Yann Mingard

Everything is up in the air, thus our vertigo

Essay by Lars Willumeit

The long-term project Everything is up in the air, thus our vertigo was created between 2015 and 2018 by Yann Mingard, showcasing the Swiss photographer’s career-long interest in creating an artistic diagnostic of the present in connection to histories of large-scale natural, technological and social phenomena, by looking at their impact on our current state of mind and on the world at large. As Mingard himself states: ‘The beginnings of photography coincided approximately with those of the introduction of the steam locomotive – a decisive moment in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Everything has accelerated and exploded exponentially over the last 180 years since then. Scientists say that the force that shapes the earth most today is that of humanity. Today, humanity moves more sediment and rocks through mining and other extraction activities than all rivers on the planet taken together! Referring to a kind of “monster” that we have created, the philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour wonders whether it is better to abandon it, or to fully adopt and really take care of it. We find ourselves at the tipping point of a highly critical era.’

In this instance, Mingard, who also has a back­ground in horticulture, has created a body of work that has been inspired by notions of, and methods borrowed from, geology that deals with space and time, such as sedimentation and strata. Within eight distinct yet interconnected chapters, it activates sometimes para­doxical and sometimes dystopian metaphors and contexts that manage to combine phenomena from various temporalities, thereby teleporting us between our shared instant of now, various critical moments and geographies of modernity and our pre-historic past.

A main point of reference and departure for Mingard was Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, an important precursor of the science fiction genre written by Mary Shelley, published anonymously on January 1, 1818. The story relates the creation by a young Swiss scientist with a fascination for alchemy, Victor Frankenstein, of a living being assembled with parts of dead flesh. Horrified by the hideous aspect of the being to whom he gave life, Frankenstein abandons – in the words of Bruno Latour – his“monster”. But, as the story goes, the latter, endowed with intelligence, in turn takes revenge having been rejected by its creator and persecuted by society. The novel was written during a stay in Geneva, Switzerland, in the summer of 1816, when a group of young Romantics – tormented by the bad weather of the “Year Without a Summer” caused by a volcanic eruption – entered a horror story-writing competition, among them Mary Shelley, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and their friend Lord Byron. The novel touches and reflects upon themes of modernity, progression and scientific rationality – and, like few other works of literature, it has maintained its relevance until today for both intellectual thinking and popular culture.

Two hundred years later, Mingard, in Everything is up in the air, thus our vertigo, gives these themes a new reading and visual form via a recent solo exhibition at Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne and a publication with Éditions GwinZegal. To realise the project, the artist has delved into both our current mediascape and the history of art, juxtaposing images from disparate time periods and contexts. For example, in the chapter Seven Sunsets, we find webcam shots of today’s skies from the vantage point of different Chinese metropolises set against details of skies from 19th century William Turner paintings. By combining the characteristically dark, still-life and landscape images with documents and foot­age from a wide range of sources, Mingard assembles a synoptic visual itinerary for us to confront a feeling of vertigo. The global contexts and geological time frames of climate change and the Anthropocene, or the Great Acceleration, as a geological period of planetary-scale human intervention, are played out here as sometimes absurd, very localised and historically specific sub-chapters.

It was also during the 19th century that we saw the intensification and acceleration of science and technology, as well as the establishment of the foundations of modern capitalist societies. Today, one of the defining characteristics of our current era is the loss of an “outside” to think from. Within this new market-driven political economy, acceleration, intensification and abstraction were taken as the sole vectors, values and measures to generate growth along the lines of the dominant economic and technological-driven dogmas of progress and development.

But what exactly got us into this vertigo situation? Whilst discourses within the social sciences and philosophy have been generating and reflecting on various theories of failure and collapse, the majority of the ordinary planetary citizenry, as well as their political representatives, seem to be petrified and/or in denial. We now face rapidly evolving and seemingly irreversible trajectories towards phenomena such as loss of biodiversity, resource depletion and global warming, and their concomitant threats of looming climate and resource wars. All this we know, and yet we seem unable to connect the dots in the form of effective action on collective levels of organisation and governance.

Whilst, as mentioned, this feeling of vertigo paralysis against the diversity, scale and complexity of these problems has led some thinkers to theories of collapsologies, others are in the meantime creating subcultures that practically prepare for the worst. These have included those of survivalism and prepping in their various political guises, which, in their worst and most radical expressions, result in forms of nativist and nationalist eco-fascism bubbles. As a result, a sort of “climate panic” has consumed us as we head for a foreboding future of “managed extinction.”

Mingard’s research-based project can be read as an attempt to display – and invoke the experience of – our sense of individual and collective vertigo, but only to motivate us to abandon the current state of impasse and denial, and subsequently forge sustainable and progressive pathways and futures. Ultimately, on a meta level, this work asks us to reconsider our own position and role as citizens and con­sumers within a world that increasingly seems out of bounds and in vertigo in the face of our destiny as a planetary network of human, and indeed non-human, actors.

All images courtesy of the artist, GwinZegal and Parrotta Contemporary Art, Cologne. © Yann Mingard.

Installation views of Yann Mingard: Everything is up in the air, thus our vertigo at Musée de l’Elysée, Lausanne, 2019. Photo: Yannick Luthy / Musée de l’Elysée.

Lars Willumeit is an independent curator, writer, and art educator based in Switzerland. He is currently a curator at the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. With degrees in Social Anthropology and Curatorial Studies, his main interests are in photography, documentarisms, regimes of representation, and visual cultures. Recent work as curator and co-editor include Salvatore Vitale – How to Secure a Country exhibited at Fotostiftung Schweiz in Winterthur, Switzerland and published by Lars Muller Publishers in 2019.

Liz Johnson Artur

If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble

Exhibition review by Taous R. Dahmani

If I say “black female street photographer” who do you think of? There is a good chance that you will hesitate for a moment and then finally recognise that no or almost no names come to mind. Then, most likely, you will ask yourself: why? Is it due to a real lack of activity or that of omission and failure within the history of photography and its institutional actors. Perhaps though, in 2016, you were lucky enough to come across Liz Johnson Artur’s eponymous book of photographs, published by Bierke, which revealed in almost 130 pages what she had been photographing for the previous thirty years: hundreds of images that constitute her Black Balloon Archive. Maybe you even saw her exhibition Dusha at the Brooklyn Museum this summer or If you Know the Beginning, the End is No Trouble at South London Gallery. Then, Liz Johnson Artur’s name might have crossed your mind. Thus, it’s worth discussing two aspects of this question that largely remain unanswered to put forward an argument for the need of a twofold mapping: that of a circuit, or an inclusive history of photography – despite lost, hidden, or worse, dismissed, evidence and traces – and that, undertaken by black female photographers when they pick up their cameras possessed by the urgency of representation.

A flashback is essential. In the mid-1980s, Liz Johnson Artur, then in her early twenties, was given a camera for the first time and took it onto the streets of Brooklyn. She continued this practice when she moved to London in 1991, turning it into a career working with magazines, while still carrying on as a street photographer in Peckham and beyond. At this time, the limits of a certain kind of photojournalism were becoming obvious and discussions about representation were emerging. Photography’s theoretical progression and the study of the power of the gaze were happening at the same time as decisive events for the Black populations of the United States and England. In 1980, the Miami uprisings broke out following the death of an African American salesman and former Marine followed by Los Angeles experiencing major unrest in 1992 as a result of the LAPD aggression against Rodney King and the acquittal of his attackers. On the other side of the Atlantic, in England, in 1981 and again in 1985, social and economic living conditions, racial discrimination and the relationship between communities and the police in inner cities led, in quick succession, to upheavals by the Black British population.

It was also in this period that women photographers, in the United States and in England, decided to write their herstory. In 1986, North American photographer and photographic historian, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe published Viewfinders – Black Women Photographers – developing the work started by Deborah Willis and Valencia Hollins Coar. Positing an inventory of the photographic production of African-American women since the beginnings of photography in the 19th century  going back to true pioneers such as Mary E. Flenoy  Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe pin-pointed the crux of the problem in her introduction: ‘Significant contributions of hundreds of black women have been lost to history  their works, papers, photographs  as the eleventh-hour attempt to fill in the gaps and document their roles begins.’ At the same time, in London, the exhibition and the publication Testimony – Three Black Women Photographers brought together the work of Black British photographers Brenda Agard, Ingrid Pollard and Maud Sulter. Lubaina Himid, Testimony’s curator, stated in the catalogue the need to be both artists and organisers since ‘as women we organise together to challenge our triple burden of racism, sexism and economic oppression.’ The year after, in 1987, Chila Kumari Burman published her essay There Have Always Been Great Blackwomen Artists where she continued, once again, the work of asserting and insisting on the importance of an inclusive history of art. Legacy, transmission and the history of photography exist only by the acts that implement them and it is important to unfold and explain these issues in order to understand the need for a shift of paradigm.

Therefore the work of Liz Johnson Artur needs to be placed in a historical and transatlantic continuum: on the arc alongside Elaine Tomlin, official photographer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference  a leading civil rights organisation of the 1960s  who covered racial and social upheavals and together with Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe who in 1982 published, Daufuskie Island: A Photographic Essay, a photobook on the lives of the remaining Gullah-speaking black inhabitants of South Carolina. It is the richness of this heritage and the diversity of this history that allows us to capture the singularity and uniqueness of Liz Johnson Artur’s photographic work. Guided by the greatest women photographers of the post-war period, Johnson Artur transformed the old idea of the “flâneur photographer” into an empowering and complex photographic practice by starting in the streets, documenting an atlas of faces and recording the diversity of the communities she lived in. In spite of an urban world designed by and for white men, the photographer surveyed the streets of the biggest cities, particularly New York and London, in search of the individuals that make up the African diaspora and transnational youth. Today, at a time of rampant nationalisms, her diasporic perspective seems more relevant than ever. In the 1980s, it was a pan-African vision that brought photographer Armet Francis to gather, in similar projects, photographs from Africa, the Caribbean, New York and London. Published respectively in 1983 and 1988, The Black Triangle and Children of the Black Triangle converge toward Johnson Artur’s mapping project. As Aby Warburg did with his Mnemosyne Atlas, Liz Johnson Artur juxtaposed and sequenced photographs that fostered immediate, synoptic insights into transnational identities. In her recent London exhibition, she presented her work on a bamboo cane structure, allowing her Black Balloon Archive to float, and to some extent, mirror the cloud-like image composition made by Warburg in the 1920s. The lack of captions or detailed information turns Johnson Artur’s images into a representational system of transnational cultures.

No doubt the artistic landscape is currently being transformed, but we must insist on continuity in order to carry on celebrating individual paths and anchor them in collective roots, which will, in time, usher in a cohesive history of black photography  quilting as an art of stitching together photographs, linking the past and the present, making it whole. And, as such, reminiscing and stressing the importance of Toni Morrison’s 1987 statement in Beloved as Sixo remembers the Thirty-Mile Woman: ‘The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.’ A genealogy of photographers intertwined, looking out for the new generation in the images of Rhianne Clarke and Adama Jalloh. This is also what Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Adama Delphine Fawundu have done with the publication of MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora (2018), a reference book that aims to establish and represent the diversity of contemporary photographic proposals of the African diaspora. 

All images courtesy of the artist and South London Gallery. © Liz Johnson Artur

Installation views of Liz Johnson Artur: If you know the beginning, the end is no trouble at South London Gallery, 2019. Photo: Andy Stagg

Taous R. Dahmani
is a photography historian, working between Paris and London. She is a PhD fellow at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris, where she teaches 20th century photography history. In 2019-20, Taous will be a researcher attached to the Maison Française in Oxford. Her thesis project is built around the representation of struggles and the struggle for representation. Her writings and her talks always tackle politics and its relations to the photographic medium.

Andy Sewell

Known and Strange Things Pass

Essay by Eugénie Shinkle

Photography is a literal medium. The idea that it might be capable of picturing the unrepresentable implies a kind of paradox. Surely a medium that’s grounded in the correspondence between light and objects can only deal in visible things? Andy Sewell’s latest body of work, Known and Strange Things Pass, suggests that photography can do more than this.

The ostensible subject of Known and Strange Things Pass is the transatlantic communications cables linking the UK and North America. But the cables are only one thread in a web of analogy that explores what it means to be in the world at the present moment. Known and Strange Things Pass is about the deep and complex entanglement of technology with contemporary life. It’s about the immediacy of touch and the commonplace miracle of action at a distance; the porosity of the boundaries that hold things apart, and the fragility of the bonds that lock them together. It’s about a reality in which everyday existence is shored up by an immense, labyrinthine instrument devised by us, but grown into something that we no longer fully understand.

In The Order of Things (1966), Michel Foucault wrote of the mesh of resemblances by which the world made itself known to the pre-Enlightenment imagination. Knowledge was organised according to systems of likeness prepared by nature itself, and revealed in the proximity of one thing to another, in affinities and analogies, in similarities and antipathies between various beings. The world was an enormous text: held together by signs and known by reading the marks on its surface.

Today, the world is held together not by signs, but by slender threads of molten silica. Our lives are ordered by a vast flow of data. More than 2.5 quintillion bytes of information are created and shared every day – an unimaginable, uncountable quantity, almost all of which moves around the world through fibre optic cables running along the ocean floor. These cables make landfall in unremarkable places. They’re housed in mundane materials – concrete and metal, rubber and bitumen. Their form gives no hint of their function. There’s an ocean of incommensurability between what they are, physically, and what they represent. In Western culture, this gap between understanding and sense presentation is known as the sublime.

The photograph-as-document is a blunt instrument against this kind of complexity. Sewell understands this, and he doesn’t attempt to picture it in an image, or organise it into narrative form. Instead, Known and Strange Things Pass uses the photograph as an enigmatic and partial way of approaching the unrepresentable. The edit moves back and forth with the rhythmic push/pull of the ocean’s tides, by way of parallels and correspondences, layering and repetition and barely perceptible differences. The same magic that Foucault perceived in the pre-Enlightenment imagination is at work here too, not just in what Sewell’s photographs show – hands poised in mid-gesture, bodies immersed in the waves, cables and switches and data centres, fragile sea creatures, computer screens – but in the logic that holds them together. It’s recursive and concentric, marrying rationality and metaphor, suggesting analogies and connections without locking them down. Known and Strange Things Pass looks at the world in a way that would have appealed to Foucault, as a ‘marvellous confrontation of resemblances across space and time’.

Space and time are the raw materials of the infinite. They’re also subject to the whims of history. So when Sewell sets the elemental forms of the shoreline alongside the greyscale of control rooms and mainframe computers, he also hints at the transformation of the classical sublime into a different kind of infinity. Kant insisted that the sublime couldn’t be contained within any sensuous form, but historically, that hasn’t stopped us from linking it to the visible spectacle of mountains, skies and oceans as emblems of forces vastly more powerful than us. The digital sublime is more pervasive and more clandestine. We live with it every day, submerged in an infinite that can’t be seen. It’s not really graspable or available to experience the way that oceans or mountains or skies are. It loses its lustre when it’s grounded in everyday objects such as mobile phones or computers. And yet it’s these same objects – ubiquitous and necessary – that have become part of us and that hold our reality together.

It’s said that photography can only show the surface of things. But Known and Strange Things Pass suggests that the photograph can also grasp something of the common substance that runs beneath this surface. This, in essence, is the argument that Kaja Silverman makes in The Miracle of Analogy (2014). Photography, she writes, is more than an index or a trace: it’s a vehicle for revealing ‘the authorless and untranscendable similarities that structure Being, … and that give everything the same ontological weight’. Rather than holding us apart from the visible world, photography is a testament to the depth of our entanglement with it.

As the ocean meets the shore it exists, for a moment, in an unsettled form, a liquid mass leavened with air and transformed into foam. Known and Strange Things Pass is a meditation on the complex ecstasy bound up with this fluidity, this passage from one state to another. In a maquette for the forthcoming book, Sewell has included a quote by philosopher Timothy Morton: our reality, Morton claims, is caught up in nonhuman entities ‘incomparably more vast and powerful than we are.’ Sewell draws a more nuanced distinction between the human and the machine. Just as the rational mind can’t be uncoupled from the sensing body, technology can’t be set apart from human nature. We are indispensable cogs in this vast and powerful machine, and it, in turn, is part of what makes us human. It is as necessary to our makeup as the most basic elements from which life originally emerged, part of the primordial soup from which we all arose.

All images courtesy of the artist and Robert Morat Galerie, Berlin. © Andy Sewell

Eugénie Shinkle is a photographer, writer, and Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster. She writes for various publications such as Foam, Aperture, Fashion Theory, American Suburb X, and The Journal of Architecture. Recent work includes Fashion Photography: the Story in 180 Pictures (Aperture/Thames & Hudson 2017) and ‘Painting, Photography, Photographs: George Shaw’s Landscapes’, in George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field (Yale University Press 2018).

Karla Hiraldo Voleau

Hola Mi Amol

Book review by Alice Zoo

In Karla Hiraldo Voleau’s new book Hola Mi Amol, the narrator – Karla herself, or a version of her – is often travelling on the back of a motorbike. She snaps pictures with her phone of the shadow cast by the bike, and the two people on it: herself, and the Dominican man she’s holding onto as they ride. The motorbike recurs again and again, despite the book being made up of her different experiences and acquaintance with seven different men. It is as good a metaphor as any for the freedom and spontaneity and dangerous thrill that runs through the project like shining thread – the trust required in allowing a stranger to transport you like this, on the back of a bike, away from home, without a helmet, your body pressed close against them.

On its surface, Hola Mi Amol, co-published by SPBH Editions and ECAL, is a relatively straightforward re-approaching of a personal history. Voleau grew up under the influences of her dual heritage: French on her mother’s side, Dominican on her father’s. When visiting Santo Domingo as a child, she was warned against straying outside her house, advised to treat Dominican men with suspicion: ‘I think sometimes my parents were just terrified I’d get pregnant with a “tigre” passing by.’ As an adult, Voleau returns to the island alone, without the admonishments of her family, and seeks out the people and places she was warned about. Her images illustrate encounters with these men, meeting them on the beach, or accompanying them back to their homes or motels, riding on their bikes, shooting portraits of them surrounded by greenery. Often the men are nude. She turns the lens on herself, too, most frequently in selfies with her subjects, but at times alone. The images are accompanied by a simple text, describing a very limited account of their encounters. We skate along it, accepting it as easily as the heat from the Caribbean sun.

When Voleau meets a witch, however, the narrative starts to feel more uncertain. A friend needs to visit to remove a curse; Voleau accompanies them, and finds herself asking for a love potion. Her childhood suspicion of the men hasn’t quite gone away. ‘I want to desire back,’ she says, ‘I want to believe them.’ The inclusion of this supernatural element unsteadies us, and other uncertainties from earlier on, hardly noticed at the time, start to rankle. The project has become a hall of mirrors that distorts the narrator, her subjects, and the viewer, too. In the book’s final pages, Voleau asks: ‘Do you still believe me? Have I been transformed into the character I was pretending to be?’ Voleau lies across a bed, eyes towards us, a challenge in them. So, then, what is the performance? What were we expected to believe, and what judgments have we formed? The images and text must be re-approached and, as we do so, they splinter.

Voleau’s visual approach appears to mimic the foundational principles of her project, one intended to be ‘more personal, more tender, more spontaneous’ than the connections her family allowed her to make in her youth. Much of the work is shot on a phone, and is rough and grainy as a result. The low resolution feels contemporary, like the way that images degrade the more they are reproduced and passed around online. This aesthetic is relaxed, undemanding, an ad hoc approach that only foments the project’s intense intimacy. Introducing a professional camera into a circumstance formalises it, or induces subjects to perform, no matter how much the photographer works to palliate this effect; but every contemporary subject is more at ease around a phone. There’s no need to be quite so guarded. The cover of the book shows a man’s back, covered in sand which sticks to the skin; inside, this motif is repeated, where sand clings to a torso, and later, to the palm of a hand, its coarse grain mimicking the grain of the images’ own rough resolution. However, as long as we are taken in by the effect of informality, we are blind to the highly formalised meta-techniques peppering the work. At one stage, we see an image of Julio’s back, and spliced below it is a photograph of the phone as it takes that same image. Yet if we can see the phone taking the picture, that means another one must have taken the second frame which we are now looking at. In this way, Voleau is calling attention to the presence of the camera, to the making of the image, even where she appears to have adopted the very apparatus that would allow itself to go unnoticed. In another image, we see her and Julio together from a distance, appearing to meet one another on the beach. If the phone is on a self-timer, then the meeting is staged. Not all is as it seems.

When Voleau goes looking for Julio in town, shortly after they meet, she is conscious of the assumptions of those watching her. ‘I could feel people assumed I was looking for sex.’ She makes photographs of the time they spend time together; he tells her his friends ‘advised him to fuck [her].’ Overleaf is a gloriously sensual portrait of him reclining, naked, his eyes closed, his penis semi-erect. Across the page, his trousers rest on a stone wall, discarded in dappling light. What does the viewer assume? What do we read in images taken at such close quarters, and especially when sex has been explicitly discussed? Later on, however, Voleau again uses the text to remind us that nudity does not have to be code for anything in particular. She asks Dimas, another subject, if he minds being naked, and he replies in Spanish that perhaps she should get naked with him. The photograph occurred while she was clothed, then, and his question suggests he is yet to see her naked. The transaction is photographic, not sexual, even if the content of the photograph hints at the latter. Everywhere the photographs and text misdirect us, only to reveal themselves in a different direction later on.

The book explores the potency of the female gaze, or the potency of turning the male gaze back against itself. She takes these Dominican men, in this place where ‘clichés of toxic masculinity’ abound, and makes beautiful, voluptuous images of them. Beyond these facts, her relationship to them is unclear. Throughout the book, whenever she directly quotes her subjects, it is in Spanish. As such, their presence within the work is set at that slight distance from the reader (presumed to be English-speaking, given that the bulk of the narrative is written in English). We can see Voleau’s subjects better than we can understand them, and we can see them close enough to count the individual drops of seawater that still cling to their chests on the beach. Towards the end of the book, when she seems to establish perhaps the book’s only genuine romantic or sexual relationship, with Denichel, she quotes him in English when he tells her, ‘I want to hold you.’ It is as though the truthfulness of their connection has brought him into the main language of the work: he is given words the reader is sure to understand. The genuine connection is given the clearest portrayal, until their short relationship ends, too.

Though Voleau has said that she wants to ‘put on display the brutal loneliness of our times,’ the book does not read as evidence of loneliness. It reads rather as evidence of the ease with which a transactional relationship can be established, and how frequently the surface of a thing can be misread as its totality. The narrative construction experiments with the expectations of the men it portrays, as well as the expectations of the viewer. It asks: what do we look for when we see a selfie taken by an attractive young woman in the ocean, her arms around a man? Yet the work doesn’t seek to answer the questions it raises about the performance of desire, or the suggestiveness of its images, nor does it judge the viewer for perhaps making judgments of their own; it merely holds a mirror up, the glass distorted, the reflection warping. The actual substance of her relationships, throughout Hola Mi Amol, is barely relevant. Voleau is a bold narrator flicking towards us jewel-like images, as though they were bait, and waiting to reel us in.

All images courtesy of the artist and Self Publish, Be Happy Editions. © Karla Heraldo Voleau / ECAL, University of Art and Design Lausanne

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London, working with national and international publications such as BBC News, the British Journal of Photography, and the Washington Post. She is also a freelance photo editor at the FT Weekend Magazine, and co-founder of Interloper magazine.

The Image of Whiteness:

Contemporary Photography and Racialization

Book review by Paul Halliday

We live in strange times. Recently, a senior British politician thought it acceptable to describe Muslim women wearing burkas as looking “like letterboxes”; this, after having previously described Black people as “Piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, and gay men as “tank-topped bumboys”. It is quite possible that such overtly, Islamophobic, racist and homophobic utterances would have been considered unremarkable, had it not been that the speaker eventually became the British Prime Minister. All this, at a time of national crisis, the likes of which has not been seen during the post-war period. As Boris Johnson moved closer to seizing the reigns of parliamentary power, the more horrified the British Left became, as if watching a slow-motion car crash unfolding on a dimly lit CCTV screen, without any possibility of switching to pause or rewind.

On reading The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization, edited by Daniel C. Blight, one is immediately struck by the complexities around some of the contemporary uncertainties associated with the inexorable rise of alt-right identity politics and the sociological space of an imagined future. This book invites us to reconsider the normalcy of the now, set against a future that may materialise through the Baldwin-esque fire of engaged memory, truth-making, agency and utopianism. Many of the writers are concerned with the historical optics of concealment and revelation, and this has particular resonances for those artists and cultural thinkers working in the difficult and shape-shifting area of ‘race studies’.

The book is effectively a series of conversations about the crisis of being; of making sense of being, and of being made sense of. On the cover, we see a photograph of what appears to be a white middle-class family surrounded by the accoutrements of a consistent, effortlessly maintained comfort. In this group portrait, there are no apparent signs of austerity impacting on the sitters as we so often see within the lives of families living at the edge; the so-called ‘left behind’. The book starts with an engaging and insightful introductory essay by Blight outlining some of the core thematic and theoretical concerns of a wide range of interdisciplinary writers and cultural commentators approaching ‘race’ from a variety of critical perspectives.

In Blight’s chapter, he outlines his central thesis that the very discussion (or the absence of discussion) of ‘whiteness’ is predicated on two primary responses; the first being White Denial ‘in which certain white people won’t acknowledge whiteness at all, it being more conspiracy than concept to them, a mere apparition.’ He contrasts this with a second response, which he intriguingly terms Relative White Silence. Having worked in British Higher Education for well over two decades, this resonates with me, both in terms of my actual experiences of just how difficult it can be to have conversations with some academic colleagues utterly convinced of the rightness (moral or other) of their ideological positions around institutional cultures that promote structural inequality ‘because’, as Blight puts it, ‘white people can never be truly silent, finding it necessary to recapitulate their subjectivity at every turn – a form of taciturn behavior in which they simply won’t engage either positively or negatively, preferring to be silent so as to remain “moderate”.’

Therein lies one of the central questions all of the contributors respond to, namely, how does ‘society’ make sense of difference and acknowledge the relationships that exist in real concrete terms for people of colour? Relatedly, how might ‘whiteness’ itself be seen beyond the epidermal surface? This book doesn’t attempt to answer what whiteness is exactly; how could it and why should it? Instead, it focuses on the implicit tensions of denial and silence; of hidden power relations not spoken of, or indeed spoken to. Through a well-considered image edit and thoughtfully designed layout, an extended conversational encounter is played out. There are portraits by Buck Ellison of young white people in a variety of natural settings; an interior-designed sitting room, a verdant meadow, a gymnast balanced atop an American Civil War-era light field artillery piece. Elsewhere, Ken Gonzales-Day offers images of a lynching of an absent African American in the Deep South. Absent, because the artist has removed the mutilated and twisted body of the victim; but what still remains is the delighted, carnivalesque faces of those witnessing and contributing to the ritualised murder that underpinned the true relationship between Jim Crow and a post-slavery society based on the racial terror that William DuBois, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Bell Hooks and Paul Gilroy have so eloquently written about.

There is a power and relevance in this, particularly for those researching and teaching photography and urbanism informed by social anthropology, socio-legal studies, cultural archaeology and art history. What excites me about this book is that it speaks to the conceptual foundation of interdisciplinarity, namely, that meaningful philosophical and epistemological insights may be found through practices working through ideas, pushing boundaries and being prepared to take risks. And there’s the rub. Interdisciplinarity, by it’s very nature is risky. It flies in the face of Bourdieusian Habitus in terms of its lack of ontological centeredness. As one works through this book, there is a strong sense of an indefatigable de-centering; of narratives around ‘race’ folding back, of then recapitulating within a written component, an interview, a visual element.

So we see in Nancy Burson’s images of Donald Trump, an all-seeing, all-powerful, assured white man comfortable within his own skin, transitioning through a series of colour shades and putative ‘races’, not entirely dissimilar to the colour classification system used to distinguish ‘true whites’ from ‘mulattos’ through to the outer edges of dark-skinned ‘negritude’. Suddenly Trump inhabits a different space, there, but not fully there. And of course, suffice to say, this continuum is arbitrary, relative, constructed, contested and imposed. Even now, decades after the big battles in social, cognitive and evolutionary anthropology have moved on from the conceptual prevarications and self-indulgences of experimentally and methodologically-challenged ‘race science’, there are the rumblings of a new awakening in eugenics research that promotes itself as dispassionate, objective, impartial, truthful and above all, ‘good for us.’

The white woman stands in front of a group of squatting Africans as seen in Michelle Dizon & Viet Le’s White Gaze. Education; it’s good for them. A Black man stands against a dark background draped with a Union flag in Abdul Abdullah’s, Self-portrait as an Ultra-nationalist, from the series Homeland. On his shirt is the legend “Fuck Off We’re Full”. Abdullah’s photograph confronts the white viewer with an image of difference that functions less as an experience of looking at or looking into a void; but rather challenges the viewer to think about the Black man as a projected mirror image drawing on a paradoxical innermost terror.

The conversations with David Roediger (The Advent of Whiteness), Yasmin Gunaratnam (The Borders of Whiteness), Claudia Rankine (On Blondness and Whiteness), Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (Picturing the Invisible) and George Yancy (Symbolic White Death), are focused, philosophically rich and well-crafted explorations of what ‘race’ today means within academia, literature, art-making and curatorial practices. As such, this book will be highly relevant to those readers engaging with some of the core issues surrounding such a complex, controversial and, at times, incendiary field. On reading the texts, one senses a real and present urgency, and the conversations, whilst not offering any easy ‘answers’ to some of the most pressing cultural, historical and geo-political issues of the day; often point to the possibility of mediation, conciliation and engagement, contrasting with stark warnings about the sharp shift to the outer edges of nationalist extremism.

There is a telling moment where Blight, in his final conversation with George Yancy, recalls a question he had previously asked the philosopher, “what should white people do?”, to which Yancy responded: “Lay down and die. White people should die a symbolic death.” There is so much confusion, invective and entrenchment around how best to approach the issues of ‘white privilege’, ‘white fragility’, institutional denial, silence and complicity; and it does feel that this timely book will make a contribution towards engaging and bringing into sharper focus a much-needed paradigm shift around addressing ‘whiteness’, ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ as constituent parts of our mundane, and often unremarkable lives. On reflection, I would suggest that rather than “lay down and die”, white people might consider doing something altogether more radical; they could engage differently with the history and cultural politics; they could reject denial, silence and complicity; they could stand up and live.

All images courtesy Self Publish, Be Happy Editions and Art on the Underground.

Paul Halliday is a photographer, filmmaker and urbanist based at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he convenes the MA Photography and Urban Cultures. After training in photojournalism and Fine Art film at LCC and Central St Martins, he studied social anthropology, art history and archaeology at Goldsmiths, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. A member of UPA – the Urban Photographers’ Association, a former Channel 4 film director and British Refugee Council Media Advisor, he now researches urban spaces, identities and material cultures through visual and written forms.

I-Broomberg & Chanarin, Shirley 1, from the series How to Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light, 2012. Courtesy the artists and Lisson Gallery, London and New York.

II-Nate Lewis, Focused Heads, from the series Social Patterns, 2017. Courtesy the artist.

III-Ken Gonzales-Day, East First Street #2 (St. James Park), from the series Erased Lynchings, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

IV-Nancy Burson, What If He Were: Asian, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

V-Nancy Burson, What If He Were: Black, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

VI-John Lucas & Claudia Rankine, Stamped, 2018. Courtesy the artists.

VII-Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Mirror Study (2140278), 2018. Courtesy the artist and team (gallery, inc.), New York; DOCUMENT, Chicago; and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles.

VIII-Michelle Dizon & Viet Le, White Gaze (book spread), 2018. Courtesy the artists and Sming Sming Books.

IX-David Birkin, Detail (Death Row Gate), from the series Midnight Blue, 2018. Courtesy the artist.

X-Richard Misrach, Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona, from the series Border Cantos, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles.

XI-Libita Clayton, Untitled, from the series Quantum Ghost, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

XII-Libita Clayton, Untitled, from the series Quantum Ghost, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

XIII-Sutupa Biswas, Birdsong, 2004. Production still. 16mm lm transferred onto 2 DVDs. Dual-screen projection. Colour. No sound. Duration: 7’7”. Dimensions: variable. Commissioned by Iniva (London, UK) in collaboration with FVU (London, UK). Realised with the generous support of the AHRC (UK) and Chelsea College of Art and Design (UAL). Courtesy the artist.

Edouard Taufenbach


Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The images in Edouard Taufenbach’s Spéculaire are pulsing. A vibrating hum draws us towards their surfaces. Inside these images, bodies radiate: an outstretched arm extends, reaching impossibly from a masculine figure at the right of the frame. To the side of a tree, he is about to pluck from its fruits. Dynamic movement is in process, but at the same time about to occur. We follow and sense that which is to come. In another image, a younger boy looks right and faces the water. His left arm is outstretched in an act of pre-emptive balancing, as if his right arm, out of the frame, is primed to throw a stone. We see neither the throwing arm nor its object, but the image is shook: it ripples.

On the threshold, a photograph is present and past. Yet more excitingly, it speaks, also, of a future becoming. Its incidents are recorded and become an aid to memory, but the image is actually a site of potential, if all too rarely explored. Taufenbach’s Aden, with his outreaching arm, shows a moment of choice: to pick from the tree, with the desire to claim and devour; Ricochet, preparing to skim stones, recalls the wish to see our agency make an impact, to reveal consequence in the resulting wave. Neither of these events are completed, but we see their becoming, and we in turn complete them. But the futurity of these images is greater than a small moment. We read them not as specific instances, but as gestures, as acts, which have resonance – a searching, an impacting, a turning towards, and a turning away. When the image is looking forwards, it might show us the that has been, but it conspires to open up something in an unspecified future, a that which is also yet to be, a that which might be. How we act in response is what matters. The artist’s use of the photograph that changes its function, from document to gesture, from report to catalyst.

Drawn from a collection of photographs belonging to French screenwriter and director Sébastien Lifshitz, who invited Taufenbach to respond to and re-think images from his collection, Spéculaire traces a line of re-imagined imagery – photographs which have shifted through multiple purposes, responses and conditions. Photography might enter this space of the that which might be, precisely because it is not the event or person itself. Removed from original context, since those contexts have been lost, given up or abandoned, and removed from being the thing itself, photographs enter a different temporal frame.

Spéculaire’s vernacular snapshots of people at leisure – gathered in groups, in couples and as singular actors – became for Liftshitz a ground for an exploration of desire, sexuality, and intimacy, seeking out a homoerotics of the photograph, which the images provide through complex spaces of public and private exposure. They began however as aide-memoire, as memento and/or as a surrogate, as the photographs of our relationships, those which constitute what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu identified as a glue between subjects who are distant from one another. With this link undone, speculation about the image begins. Taufenbach comes to these images with only fragments of their former uses intact or available to him.

Art and photography’s obsession with the archive might begin to be explained with a simple observation: the artist is also a collector. This collecting – of objects, but also forms, events, stories and gestures – lies at the root of artistic production, where a view of the world is constructed so that it might, in turn, be shared, encountered, and collected afresh. Taufenbach’s gesture in Spéculaire is to draw attention to the layers of this collecting – from the image-maker, the collector, and the artist, who proposes a new use or view of that image. Taufenbach does so by pointing to a potential in the image, and to make a world from it. It is an opening that draws upon but also diverges from the original gestures of the photograph, as well as Lifshitz’s collecting. Taufenbach animates what Walter Benjamin called ‘the unruly desire to know’, a desire to know the unknowable in the photograph, a curiosity that can only ever partially be captured, as both subject and image ‘will never consent to be wholly absorbed in (the) art (of photography)’. He identifies a precise moment of potential and draws upon montage so that the image can be extended, both connected to and growing distant from its original referents.

Taufenbach’s strategy, adopted from his study of film and media, emerged from his previous project Cinema: Histoires Domestiques. Here, he applied graphic forms which dynamically shifted the focus of an image so that it splintered across several axes, highlighted by vivid colour, which served to construct layers of narrative. In Spéculaire, the dynamics of each image generate a specific internal tension, so that the frame and form emerges centrifugally from within the photograph and not from outside. These elements – an outstretched arm, but also a gang of bodies, shifting scales, or areas of focus – point to gestures and actions, which shift our viewing of the image from a search for the desire to know the specificities of the picture, the who and what of the image which we assume it contains in order to grasp the embodied phenomena of an encounter right now. Sur la plage seems to call us to enter the frame, between the two bodies, to see beyond. It is a gesture which brings us up close to the desire of photographs, to a searching, which we both recognise and enact. Taufenbach may have collected these images, presenting visions, but we find ourselves reflected in them, the photograph made specular.

Spéculaire reveals that photography’s collecting is multiple, as an object to be collected and an act of gathering in itself. The photograph begins as a vicarious capturing – it proposes the collecting of the uncollectible, a sliver of time, an event, even of bodies. But the photographic object itself becomes collected, organised and structured; it is in flux thereafter. This perhaps accounts, in part, for the flickering impression of Taufenbach’s project, reflecting the ever-shifting nature of our images. But our experience of looking at the meeting of image and object in Spéculaire take us also to the mechanics of vision. Each encounter with the image brings us to its vibrating effect. What is its meaning and consequence? Taufenbach animates the image, but constructs it so that content and object co-exist in a tension that reflects the assemblage that is photography. In so doing, his images pierce our curiosity for what is to come. We reflect this as our eye flickers in an echo of the effects of the image, shifting dynamically its focus, to come to terms with an image that is, in our encounter, still moving.

Images courtesy of the artist and Almanaque, Mexico CityGalerie Binome, Paris; Elizabeth Houston Gallery, New York; and Spazio Novo, Rome. © Edouard Taufenbach

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and Course Director of Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. He writes regularly for Artforum, Art Monthly and Elephant. In 2011 he curated the exhibition Anti-Photography at Focal Point Gallery, in 2014 John Hilliard: Not Black and White, at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London, and in 2019 Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions.