewer’s imagination.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Dominic Hawgood

Lucy Soutter is an artist, critic and art historian. She is senior tutor in the Department of Critical and Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art, London, and is the author of Why Art Photography? (London: Routledge Press, 2013).

Nobuyoshi Araki

Marvelous Tales of Black Ink

Special book review by Ivan Vartanian

One of Nobuyoshi Araki’s many wizard-like tricks is his ability to usher in the feeling that there is more than meets the eye. His photography seems to lean towards the grand and epic. Even is his most tender of moments – photographing his dying, beloved cat or taking snapshots of his newly wedded bride, Yoko, on their honeymoon trip – he seems to be able to connect to something that is on a cosmic order of magnitude. While this may indeed be the case on the level of content, I also know Araki to be an irrepressible and consummate showman. Little is left to chance in the scenarios and scenes that he builds for his images since he operates like a stage manager, directing all components on and off it. In a sense, Araki’s images are constructions in which each tier (including his crew, the lighting, and, of course, the model) is manipulated like marionettes. So when approaching a book such as Marvelous Tales of Black Ink, published by Morel Books, we cannot underestimate Araki’s level of clever play (read: calculation).

Each image in the book is illustrated with character forms written in brush pen. For a western audience, an already alien written system is made all the more difficult to decipher. This doesn’t mean Araki isn’t mindful of his audience; it’s just the opposite. He is fully aware that his readership won’t be able to make sense of the brushwork beyond an appreciation for its graphic effect. The calligraphy is a puzzle for which there may or may not be an answer. But being plainly read isn’t the point. Rather, what he is doing here is presenting a series of riddles and he asks the reader to step into that unknowable terrain without expectations of answers. The gesture here is one of pointing, not explaining.

Even being able to read Japanese, several of the writings in this book left me scratching my head. I had to do some research to parse some of his wordplays. Take, for example, the book’s title, which uses Chinese characters that are not part of everyday usage. The title is a direct reference to a novel by Kafu Nagai (1879-1959) written in 1937, called 濹東綺譚. The story is set in pre-war Japan and is about a retired novelist who has a brief love affair with a prostitute. It’s widely believed that the novel’s protagonist is a representation of the author. For the title of this photobook Araki has made one modification to the original: he’s replaced the second character entirely, changing it from 東 (east in English) to 汁 (liquid or juice). Perhaps this is meant emphasise the liquid nature of his brushwork’s India ink, which is what the title’s first character means.

Araki’s wordplay has been a consistent presence throughout his career. Apart from the copious volume of images that he continues to produce, Araki has also written a tremendous amount. In fact, in the late-1990s, a multiple-volume compendium of his writings was published that canvassed the extent of his essays, diaries, and other texts that are difficult to categorise. His sensitivity to language is perhaps also matched only by his irreverence for it. For every measure of aesthete musings, there is an equal measure of crass humour. He has often refered to his camera as a ca-mara. Mara is Japanese slang for penis; a more faithful translation would be “dick.” He is not only equating the camera with a phallus but also conflating the two words and the two ideas – a central tenant of Araki’s thoughts on photography.

Conflation of two forms into one is a running visual and thematic trope throughout Araki’s oeuvre. This trope is also a form of nodding to some other existing form or body of work. In terms of traditional Japanese aesthetics, this is called mitateru. The English word allusion approaches this idea to a certain degree. Where allusion calls to mind an existing work, mitateru borrows the referenced form en masse with some modification. As Araki has done with the title, he has borrowed from the novelist Nagai, the “original” (in Western parlance) is presented simultaneously as its revised form. This is less an act of plagiarism and more a play of forms, by calling to mind and asserting the presence of both the original and its revised version at the same time. In this instance, Araki is presenting himself as both the novelist Nagai and the fiction’s protagonist.

While the calligraphy was ostensibly all done at one time, the images are pulled from the photographer’s vast archive of images. The bondage images were a regular theme in Araki’s work in the 1990s. Suspending a nude from the ceiling and contorting the model in such an elevation requires is a highly sophisticated rope technique. Ensuring the safety and relative comfort of the model means that each of these shoots requires an elaborate staging production. Moreover, this floating technique seems to make use of a decidedly traditional Japanese space configuration (madori); the ropes are attached to exposed beams, which are typically found in a tatami room. An extension of this scenario is the kimono that the women wear, or in many cases don’t wear. The space and the vestments and the network of finely organised cords all point to a particular aestheticism. Araki is drawing our awareness to not only the content of what’s written but also our own processes of how we read those signifiers. Within this schema, the female form as an object of voyeuristic sexual desire is complicated, as evinced by Simon Baker’s afterword to the book, which references Georges Bataille in his discussion of the flowers images included in this volume. As such, the literary superstructure reinforces the complexity of how we are to read this book and the photographer’s base instincts are mitigated by the sophistication of the overall structure that he’s set into motion. Then again, maybe the joke’s on us. Personally, I’ve never known Araki to not mention his mara in nearly every conversation.

The book is a handsome production. The jacket of this oversized book feels like starched linen and the motif is raised. The choice of materials is refined and the printing, while simple, is done well. The coat of varnish on the plates is greatly appreciated.

All images courtesy of Morel Books and Taka Ishii Gallery. © Nobuyoshi Araki

Ivan Vartanian is an American writer, curator, and publisher based in Tokyo. He is the co-author of Japanese Photobooks of the 1960s & 70s (Aperture, 2009) and Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers (Aperture, 2006), ArtWork: Seeing Inside the Creative Process (Chronicle Books, 2011), See/Saw: Connections Between Japanese Art Then & Now (Chronicle Books, 2011), and editor/producer of Egon Schiele: Drawings and Watercolors (Thames & Hudson, 2003). Vartanian also founded GOLIGA Books.

Ken Schles

Invisible City/Night Walk

Interview by Peggy Sue Amison

Invisible City was a cult book. After publication in 1988 it very quickly went underground and out of print. The New York Times selected it as a notable book of the year, and after that, it was gone. At the time, some critics rejected the format as too small while traditionalists described my use of bleeds as “anti-photography”. Peter Galassi eventually included Invisible City in an exhibit at the MoMA, but even by then it was already out of print for several years. The book was expensive to own; difficult to find: it was disappearing onto the shelves of collectors.

When the Internet came around Invisible City didn’t have much presence. While known in the photographic community, its unavailability only added to its cult status, something I felt was problematic. It started appearing in volumes on the history of the photobook (or not, which was then hotly debated online). Prices skyrocketed. While valuation for many years hovered around $800 a copy, suddenly it reached $1.2k to $2k a copy. Once I saw Invisible City listed as high as $10,000.

Sitting in his office, Phil Block (one of the founders of ICP and I were talking about how Invisible City, while appreciated by a certain audience, was becoming forgotten to a new generation. I decided it would be nice to make a 25th anniversary reprint, still some five years off. Jack Woody, the original publisher at Twelvetrees Press, wasn’t as keen on a reprint, because the technology for printing in photogravure (the original printing method used) had become obsolete. Much of the beauty and object quality of Invisible City came from this particular process, and this was something neither of us wanted to lose.

Then, in 2011, within a few short months, a multiplicity of events conspired to set the stage for a reprint. These events also compelled me to examine other work from that same period. In the UK, at the University of Coventry, the online group Phonar selected Invisible City as a ‘best’ narrative photobook. Matt Johnston, who helped form the Phonar group, told me he had been developing a personal project through something he called The Photobook Club – an online crowd sourced study of iconic photobooks, in an attempt to bring those projects to a new audience. And – he would enjoy my participation. Independently, Howard Greenberg showed the book to Gerhard Steidl. Howard knew that Steidl had developed a new printing methodology that brought back certain qualities of photogravure and that Gerhard had been interested in reprinting select older titles. He thought Invisible City might be of interest to Gerhard. And Harper Levine, of Harper Books, asked me to make a new piece related to Invisible City for him to display at Paris Photo. Also Jason Eskenazi, approached me to exhibit Invisible City at a photo festival in Bursa, Turkey. Prior to these events I hadn’t considered the work in fifteen years.

There was a shift. A threshold had been crossed. New York City was a radically different place than it had been in my photographs. My work was now connected to a mythologised vision of a pre-gentrified, pre-Internet New York. And photography itself had changed: the way we looked at and shared images had shifted. I think both of these elements conspired to connect the work to another era and sparked new outside interest.

Night Walk grew initially from revisiting some outtakes Invisible City for purposes of discussion. I eventually mined my archives developing these new projects around Invisible City. Gerhard Steidl offered carte blanche for the reprint: I could change the format or add images, as he had done with Kouldelka’s Gypsies or Davidson’s Subway. But I felt strongly that thirty years on I shouldn’t mess with my early editorial decisions for they had become part and parcel of the book’s legacy. I wanted people to see Invisible City in its original form. I played with the Night Walk piece I made for Harper. I continued thinking what might accompany Invisible City’s re-release. Then a galvanising event came with the death of my parents.

My parents died within a day of each other in 2012. In my process of mourning, I thought about the many deaths of people I once knew, especially around the AIDS and drug crises in my early 20s, in the mid-1980s, and the death of my brother around the time Invisible City was published. My parents had been in a long decline for many years, both afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, which I explored in my book, Oculus. My exploration of the connection between images and memory, in part, was a reaction to their senility. I looked at old contact sheets from my East Village days and remembered all those people who died. I remembered their presence so well. In my mind I could still vividly hear the their voices. And I was struck with the vitality of the people in my images. In a box of Invisible City material, I found a poem by Octavio Paz, called Night Walk. It resonated for me. I became obsessed with making my own ‘night walk.’ What began at first as an exercise now became an obsession: and then a book.

These two books, Invisible City and Night Walk are testaments to both the times they discuss and the times in which they were made. In one sense they are bookends. One made at the time, the other looking back. Invisible City came about when so many cultural phenomena overlapped and existed, for just a brief moment, in one place. I wanted to capture my sense of it before it all went away.

I believe the power of Night Walk comes from me experiencing death and reflecting upon past deaths while looking to these images, these fragments from the past, as totems of death’s opposite. Night Walk is about vitality and ephemerality, things that transcend the book’s focus of time and place. I wrote the following epigraph specifically to address these issues and to focus the reader’s attention on what is to come:

“I lay these fragments before you. What has since been rebuilt now reverts back to its former state of skeletal ruin. The dead reappear, hurry about and whisper their siren songs into your ear. Where once the journey was open-ended and uncertain, it now leads to an inevitable end. The living recognize in the past only what the living choose to remember or refuse to forget. In truth the past never reveals itself so readily or so fully — for even the dead once lived lives of complication and consequence, immeasurably filled with uncertainty and promise.”

For me the significance of the book is not that the book is set in some past, but that it resonates with a presence and vitality that I experience in the present. This is why I ended the book with the quote from T.S. Eliot on the paradox of experience being both absolute yet subjective and why I dedicated the book to the “memory of those who died in the scourge of AIDS and violence that gripped the East Village during the 1980s.”

All images courtesy of the artist. © Ken Schles

Ken Schles is an American photographer who has authored five monographs: Invisible City (Twelvetrees Press, 1988; reprint Steidl Verlag, 2014); The Geometry of Innocence (Hatje Cantz, 2001); A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures In Our Heads (White Press, 2007); Oculus (Noorderlicht, 2011) and Night Walk (Steidl Verlag, 2014). His work is also held in more than 100 museum and library collections throughout the world. Forthcoming exhibitions include Invisible City/Night Walk 1983—1989 at Noorderlicht Gallery from 4 April — 7 June 2015. 

Laura El-Tantawy

In the Shadow of the Pyramids

Special book review by Gerry Badger

Of the various outbursts of popular protest and revolution around the Middle East in recent years, dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’, few have produced photobooks of any great significance, probably because it is perhaps too soon. To be sure, there has been much photographing and filming – the iPhone is a vital tool for any would be revolutionary these days – but most of it, along with the verbal expressions of dissent, has been disseminated upon the so-called social media, given its advantage of absolute immediacy. If this had been Japan in the 1960s, or Italy in the 1970s, there would have been a plethora of books documenting the various struggles, but in those days publication was the main communications platform for the dissident groups, apart from demonstrations themselves.

However, now one of the most important manifestations of dissent within the Arab world, the ‘Tahir Square’ revolution, finally has a photobook to do it justice, in the shape of Laura El-Tantawy’s In the Shadow of the Pyramids. She has, I suppose the ideal qualifications for this tricky job, having been born in England, then partly brought up there as well in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, then educated in America. Thus she combines the passion of direct involvement as an insider with the necessary distance of the reporter.

Not that there is anything cool or dispassionate about this book, which displays predominantly hot colour throughout; yellows, oranges, and above all, reds – red for passion, red for revolution, and red for the spilling of blood. As it should be, the Egyptian side of her cosmopolitan personality is to the fore in the project, and the work is both passionate and indeterminate, like the outcome of the revolution itself.

And yet, this is not every Egyptian’s experience of Tahir, or ‘Revolution Square.’ Rather, it is the collective experience of those eighteen tumultuous days between January and February 2011 filtered through a singular sensibility. There is a dual narrative running through the book, Egypt’s story and Laura El-Tantawy’s story, and it is uncertain which wins. That is not a criticism. The heart of the work is focused upon Tahir Square, enough for it to be considered a viable reflection of the struggle, albeit one with a very particular point of view.

The opening part of the book describes El-Tantawy’s pre-revolutionary life, in snapshots and glimpses of what she describes as a very traditional upbringing – until this period of her life ended with her going to America in 1998 to study and then adopt the peripatetic life of a photographer. The main narrative begins in 2005, when she returned to Egypt and began a project to explore the Egyptian identity which she felt had been ‘interrupted’ by her sojourn away from the country. She does this in a series of impressionistic street photographs that are typical of her style and set the stage for her Tahir Square images.

When she heard about Tahir Square, she rushed there. The imagistic tone was already set – impressionistic, indeterminate – and it becomes more and like the natural photographic aesthetic of protest, especially nocturnal protest – grainy, blurry, elliptical, confusing.

But that’s what it’s like. I have been at demonstrations, from Grosvenor Square in 1968 to the first big anti-Iraq War rally in London in 2003, and can attest that Laura El-Tantawy captures perfectly the exhilarating, sometimes dispiriting confusion of it all. I followed the Tahir Square media coverage avidly. In one part of the Square, people were singing songs and chanting slogans, or just hanging out and having picnics. At the same time, on the fringes and down the side streets, people were fighting and being killed. A rock festival atmosphere mixed with that of a war zone. The impression of people down there must have been absolutely confusing, with true and false rumours abounding of what was transpiring. And it should not be forgotten that 846 people were killed and some 6,000 injured.

The El-Tantawy narrative begins with hope, pride, and solidarity. It ends, as they often do, in disappointment and conflict. In the sense that it eschews a definite ideological stance, the book could be said to be apolitical, and yet it is in complete sympathy with the dissenting masses, who came from many ideological backgrounds. In that place, at least doing those heady eighteen days, there was a common purpose – Islamists with secularists, liberals with conservatives, nationalists with feminists – and that was to oust Mubarak. That is of vital importance for El-Tantawy, and while hoping against hope, she was aware of its fragility, which makes the shadowy, elusive, almost illusory tone of the book so much more credible, and the disillusion at the end so much more painful.

I have heard people criticise the book for ‘aestheticising’ the event too much, but I reject this. If the pictures were not in colour, it would be quite downbeat. And if you look closely and think about the narrative, rather than skip through it, this is no fairy story tale. The last section begins with an image of the security forces massed behind a road streaked with bloodstains.

I am not sure, however, whether the pictures would work so well on the wall. Isolated in frames, they might well appear too pretty. But I think they work superbly well in the book context, between pages and as part of a sequence that is more complex than might appear at first sight.

Like so much contemporary photography, Laura El-Tantawy mixes the acutely personal into the documentary mix, which in no way invalidates it as a document of Tahir. After all, Henri Cartier-Bresson described his great coverage of the 1948-49 communist takeover of China as his ‘photo-diary’ of the time. This is one view of Tahir Square. Hopefully, there will be others, with very different viewpoints. This, however, is a most persuasive and beguiling one.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Laura El-Tantawy

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 published The 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.