Arwed Messmer


Book review by Gerry Badger

In 1977, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel produced their famed book entitled Evidence, in which a collection of anonymous photographs from government and corporate archives – presented without commentary – looked liked an exhibition of images by the latest young art photographers. It demonstrated that, with most photographs, it is usage rather than aesthetics that matters. Sultan and Mandel introduced archive imagery into the aesthetic discourse, and thereby aestheticised it – made it art.

This is the area in which German photographer Arwed Messmer also operates. For a number of years, he has had privileged access to various German state archives, including those of the former DDR. He has produced various projects mining this rich material, including one made with Annett Gröschner, Taking Stock of Power. An Other View of the Berlin Wall. Here, Messmer created panoramas from negatives made of the Berlin Wall in the 1960s, made from the DDR side, and combined this with other archive material, including a series of watch towers that out-Bechered the Bechers. Now he is particularly interested in the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s and 80s as evinced by his latest publication Zelle/Cell, as well as an exhibition this June at Museum Folkwang, Essen, entitled RAF: No Evidence / Kein Beweis.

As with Sultan and Mandel, the aesthetic element is there, but Messmer’s artistic intentions are more complex. He is clearly asking questions about the archive, about all this photographic material held by the state, not necessarily for nefarious purposes, but largely because, like the vast new Internet archive, it is simply there. Nefarious – maybe not, but as Sultan and Mandel say – it is evidence. It is also, to one extent or another – surveillance.

On February 27, 1975, a prominent West German politician, mayoral candidate Peter Lorenz, was kidnapped by one of those revolutionary groups that so haunted that decade, the Movement 2 June group. Next day, the gang sent a Polaroid picture of a shocked and battered looking politician, holding up a sign to prove its legitimacy. The picture, like a similar one of the kidnapped Italian politician, Aldo Moro from the following year, became one of those symbols of the 70s – iconic, to use this overused and now devalued word. But unlike Moro, who was left to rot by his own party and eventually murdered, Lorenz was freed after a deal was made to release the prisoners demanded by the kidnappers. It is this image around which Messmer constructs his narrative. But, while well-known, it is one of many, taken from an extensive archive of 3,000 police negatives, and yet many of the written files and object evidence had been destroyed, so these hitherto unexamined photographs bear the burden of the story – a story which, as Messner says is “non-linear.” He is not attempting to reconstruct the history but play creatively, as it were, with this fascinating, but enigmatic material. His concern, as Ines Linder puts it in the book’s accompanying essay, is ultimately with “the language of the photographs.”

Messmer begins with a suite of photographs depicting the incident which gave the Movement June 2 its name. During a student demonstration on June 2, 1967, against a proposed visit to West Germany by the Shah of Iran, a student named Benno Ohnesorg was shot in the head by a police officer who later was revealed as an East German Stasi agent – in “self defence” of course. The photographs show the aftermath of what was nothing less than murder – but instigated by whom? The images show shocked bystanders, police officers not knowing what to do, a woman tenderly cradling the dying man. Using direct flash, the aesthetic reminds one of Garry Winogrand, but this isn’t art, it’s reality.

This is followed by similar, press-photo style pictures of two of the people released in accordance with the Lorenz kidnappers’ demands, taken to Tegel Airport to be flown to Yemen. And then the fun begins. Firstly, Messmer photographed a model made of the ‘cell’ under a bric-a-brac store in Kreuzberg where Lorenz was detained, followed by a variant of the famous Polaroid. Thereafter, there is an almost bewildering sequence of images – of getaway cars, the location where Lorenz was released, and his basement cell. One particularly intriguing sequence – again out-Bechering the Bechers, shows a series of sheet materials used to soundproof the Lorenz cell. There are images of weapons, mug shots, fingerprints lots of interiors with piled up detritus – terrorists are a squalid lot, as the Daily Mail would say – and one intriguing shot of a broom left at the scene of the kidnapping. One of them, it seems disguised himself as a street cleaner. Squalid, not him.

Messmer deliberately alters the chronology of events, and you need to look at the captions in the rear to make sense of things. But that is not the point. Messmer is questioning photography’s role, both as witness, and ultimately, as art. As Ines Linder again points out: “The super cool style of crime scene, medical, or military photographs communicates with our imaginations in a very idiosyncratic manner when these images are not contextualised in a narrative.”

Even when contextualised into a narrative, the photograph communicates in ways that are not only idiosyncratic but sometimes downright baffling. The more I get into photography – and that journey represents more than four decades of my life – the less I am interested in arty-farty photography, in a word, pictorialism, and the more I am fascinated by how photography intersects with history. That necessarily means documentary photography, but not necessarily ‘documentary’ photography in its strictest definition. It might mean photocollage, or constructed photography, or art utilising photographs. As long as it intersects with history it becomes interesting. For photography in general does not intersect with history in a straightforward manner since all photography eventually becomes history, but again, not necessarily history as we know it. Some photography clearly portrays history directly. However, not as much as we might think so one could say photography excels most at providing history’s footnotes. In the main, the historical connection is oblique, confusing, slippery, inconclusive, often unreliable, but always highly intriguing. As this superbly conceived and executed book amply demonstrates. It shows art clashing with history – with art just winning out on points.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Arwed Messmer, using negatives from the Police Historical Collection Berlin (Lorenz files).

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 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.

Piotr Zbierski

Push the Sky Away

Book review by Max Houghton

My eyes deceive me sometimes. I look at an image and see only the negative space, or decipher a creature or shape that it is not really ‘there’. I like to think my perception is enriched by the play of this optical unconscious, and that my sustained impulse towards the image is borne of such mis-looking.

The images created and sequenced by Piotr Zbierski amplify these visual glitches; his preference is for cameras that in some way distort the image. The ensuing instability of the image is used as a strategy here, to transport the viewer into the realm of the senses or emotions; to fold us in. Photography permits special access to this non-geographical place, Zbierski believes, and with Push the Sky Away, an ambitious book published by Dewi Lewis, he shows us the magic of the image. Or, at least, how the image can help us connect to such concepts, and to ritual, myth and the stories that bind us.

The title of the collection is shared (coincidentally, I imagine) with an album by Nick Cave, whose music mines the uttermost reaches of the soul. So if we Push the Sky Away, what’s behind it, above it, beyond it? Without the celestial, how would we comprehend our earthliness? What would happen if the sky was no longer our limit, and instead, we dwelt in a house without a roof? For Hamlet, famously, ‘This brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with gold fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’

Zbierski to be sure sees more than pestilence. He focus is towards being (as opposed to not being) and he has pushed on our behalf, to reveal our raw, unfettered selves. His is a play of three acts, or a triptych, which follows an unfamiliar rhythm, as though from a half-remembered dream. He collects fragments from a brutal though sensual present, which he seems to want to connect to a wilder, more spiritual past. He is a wanderer, a photographic Odysseus, collecting images from the wide, wide world. His accumulated knowledge has taught him that images alone vanish from our tenuous grasp, and this book’s power arises from the sequencing; that is its logic. It is as though Zbierski is trying to impart something urgent, using non-verbal language, to those who look.

Dream of white elephants, the book’s first section, is populated by black and white images, the first of which is a child, emerging from water, eyes closed – perhaps to symbolise how, wet and alone, we enter the world. Further images flit between playful and perturbing scenes, enticing the viewer to enter to find out more, accessing a space at once strange and familiar. The palette extends to incorporate colour in the second section, Love has to be reinvented. Bodies merge with the landscape; the domestic cat of section one has metamorphosed into a leopard, a cut-out dove floating benignly above its head (unless my eyes are playing tricks). Dogs nuzzle each other, rivers flow, the piper plays his tune. The distinction between people and animal blurs.

Zbierski’s vision becomes increasingly anthropological as the book unfolds, in that images of ritual, of holy men proliferate in the third section, Stones were lost from the base, alongside much more mysterious, fragmentary imagery. An image encased in a circle depicts an inosculation, or an en-kissing, as Robert Macfarlane recently described it, in which tree branches grow into each other. This, and the cover image, also featured across a double-page-spread, operates as some sort of key to this complex work. The cover image looks like an ancient settlement, but is in fact located in his native Poland, and the tents are hewn from local canes and palms. The emulsion on the negative was somehow damaged, resulting in rents swirling across the image, rendering it one of a kind. This kind of play between difference and similarity is also a hallmark of the work, and attests to its unsettling power. Zbierski appears to be reaching beyond religious and scientific interpretations of the world, to a more animistic view, in which everything in the universe possesses a soul.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud brought together animists, obsessional neurotics and children, describing their ‘omnipotence of thoughts’, which, combined with ritual, led to magical beliefs about the impact of their thoughts in the world. He might have included artists into this category, but instead it formed the basis of a later paper on narcissism. This observation is not of course a swipe at Zbierski, but might offer insight into the drive to create per se.

It is surprising in a book of images in this realm to see so much text. The first is a poem by Patti Smith, which I am predisposed to like. Its dedication reads ‘-for Piotr’, leaving my imagination to ponder the nature of the relationship between photographer and high priestess of rock poetry, which would be idle conjecture, or between image and text, which I am better placed to pursue. The poem is pure dreamspeak; conjuring oneiric visions from the depths by locating mental images, and positioning them as links in a chain. In this way, poet and photographer are one. The book also hosts an excellent essay by Polish academic Eleonora Jedlinska, which takes the reader on a philosophical journey through Zbierski’s images, in order to contemplate, among other things, what comprises the sacred, and, equally importantly, what constitutes the profane. Since David Campany created the removable essay, in his outstanding work a Handful of Dust, it seems desirable for all works to have the with/without option. This essay does enhance the experience of the extended photowork, but (how could it be otherwise) also points the reader in certain directions, sometimes away from, the flow of the image. Zbierski’s own introductory essay is thoughtful and interesting, but offers up a doubling with the ensuing chapters of images. As I suggested earlier, he is developing a different kind of language, without words, and must now apprehend his own authorship. Zbierski asks if such elements as pain or ecstasy can be tamed by a photograph. He makes his own question redundant by unleashing the wildness of the image with every turn of the page. After much looking, I am still not sure what it is that I have seen. It makes me want to look again.

All images courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing. © Piotr Zbierski

Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.

Richard Mosse


Essay by Duncan Wooldridge


Judith Butler, in her book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? poses an important question: “What is our responsibility toward those we do not know, toward those who seem to test our sense of belonging or to defy available norms of likeness?” How, Butler asks, are we to respond when we encounter a condition beyond our own life experience? What is our responsibility?

Irish artist Richard Mosse has developed a body of work looking at military testing, conflict and the technologies of photographic imaging, most notably in his lauded project The Enclave. The follow up is Incoming, a body of work comprising video in multiple formats, stills as a book, and large-scale prints about the mass-migration of refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East, at the thresholds of Europe, in Turkey and Greece, and at the borders of Iraq and Syria. Mosse uses a military grade thermal camera to make his videos and photographs: his imagery spans from close up details of human interaction, fragments of group crossings of the Mediterranean, landscapes of war including missile launches, to the holding camps for refugees. Much of this footage is montaged into a large three-screen video projection (recently presented at the Barbican, London) and a parallel book; panoramic footage of the temporary camps are reconfigured into large scale prints – sometimes called Heat Maps, alongside a video installation that resembles a bank of CCTV cameras, panning left to right continuously in a dizzying sense of searching.

Although the effects of the thermal camera are not entirely unfamiliar to us (used by the police force, and utilised in both factual and fictional television and cinema, in photographic projects, and even as add-ons to a smartphone), it is important to establish what a military-grade thermal camera does and does not see. What distinguishes the camera from other equipment is its distance and precision of vision, being capable of detecting the human body at 30.3 kilometres. Although it’s primary purpose is to identify heat, it continues to register detail in a lower, flatter range of greys, unlike many thermal devices since the camera is black and white, and not in colour. Mosse’s prints retain a photographic language even if they are also at once unfamiliar. It is possible to differentiate spatial planes and surfaces, textures, and script clearly. The recognition of a figure is possible, although identification is slower and loaded with doubt. It is an image, but one that we are not entirely comfortable with. The thermal image prompts an alienation from the immediate transparency of the reportage image, even if the project retains a documentary scope and purpose. The refugee, already identified as other by the state, is transfigured again by the strangeness of the camera.

Suffice to say every camera dehumanises. In rendering the body into two dimensions, a photograph is lossy and reductive. But our familiarity with this property of the image has caused us to quickly forget and come to terms with the image and its compromises, accepting the trade off of the arrested and flat image for its portability. Yet criticism of Mosse’s project in this regard seems to conflate the technology with its use. The dehumanising of the body is of course continuous with the technology and operations of the state, which we understand as intermittently picking out and targeting the human subject with reasons that power justifies under the rhetorics of the war on terror, national security, and as Eyal Weizman has recognised, the chilling but pervasive moral logic of the ‘lesser evil’. If this is disturbing, it should be, though it is not Mosse’s doing, as he investigates its properties.

Mosse has stated clearly that his aim is to use state and military technology in order to know and use it, seeking new purposes for it. And in our slower observation of his imagery, the thermal camera reveals the state’s tendency to abstraction, to render the refugee as ultimately perishable, under a condition that the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls ‘bare life’. It is also, as Judith Butler writes, the very construction of a difference (nationality) that allows the ‘refugee’ or ‘foreigner’ to be perceived as a threat. We are barely conscious of this fact in our short encounters with the technology elsewhere, where voice-overs for police chases re-inforce the messages of law enforcement. Its estrangement when isolated is surprising, but Mosse sets out to do undo it, using the camera for cinematic effect, and to construct slow and pensive images. Mosse, like the state, often operates at a distance from his subjects – but does this automatically render the result of Mosse’s investigation complicit or continuous with a global order – and by extension, a flow of global capital, as has been suggested?

We must look at the project in detail rather than arriving at rash judgements. The camera continues the western project of producing ‘visibility’. We know that the camera extends human vision, seeing heat rather than light. And we know the purpose of this function already: it is to identify a body or object that attempts camouflage against the eye or standard lens. The lens therefore functions in a manner akin to much of photography’s post-industrial ‘program’ – to extend the range of the visible, to make a world saturated in visibilities. Significant also is its range: the camera provides an ability to see at extraordinary distance, and to see whilst remaining hidden – a logic of power identified by Foucault in his studies on surveillance and the prison. But this is also to state that the camera operates as any device under power: it provides an advantage that increases the visibility of its object, whilst removing of its own capacity to be seen. And Mosse, crucially, turns his camera towards what has been concealed. A similar attempt to wrestle back control of the visible emerges in Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography project, customising cameras to see into US military sites – both occupy high and distant to positions to see sites that are concealed in some manner by the state. Mosse turns his camera to the structural logic of the refugee camp, showing it at a distance, alongside other images within the documentary devices of closely cropped individuals, though it must be noted that the distant images are far more revealing, and affective, because they defy a humanist photojournalistic norm.

In one image, it becomes clear that refugees are housed in and amongst shipping containers. Their equivalence with freight is telling, cold and statistical. But worse still, they remain unequal even in this comparison: it is substantially easier for the container to pass into Europe than it is for the fleeing refugee. How frequently is such a structural marginalisation made apparent?

Mosse is not always effective, however. His large-scale three screen video projection, whilst attempting to show the proximity of conflict and the dangers of the sea crossing, is narrative, dramatic, and as a result overly spectacular. Mosse gets too close to this structure of entertaining and theatricalising, and an accompanying musical score for the video here reveals a pandering rather than a challenge to the conditions of viewership. Mosse’s intention to make the structural logics of the thermal camera, and the experience of the refugee visible, is made apparent in a pensive image; it is obfuscated when it moves towards spectacle.

If the body is the subject of a dehumanised gaze under a military use of the camera, does the body remain a target under Mosse’s use? We have seen that the thermal camera alienates our view of the body in a way that typically functions under the logic of enhanced visibility, but can we say that its operator is programmatically or unconsciously positioning the refugee as other, extending their distance from us? Mosse’s images are affected by the conditions under which images are made, namely changes in climate: in the footage of his large three-screen projection and book we see blackened figures, with heat emerging around the top of the skull and mouth. It is cold and windy, and the temperature difference between the air and the body’s sweat picks out details on the skin. By contrast, In Mosse’s wide landscapes (of the Hellinikon Olympic Stadium in Greece, for example), the body is wholly illuminated, its warmth dramatically changing the body to white. If a military-grade thermal camera saw in colour as do other thermal devices, the body would be blue when cold and red when hot. Such a responsiveness to climate undoes the notion that the body is differentiated or cast as one race by the camera or its operator, as has been asserted elsewhere. But it also undoes a total flattening of difference, as has also been stated at the other extreme: the camera does not conceal the differing presentations of the body, how the body is dressed, marked or conditioned, at least for an observer prepared to look at the image in detail, beyond the estranging effect of the thermal sensor. But such observations distract from the main potency of the image and what it presents to us, leading to outraged claims at one pole, and hopeful but false universalities on the other – both are loud and reductive, when the experience of the refugee surely calls not to be caught in the crossfire, but to be paid attention to, to be seen and heard.

The presence of the live body affects us, as the camera isolates it. In our pause in front of the image, its strangeness causes us to see that warmth is the bodies strength and its very weakness, its similarity to us (however politically and economically removed). And here the flattening effect of the thermal camera is telling at last: it is hard to identify the difference between the military guard, aid worker, or volunteer, and the refugee. What unifies is more evident than what separates, at least for a moment. If we must perceive the refugee as a target under the night vision camera, so too is the aid worker and each member of military personnel. Perhaps this is because, as Agamben is so keen to point out, we are all determined by the conditions of the state. It is also because the body’s heat is its very force, and its very vulnerability: this is also shared by the refugee and the soldier, whose lives are equally fragile, however much we are conditioned to deny it.

As Judith Butler has stated, such realisation of the very fragility of life is the possibility to realise our interdependence upon each other. When we produce difference, and articulate otherness, it can be perceived that we in no way depend upon that life, in fact, are threatened by it. She states that: “Th[e] interpretative framework [of nationalism] functions by tacitly differentiating between those populations on whom my life and existence depend, and those populations which represent a direct threat to my life and existence.” Such a notion of non-dependence is structurally untrue of course: any analysis of the wealth of western nations could not fail to include the resources and labour extracted from the rest of the world. It is simply that trade conceals by abstraction, concealing where luxury comes from and how wealth is obtained.

In actuality, we are each dependent upon both the refugee and their legal mirror, the migrant, for our luxuries, but also for our lives: by producing and enforcing forms of otherness that dehumanise or delegitimise, we produce conflict. This conflict begins with an article and its rash claims, and ends with an enforced difference, a creation of margins, alongside a demarcation of the speakable and unspeakable, represented and unrepresented. What can we do to re-instate our proximities to the refugee? We must reveal our own dependency, and how our life is equally precarious. It is here that Butler is most persuasive: “the call to interdependency is also, then, a call to overcome this schism and to move toward the recognition of a generalised condition of precariousness. It cannot be that the other is destructible while I am not; nor vice versa. It can only be that life, conceived as precarious life, is a generalised condition, and that under certain political conditions it becomes radically exacerbated or radically disavowed. This is a schism in which the subject asserts its own righteous destructiveness at the same time as it seeks to immunise itself against the thought of its own precariousness.”

What is our responsibility then? Richard Mosse’s Incoming attempts to look at how the body is figured in the technological devices of power. His turning of this camera, towards the sites through which refugees pass, has seen how the body of the refugee is dehumanised, situated as a problem ‘incoming’ to the shores of Europe, which Europe has variously responded to, lashed out against and ignored. And we are implicated in it, are in fact, dependent upon it. It is a glimmer of human life that calls us. This might not lead us to see the refugee in a deep and personal light, but to see our relationship to all notions of otherness through the shared interdependence that underwrites human relations, and to see that the delineation of difference through exclusion exacerbates, and does not reduce our own security.

Mosse moves between spectacle and contemplation, and this project reveals the sharply different affects that such modes of address might engender. And here, precisely is our responsibility: to consider our mode of address, our mode of encounter, and to think it through thoroughly, without recourse to further exclusion, or diminishment. If a dialogue is in any way to propagate a more equal and tolerant consideration of “those who seem to test our sense of belonging or to defy available norms of likeness”, it will need to know no distance, near or far. It begins by setting aim at common ground.


In attempting to produce a detailed and critically nuanced account of a project that has divided its audiences, it seems necessary to address two notable criticisms of Incoming – that Mosse has little right to produce his project, and that he profits from it through the structure of the gallery system. That I do so is not to defend Mosse but to respond to criticism that pulls on the heart strings whilst arriving at problematic outcomes that run counter to their claims. I have chosen not to address such criticisms head-on in my essay on Incoming, seeing it as an attempt to see the work in a way that attempts to bring out a constructive possibility within Mosse’s use of military technology. I have, however, chosen to comment on these criticisms after, perhaps in advance of the plausible criticism that I have neglected their claims, but more significantly, to demonstrate that whilst I think their broad positions (on the ‘whiteness’ or non-representation of minority voices in art and its criticism, and on the problems of a political art’s relationship to money) are valid and worthy of debate, their application to Mosse seems driven by something else, which undoes the seriousness of those subjects at hand.

Mosse, like the American painter Dana Schutz, has been the object of strenuous criticism surrounding how we depict those we do not know. Both artists have been attacked for representing the lives and deaths of others. Schutz’s painting Open Casket, at the Whitney Biennial, has been criticised for its representation of the death of Emmett Till, whilst Richard Mosse has been criticised for his representations of the refugees arriving on the shores of Europe (though strangely, not for his previous project). It must be said that this criticism comes with both valid and invalid claims, which we must separate to reach a place of substance and criticism worthy of the name.

Let’s note the valid first. Criticism about racial representation has at its origin a concern to address the lack of diversity of critical voices and there remains a deficit in both art and photography. Such a lack is not simply the lack of a black voice (as was argued in the Schutz debate), but a truly global one, consisting of voices from genders, races, nationalities and social statuses alike. Such a position must rightly set only a global equality as its goal, but I suspect that attacking a white European artist for documenting a refugee crisis is not effective. Not only does it destroy one voice in favour of another (which it is to say it is antagonistic), but it also fails to remedy the problem by escalating tension about who can and cannot be represented.

It also follows that an experience of inequality or trauma in a community necessarily would be most tangible, empathetic and perhaps ‘authentic’ when communicated from within that experience. And no doubt there should be scope and audience for a photographic project that emerges from the experience of being a refugee – though it seems a position of luxury to assume that a refugee has the energy to focus on anything beyond survival. But I would also stress that Mosse never claims to speak on behalf of the refugee. He does, however, correctly point to our implication in the refugee crisis, something for which we need to see the consequences beyond our own mediated vision, and which calls for the project to be made visible to us. Such a criticism of Mosse can easily take the place of real reflection. Mosse’s logic to see how power sees is neither unreasonable nor without some gained knowledge. Yet it seems as if conventional demands of reportage are applied to Mosse by his critics, privileging some unspecified quality of ‘authenticity’, ‘immediacy’ and ‘fidelity’ which aims to humanise and affect the viewer into change. This is striking considering our nearly universal awareness that this method of ‘objective-and-yet subjective’ photography is barely possible, reductive and ineffective: Susan Sontag, Martha Rosler, and Allan Sekula critiqued the manipulations of straight photography some time ago. The efficacy of such ‘unmediated’ images are doubtful at best, and it is a relief to encounter an image of conflict that does not always attempt to reduce the complexity of human displacement to pulling on heart strings.

What is most problematic is that a destructive logic follows a desire to increase the representation of critical voices – a closing down, that argues we must speak only of our own experience, and not attempt to relate to another. This argument leads to the opposite of diversity, of course. As was declared directly and indirectly at both Mosse and Schutz in many of the critical articles that have surfaced, we must not intrude upon, and are ultimately excluded from, the experiences of others – one skin type disqualifies from any experience of another, and one experience of gender from that of another also. We should be cautious in the assertion that one’s validity automatically disqualifies another, not least because it replicates conditions of exclusion. This position emerges from wanting to clear the way for a new voice, but it counter-intuitively results in a stand-off and poses an impossible problem with consistently moveable markers – who is excluded, and who excludes?

It is undeniable that Richard Mosse’s work is increasingly expensive, and this must result in a flow of capital that benefits both the artist and his gallery. Both the photography and art worlds are increasingly industries in which the economic value of projects takes a symbolic value that affects and alters what is displayed in public spaces. And whilst there is no doubt that the exchange value of art needs discussion and actual change, it seems that the raising of this question in relation to Mosse serves not the purpose of addressing the economisation of art but rather the attempt to diminish his project in order to reinforce a criticism that a critic might otherwise sense is incomplete. An investigation into the economics of this artist’s career is yet to be done, but it is also let quietly rest in too many established careers to turn the attention on the work of a young artist. We might also bring a critique into being by celebrating projects which redistribute money or engage in alternative forms of exchange, which are no doubt quieter than the channels of debate of media usually permit. Such a criticism requires a search for its remedy, not a casual and unqualified accusation since rhetorical addition cuts off debate. What Mosse does with his success will of course be telling, and we might indeed hope that he supports critical and investigative research and affects political change. Yet it also seems a little too early, three projects in, to take aim at Mosse and discredit his work on the economic demand that a project comes to make.

All images courtesy of the Barbican. © Richard Mosse. Installation views © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images.

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.

Eva O’Leary


Essay by Urs Stahel

Eva O’Leary grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania with little more than a couple of streets, one big intersection and a huge football stadium. The stadium really is huge. It is the third largest in the world, with a 100,000-plus capacity for fans attending home games. Her hometown is called Happy Valley, also known as State College, though the first name might not always be so apt. State College comes from the campus of Pennsylvania State University, the largest complex in town apart from the stadium. The football team, in turn, is known as Penn State, short for Penn State Nittany Lions Football. (Mount Nittany is a local landmark.)

Eva O’Leary learned at an early age that not everything is as it seems; that there is not just one kind of reality but several, not just one viewpoint but many fragmented ones. Or at least two: there is the kind of reality portrayed by advertising in which everything is secure and good and perfect and life-enhancing, and there is the reality that sets in after the thrill of the game, when the same old everyday life catches up again, when the colours of the cheerleaders dim and the billboards start to wrinkle. That’s when the sadness seeps from the ground and from the houses and embeds itself in the minds of the people.

With an Irish mother and an American father, O’Leary travelled often between the two countries, with two passports, two identities, two backgrounds in her baggage. With her mother’s simple mantra – “If you can’t make it, you can’t have it” – ringing in her ears and the failed gamble of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger – the rapid economic boom of the 1990s that took Ireland to the heights only to come crashing down again – in the background, here, too, were two realities, two standards, two truths: the old, stable existence anchored in a traditional work ethic versus the new, ever-accelerating whirlwind of global capitalism.

This exploration of dual, treble and quadruple realities, of promises both sincere and empty, and of ideals both lofty and shallow, is evident throughout O’Leary’s photographic work – even as a student at California College of the Arts, where she graduated (BFA) with distinction, and during her studies at Yale University, where she earned her MFA in the spring of 2016. For A New Gaze – the Bank Vontobel Contemporary Photography Prize she has created three substantial pieces of work, juxtaposing and overlapping them in the exhibition and in the catalogue to form her project Concealer, which visually addresses security versus insecurity, one reality versus another reality, the personal, the private and the public image, and the contrast between imposed and self-fashioned identity.

Concealer is of course the term used by the cosmetics industry for a cream that covers and hides lines and blemishes in the skin, dark circles under the eyes or birthmarks. If concealer is not adequate, then a more heavily pigmented cream known as camouflage is used. The choice of title indicates just how intensively O’Leary has studied the physical and mental duality of the self and the individual persona. As she writes: “No matter how much I object politically or artistically to the rhetoric of commercial photography, I am seduced by its tricks – the ways it sweetens the body and the landscape, masks the unpleasant, and transforms beauty and desire into myth. (…) It’s an experience common to many women; we are shaped by ideologies of domination and control within contemporary commerce; projecting fantasies onto our bodies that are not our own.”

To achieve her artistic goal in this project she engages with the selfie – that form of constant public self-portrayal in which we restyle ourselves and shape an image that exaggerates and highlights our appearance, often in a boastful way. She enlarges selfie videos found online into imposing, unframed, almost abstract-looking fields of colour, assembling them into an optical flurry of flashlights that painfully eradicates the subject and the perceptive powers of the viewer – the kind of blinding glare that stroboscopes create in clubs and discos. This aspect of the work suggests a heightening of self-portrayal to the point of self-erasure and self-elimination.

For the second part she gave a group of people the opportunity of “curating” themselves by staging their own appearance in the studio. In the exhibition, we see nine mirror portraits – images of young women made through a two-way mirror and presenting themselves as they would like to see themselves, and as they would like to be seen. We, the viewers, are thus caught in the mirror, as it were, observing how a highly-controlled self-portrait is gradually produced and made public. Unlike the flash selfies, these portraits, with their brilliant deep-blue backgrounds, are like photographic reincarnations of Old Master paintings. And indeed, in an earlier era, portraiture was often more about the representation of status and social standing than about a precisely faithful rendering of individual facial characteristics. As O’Leary writes: “My own experiences are at the centre of my practice, and I source many of my images through vernacular photography of women’s daily lives and rituals, which are collected in Instagram hashtags, Facebook albums, and homemade beauty tutorials. (…) Everywhere around me I see surfaces – skin, billboards, cake icing, photographic prints – that project fantasies. My work aims to address the psychological space in which men and, in particular, women must balance the ever-present reality of imagery that is insistently, but seductively, unreal.”

The third and most extensive part of her project combines landscape photography with portrait photography and, in doing so, engages with the complex structures of our existence: how the different promises and demands and controls that affect us merge and sometimes conflict. Here, O’Leary is looking at the world in a dual role as documentarian and choreographer, photographing, for instance, a baby lying on a mirror crying, two boys – one tall and chubby, the other small and skinny – leaning against one another back to back, a plastic cup that has been slit in places and rendered useless, a face with make-up on only one side, a foot in high heels still bearing the imprints of other shoes, a male with exaggerated muscularity and a tan, faces that are duplicated, or hidden behind a fine curtain of red hair, gazing sceptically at the intruding photographer. Security versus vulnerability, fragility versus power, ice-cold versus electrically charged, self-determined versus externally driven, image versus reality, and so on: O’Leary fans out a spectrum of opposing pairs that evoke double, treble and even multiple meanings. Again, according to the artist: “We are living in an alienating and impersonal world, where technology offers unlimited connection yet leaves us more isolated than ever. In recent years, the western world has valued linear thinking and concrete logic over all else. Capitalism has encouraged this; we see ourselves in relation to what we are sold.”

Therein lies the lure of technology and marketing: the promise that what we buy will bring us security. We buy products for the health of our families, clothes for social prestige, medication for mood control, all with the aim of remaining functional and feeling secure. But, of course, we know that some of this is purely illusory. We keep on feeling insecure. Depression and anxiety are on the rise. To survive, we forge two identities: a public persona that is smart, stylish and successful, and a private one in which we muddle through a turbulent emotional existence somewhere on the boundary between security and insecurity.

In the midst of disintegrating communities, increased mobilisation and globalisation; with the rejection of substance in favour of appearance, content in favour of symbolism, spirit in favour of the right brand, and amid remarkable attempts to establish new imperial world orders, we are faced with a storm of conflicting identities, both individual and social, which consumer goods and purchasable personae can brighten only briefly.

Not everyone sees and lives the present as one big party, and not everyone subjects their existence to sheer cynicism. The flourishing of fundamentalist ideologies in many societies is an alarming sign in all this. Having been liberated from traditional systems into an open world, we have embraced some aspects joyfully as newfound freedoms, while experiencing others anxiously as a feeling of loss, coercion, and a descent into chaos. There are few new markers in sight by which to orient ourselves, nor any reasonably reliable platforms.

Eva O’Leary’s compelling and complex body of work does not only touch and interrogate these issues, but at the same time reflects on diverse contemporary photographic practices, enriching Concealer and turns it into a multi-layered cohesive project.

All images courtesy of the artist © Eva O’Leary

Urs Stahel was the founding director of Fotomuseum Winterthur (1993-2013). He is now the curator of the MAST Collection of industry and labour-related photography and a lecturer at the Zurich University of the Arts. His latest exhibitions include monographic shows by Luigi Ghirri, Dayanita Singh and a retrospective of Lewis Baltz. Stahel has published numerous books on the work of Paul Graham, Roni Horn, Rineke Dijkstra, Anders Petersen, Amar Kanwar, Ai Weiwei, Shirana Shahbazi, Boris Mikhailov; as well as Industriebild (Pictures of Industry), Trade, Im Rausch der Dinge (The Ecstasy of Things) and Darkside I + II.

Matthew Finn


Essay by Elizabeth Edwards

How does one comprehend a life photographically, and the experiences that make it? Matthew Finn’s photographs are an account of a life, that of his mother in Leeds, its slow transformation, its slow retreat from the shape of the everyday – an everyday marked by things, relationships with things and people, which make up an experience of the world. The photographs are not portraits in the usual sense of the word, yet they are an account of a life, a deeply humanistic response to a set of human circumstances. In this brief essay I want to use his photographs from the Mother series as a springboard to think about what we find in photographs at a human level and, briefly, how we might characterise our curiosity – that desire, through engagement with the communicative potential of photographs, to find and understand.

These are ideas which have preoccupied me for a while, and they informed the conversations we had as he developed this work as part of the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards. We come to these matters from very different directions. I found these photographs very good to think with, because they transferred ideas that I had developed in historical anthropology into the field of contemporary documentary photography. Conversely I hope our conversations also gave Matthew another analytical position through which to inform his practice. Because at base we had identical concerns: how can photographs articulate experience? What it is to live through a moment, and, reflexively, our relationship with the desire to understand that moment?

Some historians are very wary of experience as a category of historical analysis, arguing that experience is simultaneously too embedded in unproblematised and ahistorical notions of the individual, too objectifying and too fleeting to be held and be subject to critical analysis. But this, of course, is exactly what photographs do rather well, they hold the atomic structure of experience. They can expose it in all its dialects – experience, social being and presence – in ways that go beyond mere representation. The photographs track an experience generated and articulated through material life, and map a social being that determines social consciousness or experience. This process does not aim to create new forms of empirical understanding around photographs, but rather to undertake a kind of experiment – a sensitisation to a space in which the trace of experience might be located.

The concept of ‘presence’ is of particular pertinence here, and in relation to photography more generally. The philosopher of history, Eelco Runia, has attempted to track the shifts in historiographical desire from meaning to experience. He argues that while we search for understanding of mechanics of meaning (with photographs the fixation with linguistically- derived semiotic models perhaps), what we are actually searching for is something else, and that thing is ‘presence’. He writes “presence is being in touch, either literally or metaphorically with people, things, events and feelings that made you the person you are.” It is the “desire to share the awesome reality of people things, events and feelings, coupled to a vertiginous urge to taste the fact that awesomely real people, things, events and feelings can awesomely suddenly cease to exist.” And in many ways it was this statement that made, for me, the connection with Matthew’s work – because the photographs track a person who gradually ceases to exist in the way that they have been known for so long. His photographs cogently, and indeed poignantly, map the shifting marks of people on space and the shaping of people by space.

Further, presence is traced into the very materiality of photographs, into its chemistry and now its electronic pulses turned into pixels. It is the ontological scream of the medium. That is its power and its symbolic significance. In particular a photograph is a moment, positive or negative, especial or banal, happy or terrifying, that someone lived through, their being, their presence, their standpoint, literally a standpoint is traced in the image. As Ulrich Baer puts it, “each image has the potential for disclosing the world – as a setting for human experience”, a rippling out from the image itself.

Presence is, of course, part of the idea of representation – to make something present again, a substitute for the absent. The most fulsome articulation of such a position in relation to photographs is Roland Barthes’ famous contemplation of the photograph of his mother as a child in the Winter Garden. With its deep subjectivity it brings us closest to the sense of presence which I have in mind. The photograph Barthes describes stabs and wounds him because of the intensity of the photograph’s rendering of his mother’s presence. He describes the failure of other photographs to connect as a failure of ‘presence’: “I never recognised her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that I therefore missed her altogether”, whereas the Winter Garden photograph achieved, utopically “the impossible science of unique being.” That is, we might surmise, both the presence of the individual and the social presence of that being, laminated together.

But why do we want to know this? Why do we want this sense of a person’s presence and experience? As humans we are naturally curious, perhaps a defining characteristic of human existence. But such desire becomes subject to psychoanalytical models with their emphases of spectatorship and desire, and has been conflated with ideas of power, gaze and the fetishistic. This is certainly so at one level. But, arguably, curiosity also means an expansive wish to understand and relate. Michel Foucault expressed this well: “Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science” but it is also, as in Matthew’s photographs with their gentle combination of curiosity and presence, that curiosity “evokes the care one takes for what exists and could exist; a readiness to find strange and singular what surrounds us; a certain readiness to break up our familiarities.” Thus, in this reclaimed form, ‘curiosity’ comes to mean a ‘world-openness’, even wonderment, a form of epistemic and conceptual inquisitiveness which opens up multiple meanings that stem from a consciousness of ignorance and the capacity for interest. Analytically there has, perhaps too often, been a slippage between the human relations of curiosity and the ideologically-determined gaze. This is not to elide the politics of either, but if we hold these concepts apart analytically, we might find a space in which the gentle desire for human understanding, such as represented in Matthew’s photographs, might find an interpretative resting place.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Matthew Finn
This essay was originally commissioned for Matthew Finn, Mother, due to be published by Dewi Lewis and has been reproduced with kind permission.

Elizabeth Edwards is a visual and historical anthropologist. She is Andrew W.Mellon Visiting Professor at the V&A Research Institute (VARI), Emeritus Professor of Photographic History at De Montfort University, and Honorary Professor, Department of Anthropology, UCL. Specialising in the social and material practices of photography, she has worked extensively on the relationships between photography, anthropology and history. Her monographs and edited works include Anthropology and Photography (1992), Raw Histories (2001), Photographs Objects Histories (2004), Sensible Objects (2006) and The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination 1885-1912 (2012). She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015.

Lisa Barnard

The Canary & The Hammer

Essay by Lisa Stein

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), which traces the evolution of inequality since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the French economist Thomas Piketty observes that before the gold standard was abandoned in Britain, France and finally, the United States, the power of central banks to create money was severely limited due to the existing stock of gold and silver. Commenting on the role financial institutions have assumed during economic crises, he goes on to explain that ‘once currency ceases to be convertible into precious metals, the power of central banks to create money is potentially unlimited’. Indeed, following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, governments and central banks would create ‘the liquidity necessary’ to avoid a crash as serious as the Great Depression. In other words, currency was created out of thin air, currency with no intrinsic value. In fact, once the gold standard was abandoned in the early 1970s the value of currency became intangible, virtual; banknotes were no longer backed by a physical commodity, but by abstract concepts and speculative relationships. Particularly after the 2008 financial crisis the gap between what currency was and what it represented appeared wider than ever before.

Lisa Barnard’s highly-ambitious body of work The Canary & The Hammer is a response to both the events that followed the crash as well as gold’s status as a ‘barometer for the state of the economy, and is, most fundamentally, a potent symbol of ultimate value, beauty, purity, greed and political power.’ In so doing it raises a very interesting question about the medium it utilises: how can photography, which has eluded stable definition since its inception, a medium that inhabits both the tangible, real, and the virtual, respond to an event as abstract as the global financial crisis?

The evidentiary power of photography has always been a point of contention; the image, in simultaneously revealing and concealing what it depicts, only ever provides partial information. Still, early methods of manipulating images in the darkroom did little to destabilise photography’s claim to ‘truth’; the image, dodged or burned, was evidence of what had been. It was the digital-born image that would present a stronger challenge to what photography was in itself, and how it was consumed. In their introduction to On the Verge of Photography: Imaging Beyond Representation (2013), Daniel Rubinstein, Johnny Golding and Andy Fisher claim that the networked digital image has moved us beyond visual representation, but it has done so in important respects. For Rubinstein and Fisher, the digital image ‘has become a hinge between […] physical and digital modes of existence, combining as it does elements of familiar ocularcentric culture – with its trust and reliance on the true-to-life photograph – and algorithmic processes that problematise the presumption of an ontological connection between images and objects’.

In The Canary & The Hammer, a website that is now presented as a complex, interactive projection in the headline exhibition, Ahead lies our future as part of FORMAT International Photography Festival in Derby, the digital image assumes precisely the role outlined in On The Verge of Photography: Barnard’s documentary approach to the various narratives of gold’s discovery and multivalent uses and the western world’s desire to accumulate wealth utilises the photographic image in ‘all its hybridised digital forms, that encapsulates the interlacing of physical and algorithmic attributes, aesthetic and political forms, which characterise the age of information capitalism’. Incorporating images, videos and sound the website, which is divided into six thematic sections, allows the ‘user’ to navigate their way through the history of gold; its discovery, extraction and various applications. The way in which Barnard has chosen to present her research invokes the manner in which we have come to consume information in the digital age. As we scroll, an activity naturalised by the mobile device, images and animated GIFs enter the screen from every direction; we can click on embedded videos and access additional information by hovering over colour-coded icons. The soundtracks that accompany each page recall early social networking websites, which allowed users to encode personal music into their profiles. Finally, the website incorporates a broad range of photographic styles and techniques. Barnard’s combination of traditional landscapes, portraits and still life with images that are less formal, unconventionally lit or otherwise highly-stylised foregrounds the many uses of photography. Since its popularisation in the 1850s the medium has influenced various fields, infiltrated various spheres such as the scientific, the commercial and, most notably, the social.

It might seem counterintuitive to explore a concept as abstract as the global financial crisis with a medium that has not only assumed various ‘identities’ throughout history, but one whose very materiality and consequently its ability to represent the real world, has been called into question. However, this is precisely what makes The Canary & The Hammer so relevant. According to Rubinstein, Golding and Fisher the technical qualities of the digital image have altered the temporal condition of photography: no longer merely a record of past events the digital image, due to its instantaneity and simultaneity, ‘is active, it has an agency that relates to and has an effect on embodied existence. It comes before and has effects on the real’. In other words, photography’s ability to shape an event has become equally, if not more important than its ability to record it. Indeed, that the digital image, used in conjunction with social media, has played a fundamental role in the unfolding of political events such as the Arab Spring, the rising civil unrest in the United States following numerous cases of police violence against African American citizens and, most recently, the 2016 presidential elections, is undeniable.

Equally, while The Canary & The Hammer is Barnard’s response to past events, the decision to include the work in FORMAT, which explored the impact of human civilisation on planet earth, signalled a belief in the force and agency of photography. The images that illustrate Barnard’s investigation into a natural, non-renewable resource are not merely reactive; part of a vast digital network, they are being circulated, shared. They are active, drawing attention to the human desire to consume, not only large quantities of images but also our natural world, itself on the verge of disappearing.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Lisa Barnard

Lisa Stein is a London-based writer and researcher specialising in photography. Managing Editor of the photo-literary platform Photocaptionist and Editorial Assistant at The Burlington Magazine, her writing has also appeared in The Philosophy of Photography.