David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz


Exhibition review by Duncan Wooldridge

Duncan Wooldridge on an exhibition at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest, that unites works by two artists exploring different realities involved in image production: one as captured by the camera and another comprised of all that falls outside of that which is documented.

For the camera and its program, which sets out to record the world, there exists only the visible and the invisible: that which presents itself readily to be seen, and those things which become visible under the specific modes of observation that the photographic apparatus brings forth; at the other pole, there is that which escapes vision, either because they are difficult to observe as they are, or because their specific mode of appearance goes against the camera and its programming. What can be seen and what falls out of view has a strange relationship to what we believe is possible: it may be of surprise to note, as Kaja Silverman has revealed in her research on Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in The Miracle of Analogy (2015), that the elusive human figure in early photography led to proposals that the camera should be directed only towards those things which do not move. If humans could not be recorded, it was suggested, photographs should be directed only towards the inanimate. Nature and architecture were cited without irony as examples of good subjects for photography to pursue.

Such proposals, absurd as they might now appear, reveal that we are quick to accept and work within the limits of our devices, and this is as true today as it was at photography’s outset. Technology is configured towards enabling an ever-greater visibility and mapping, but is shaped by automation and presets that conceal as much as they reveal. Take, for example, the dialectic between the still and the moving, where the majority of images are both fixed and moving at one and the same time, mechanical and chemical realities being equal to the appearance of stasis. Complexity here is discouraged, and a discourse of arrestedness prevails.

In our culture of automated black box computation, the quantity of images dominates, but we are scarcely cognisant of this turn: on the one hand, we continue to feel bombarded, or overwhelmed – we see a lot of images every day: we have little time for videos of more than a few seconds. But contemporary photographic technology also uses this quantity in another way, stacking and amalgamating multiple images to produce sharp, stable and impossibly balanced exposures, at the same time as producing banks of data for the analysis of machine learning and its development. The sharpening of images, the three-dimensional and four-dimensional mapping of the world and programming of machine learning are interconnected, and deviating from this automation is increasingly complicated. Yet if we query the horizons of appearance and disappearance that take place in our technological processes, we quickly encounter complex realities: an amalgam of movements and a multiplicity of positions which offer compelling possibilities for thinking and acting through images.

In 1981, for a Hungarian exhibition Dokumentum, the painter Ákos Birkás wrote a text Anticamera, stating that two realities were possible: the first was one as captured by the camera, whilst the other would be comprised of all that falls outside of that which is documented. Birkás might have wished to critique the dominance of photographic depiction and leave a space for painting attached to the imagination and the possible, but his proposition – to examine that which falls outside of the camera’s view – drew attention to a logic continuous in the age of technical images: a choice between what László Moholy-Nagy would call production and reproduction, or continuation and invention. Photography presents this to us as in the starkest of possible terms: how would you like your reality: as we show it to you, or as a process of your own action and discovery?

David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz’s ANTICAMERA, at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest, places these questions and divergent strategies of image production into a dynamic view. Claerbout’s slow-moving, frame-by-frame assemblies of complex spatial environments, built in the black box of editing and rendering softwares, are brought into dialogue with Ösz’s structural examinations of light and projection, where motorised structures for film projection, and an inversion of the camera obscura, give the photographic apparatus a reflexive centrality. In ANTICAMERA, a tension between the technological and material encounter with the image takes place – ‘is our future mineral or computational?’, we might ask in another dialectical framing – but central to the exhibition becomes the role of image in not only representing but giving form to thought.

Claerbout’s poetic interest in the encounter that the slow-moving image retains a virtuosic assembly. He stretches the capability of the lens as a seeing device. The Quiet Shore (2011) collects images across what seems to be a single moment on the beach in Dinard, Brittany, where figures assemble on the beach and at the threshold of land and water. Viewed from multiple positions and weaved together in a splicing of positions possessing a stillness, the work moves between frames in a slow cinematic pacing that Erika Balsom has remarked is reminiscent of Chris Marker whilst focusing solely upon a single moment against the passing of narrative time. Wildfire (A Meditation on Fire) (2019­­–20) seeks a similarly impossible recording, representing the transformation of a forest, engulfed over time by smoke and flames, as the view traces the circumference of a spreading fire. Clearly not a document in any conventional sense, the work hovers between constructedness and its recorded materials which cannot be staged. Whilst The Quiet Shore subtly disrupts with bleached spaces, almost imperceptible movement and the layering of figures who interact across the montage, Wildfire replaces the intensity of the blaze with the movements of a rendered scene, tracing an accumulation of static images into a four-dimensional encounter. The virtual camera circles and pans, revealing momentary concretions of the fast-moving fire, with subtle ripples and motions amongst the arrest of the images’ terror.

With the complexity of its computational composition, the extended durations of Claerbout’s installations allow the viewer to consider the space of the filmic encounter, and to note that Claerbout’s elaborate construction is contained, made into a single screen projection with a singular source, its labour placed largely out of view. This is a sharp, animating contrast in the work of Ösz, whose works foreground the devices of camera and projector in order to construct a reflexive and site-sensitive meditation on time and place. Drawing one of the exhibition’s fault lines, the foregrounding or negation of the apparatus describes subtly the agencies of image-maker and image-viewer. Whilst Claerbout is interested in the black box and its vampiric capacity to construct a world without shadows, Ösz shows we are bound to complex physical phenomena of which we are rarely fully conscious.

Ösz’s Passive Movements (2021) are works in which a free-standing, motorised projector displays its own image and space onto a parallel wall. The projectors – here there are three in the room – are moving: one rotates in a continuous 360-degree clockwise motion, whilst two are fixed together, moving back and forth on a small dolly along a short track. In this second configuration, the projectors are directed towards different walls, so that one is panning whilst projecting across a parallel wall, and the other projects onto a wall whilst the dolly moves towards it before retreating to its other limit. In each projected image, the position of the projector stays exactly where it is: in the work moving side to side, edges of the frame appear to move left and right until they bump up against the end of the projector in view. Moving back and forth towards the wall, the projector scales big and small, and autofocuses, whilst the projector stays squarely in its original position.

Passive Movements constructs the appearance of stasis in a reflection on the condition of images ongoing movement and transformation, its active and consequential capacities. Although Ösz works regularly with the moving image, the photograph is invoked and examined (here perhaps is another contrast with Claerbout, who uses still images as material to construct sequences of time-based works). We desire stillness and the arrested image, just as we seek the passivity and objective condition of the lens for our understanding and claims to truth. Ösz shows this to be an inversion: we construct elaborate fictions, placing ourselves at the centre of an imagined oasis, with our stasis in the midst of continuous motion. The 360-degree rotating image is especially potent here, enabling not only a visceral mixture of stillness and movement, but also the possibility of thinking, something as large as planetary motion and the horizons of our conscious experience of the world. Drawing us towards physical phenomena at the same time as revealing reflexive conditions of the image places the technological image in its proper context of constructing and maintaining worlds.

This pivoting of position is something that is explored also in the last work in the exhibition, Image of Light (2022), in which Ösz inverts the model of the camera obscura so that light emerges and constructs an image from the inside, towards a room in a state of darkness. Several small box chambers in the space emit this light and the lightbulb contained within, which is caught on a sheet of translucent paper, receiving its focused image on the outside through the aperture. A shift in our physical position, and a switch in perception constructs a radical inversion of our capacity to think from the particular towards the planetary or what Édouard Glissant would call mondialité or worldliness, a being in and with the world.

ANTICAMERA, curated by Zsolt Petrányi and Emese Mucsi, suggests with a precision and economy that we find ourselves drawn between complex trajectories, in which the computational and physical (or mineral) experience of the world needs urgently to be apprehended to encounter the world in its full detail. Beyond polarities, there are competing directions and passages, emphases and urgencies. What is at stake is not only what is shown, but what is made visible or placed out of view: this is the condition of the struggle of images, which Ösz’s rotating projection encapsulates in its prompt to think not only of the image, but of its making and its consequent position in and with the world.♦

All images courtesy the artists and the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest © David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz

Installation views of ANTICAMERA – An exhibition of David Claerbout and Gábor Ösz at the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Center, Budapest from 16 February – 3 April 2022.

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist and writer. He is Course Leader for the MA in Fine Art Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London, and is the author of To Be Determined: Photography and the Future, published by SPBH Editions. 

Noémie Goudal

Post Atlantica

Exhibition review by Fergus Heron

Visiting Noémie Goudal’s new exhibition at Edel Assanti, Fergus Heron considers the artist’s polymath approach to photography and moving image, understanding nature as a set of processes comprised of different ecologies, geographies and temporalities.

Noémie Goudal’s Post Atlantica is the first exhibition in Edel Assanti’s new gallery on London’s Little Titchfield Street. In this solo show, the artist’s recent works in various material forms and photographic realisation methods are presented with remarkable aesthetic and conceptual coherence. The gallery is arranged into spaces with distinct atmospheres, clearly produced with, and complementary of, each work. Together, the works essentially explore ecological and temporal concerns. At the same time, they complicate how the living natural world can be depicted by photography and moving image.

The gallery space upon entry is low-lit and features three long, rectangular large-scale paper works situated closely together. Untitled (Waves) (2022) contains print and high-definition projection moving image montages of sections of a single view of coastal rock formation surrounded by swirling seawater. The scene is composed from an elevated viewpoint without foreground or horizon. We are presented with an image of wild nature from a place between distance and proximity, the spectacle of the natural world and the artifice of its picturing in balance.

Central to the exhibition is Untitled (Giant Phoenix) (2022), a piece comprised of elongated rectangular photographs of palm tree fragments seen at night, illuminated frontally with the effect of revealing a high degree of surface detail. The flatness and rectangularity of each photograph is heightened by printing on matt paper and mounting on aluminium panels fixed to a steel frame that positions each photograph to form a single composite image when viewed from a central position. As the viewer moves left to right and returns to centre, the image fragments and recomposes alternately. This experience draws attention to spectatorship as a process raising essential questions of the basis of photography in perspective. Once a fixed viewing position is given up, it is as if the image falls apart and its fragments look back at us.

A low frequency rumbling soundtrack with crashing eruptive bursts draws the viewer into the gallery’s lower ground floor towards Inhale, Exhale (2021). This piece comprises a single screen projection onto a freestanding wall positioned at a slight angle, thereby unsettling the usual centrality of the screen. The moving image, projected floor to ceiling, depicts a section of woodland with a body of water in the foreground. The camera occupies a low viewpoint close to the surface. Correspondingly, a stationary viewing position from the gallery floor level is invited. From this point of view, framed by a fixed camera, a still, almost stage-like scene is set. Within the scene, diorama-like pieces featuring images of vegetation that complement and contrast with the woodland flora slowly rise from beneath the surface of the water, hoisted into position by a partly visible mechanism. Different ecologies and distant temporalities coexist for a short time in the image. Then, the set pieces are re-immersed, disappearing from view, remaining as memory. There is an uneasy sense of witnessing a distant event occurring unobserved in some remote place, and, at the very same time, knowingly orchestrated as spectacle.

Emerging from the lower gallery into a brightly lit space, evenly illuminating the works displayed, we are presented with a collection of porcelain, brass, bronze and wood pieces, Terrella (2021) and three colour photographs mounted in chrome frames, Untitled (Mountain) (2021), each situated in isolation on one of the three gallery walls.

The Untitled (Mountain) pictures combine photographs of partly snow-covered peaks and sections of mountain range with what appear at first to be seemingly impossible cut sections through the mountain, or walls in front of them in a ruinous state. Upon closer inspection, these elements are revealed as cardboard fabrications coated in variously textured paint, altering in scale and putting viewers in a position of close proximity and vast distance at once. In these photographs, we can see features of the natural world as we might just actually encounter them, and, at the same time, as models that not only constitute artifice, but show themselves as such. These works concentrate a central paradox of the photograph as both a record of observation of the world as it might appear, commonly understood as a document, and a constructed image, closer to our dreams and imaginings, a fiction. The installation of each photograph on its own wall positions them confidently as pictures that explore a single idea across subtle iterations. The exposed white borders of each print draw attention to the significance of materials in the production of the photograph as an application of ink to paper. Framed in polished chrome complementing the brass and bronze elements of Terrella establishes a dialogue between image and object, materials and abstract modelling in two and three dimensions.

Terrellas are small models of the earth that have been used in scientific research since the late sixteenth century as part of experimental processes that included the study of solar activity and related effects of light on how the earth can be seen under particular conditions. The six pieces that make up Terrella are situated in close proximity, five placed on column plinths, all clustered at varying heights, and one suspended above, suggesting worlds to be understood as multiple and in reciprocal relation with each other. The materials used in this piece have historical associations with the early development of photography in correspondences between astronomical observation and the desire to fix camera images. There is a polymath approach in these works, understanding art and science in dialogue, as different ways of making sense of the world with a shared spirit of enquiry.

Goudal’s work shows nature as a set of processes comprised of different ecologies, geographies and temporalities. Additionally, something of the illusion of the earth as eternal and the fragile instability of the world humans seek to know through seeing is revealed in the works presented in this exhibition. By looking at these works that show their own making in still and moving images, we make up and implicate ourselves with the living natural world.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Edel Assanti, London © Noémie Goudal

Installation views of Post Atlantica at Edel Assanti, London from 27 January – 12 March 2022. © Will Amlot

Fergus Heron is an artist and university lecturer currently living and working in Brighton, England and Nairn, Scotland. He studied at the Royal College of Art, London and the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, UK. Exhibitions featuring his work have taken place at venues including Tate Britain, London; Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World, Exeter, UK; Royal West of England Academy, Bristol, UK; Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, UK; Museum for Contemporary Art, Roskilde, Denmark; K3 Project Space, Zurich, Switzerland. He is Course Leader for MA Photography and a research supervisor in the School of Art and Media at the University of Brighton, UK.

Sayuri Ichida


Book review by Callum Beaney

Callum Beaney argues that Sayuri Ichida’s medium-centric presentation of negative inversions, repetition and silver ink return readers not to photography as the main subject, but towards a physical body amidst the distress of its representation.

Sayuri Ichida’s Absentee is a book that feels. It functions as the sum of its parts, building a tense atmosphere as it goes. In many ways, it is a collection of separate photoshoots and experiments with different ways of approaching the ideas Ichida is trying to express, brought together through a binding reminiscent of Kikuji Kawada’s The Map (1965), with multiple gatefold spreads that house their own four-image sequences. Whilst the metallic ink and black-and-white inversion gives her work an aesthetic consistency, and whilst comparisons to contemporaries can be drawn, the variety of approaches produces arresting images, both alone and in sets. The result, for me, is a book that respects images for what they are, rather than for what they can be used to signify or gesture toward.

Looking through the book, an overarching feeling that many of Ichida’s groupings of images impart is that of the body being abstracted; more thing than person. Rather than a given pose or closeup of a body part being gestural and working as an expression of the artist’s self – as is typical of many such bodies of work – parts of this book instead affect a powerful sense that, just as the body dies and becomes lifeless, so too is the flesh made flat and empty when captured in an image. The feeling of detachment from the being one sees in a portrait of oneself, running parallel with an apprehension towards one’s forthcoming end.

The gatefold presentation adds significant weight to this book. The outside pair of photographs – those we see before the gatefold is opened up – are typically duplicates or very similar in form; the image on the right page is often merely a reprint of the left, but copied, flipped or rotated. Elsewhere, especially within the four images constituting the inside of these foldout pages, such portraiture is set among highly sculptural images of cracked concrete, anonymous buildings, clouds and drawn curtains. The body seems here to be reduced to shapes and forms, lumps of flesh raw and exposed (we see no clothes; if ever the body were to be described as “vulnerable”, it would be here, where every instance of it is either hiding or obscured). The scenes of the external world, broken, decrepit and lifeless as they are, feel to me like a mirror to the internal world of Absentee’s faceless models.

What are evidently inverted studio shots of a model standing on tiptoes and with dangled arms begin to feel more convincing as some kind of corpse in a body of water, an empty vessel afloat in a great nothingness. Moreover, these close-ups of limbs being shot with flash prompt just enough of an association with that of the mortician’s documentation to carry the feeling of anticipation, the feeling of dread that spans throughout Absentee. After all, an absentee is one who should be present, but who is not.

As a whole, Ichida’s foldouts can be enjoyed as sequences as much as patterns or ‘rhythms’ of photographs. Roughly halfway through the book, the arch of a leg is printed to the right of the peaked roof of a building. Proximate images such as these can be taken on a symbolic or comparative level, so as to say: “this is like this”, owing to the inverted V-shape of both the building and the leg, but they carry this intuitively, and in a more image-dense context than a typical two-page book. Rather than being reduced to pairs and propositions, Ichida’s gatefolds can be opened and closed in a few different ways, allowing the inside/outside to work in more ways than one.

Whilst Ichida’s work can be given attention for its use of medium-centric presentation, from the negative inversions and silver ink reminiscent of old film negatives, to the aforementioned repetition and flipping, on its own this is really the least interesting and least affecting part of the work. Those aspects contribute positively to the way this book feels as a whole, but not because, as meta-photographic elements, they are technically or conceptually clever. The images don’t work as references that point me to photography as the main subject, but ultimately point me back to a physical body – in this case presumably the artist’s – and a distress towards representation. This overwhelming feeling of anxiety about the body slowly becoming something flat, something still and unmoving, a corpse-like thing remains the central feeling conveyed.

Student work exploring questions of identity, expression of the self and of the body typically draws on a relatively consistent set of gestures and visual codes, often carried out more with reference to how such themes have been articulated by historical photographers – such as Francesca Woodman or Anne Brigman, or more broadly those images seen in mass circulation at the time – than to the ideas and experiences the photographer actually wishes to convey. Many bodies of work engaging with the male gaze, for example, seem too often to reinforce its visual logics in spite of the artist’s statement’s claims to the contrary. Self-imposed standards of beauty and the domination of certain visual tropes can sometimes influence work to the point that, in both cases, it engages in dialogue with other images more than with those who view them – and even those who make them. In such a case, the artist’s conception of their “self” merely constitutes a programmatic series of references.

Some of the gestures in Absentee do look familiar, and a reader might be forgiven for thinking that elements of the work feel slightly ‘derived’ from others, or even that it is a very ‘studied’ work; certainly, Ichida could be taken as wearing her influences on her sleeve. The difference for me, however, is that Ichida’s work embraces the discomfort and apprehension described above, as well as enjoying visual ambiguity rather than aiming for hard-coded messages. The figures in this book could even be ourselves: Ichida embraces anonymity, to the point that “the self” feels deliberately excluded by these gatefolds that cut into the models’ faces – we can see that these figures are a person, but as an image, they feel alienated and distant.

What is so often lost by work with conceptual aspirations is a love of looking at images. Taken as a whole, however, Ichida clearly understands that the viewer is the one taking these images in, and because of that focus on images and their affective strength, Absentee gives me moments both profound and often visually powerful.♦

Images courtesy the artist © Sayuri Ichida

Absentee is a self-published artist book handmade by Sayuri Ichida, in an edition of 50 copies. It was designed by Tomasz Laczny and launched in November 2021.

Callum Beaney is a photographer and writer based in the UK. He is co-editor of C4 Journal, a platform focused on photobooks.

Lebohang Kganye

Dipina tsa Kganya

Interview with Sarah Allen

Lebohang Kganye speaks with Sarah Allen about investigating her own family history, merging photography and theatre as a means to perform the constructed nature of memory and siting new work in the context of a Bristol sugar plantation and slave owner’s home from the 18th century.

Sarah Allen: Much of your photography deals with investigating your own family history. Was there a spark that lit this particular interest?

Lebohang Kganye: My mother’s passing ten years ago initiated the need to trace my ancestral roots. She was my main link to our extended family and past since we all now live in separate homes. I had to locate myself in the wider family on some level and perhaps also explore the possibility of keeping a connection with her. Two years after my mother’s passing, I was looking at a lot of her photographs and the more I kept looking, I realised that a lot of the locations these photographs were taken in – the ones I could recognise – were mostly at my grandmother’s yard or somewhere I knew. I went on this journey in search of her. I also realised that a lot of the clothes she was wearing in these photographs of her as young woman were in the house. I then put on her clothes and started going to the locations where my mother had been photographed to restage her photographs and mimicking the same poses to visually emulate my adoption of the role of the mother to my sister after our mother’s death.

In Jacques Derrida’s The Work of Mourning (2001), he discusses the loss of self that takes place when you lose someone you love: a double loss. My reconnection with my mother became a substitute for the paucity of memory through a visual manipulation of ‘her-our’ histories by inserting myself into her pictorial narrative and emulating the snaps of her from my family album. Ke Lefa Laka: Her-story (2013) are digital photomontages in which I juxtaposed old photographs retrieved from the family archives of my mother in her twenties and early-thirties with photographs of a ‘present version of her-me’ to reconstruct a new story and a commonality: she is me, I am her. My mother was my main link to my extended family and history, so her death sparked the need to trace my ancestral roots and locate myself in the wider family to explore the possibility of keeping a connection with her through photography.

SA: It’s a very personal history, but it’s also one that many people can relate to: the loss of one’s mother. This dual sense of both personal and shared histories is also present in the series Ke Lefa Laka: Heir-story (2013). Could you speak a little more about this body of work, and in particular, its focus on histories of naming in South Africa?

LK: My work explores themes of personal history and ancestry whilst resonating with the history of South Africa and apartheid. Ke Lefa Laka: Heir-story documents my personal history and straddles generations of my mother’s family, resonating with the history of South African displacement, in that my family was uprooted and resettled because of apartheid laws and the amendment of land acts. The narrative, as chronicled by my grandmother, of my family moving and creating temporary homes in different locations during the apartheid era as a result of dislocation and land dispossession of Black South Africans had a direct impact on the identity of my family and on the family name. Our family name shifted in an attempt to identify with the different social and physical spaces in which my family lived, or because of negligence in the recording of names by the civil registrar at the South African Department of Home Affairs. Fragments of the name are embodied in the multiple versions of the name, starting with how it is said, how it is pronounced and finally how it is spelled: Khanye, Khanyi, Kganye and Khanyile. People often couldn’t record their own names (or dates of birth) and, sometimes, the official modes of documenting were recorded incorrectly on documents such as birth certificates, identity cards and passports: documents that attest to identities and histories, and thus resulting in an alteration of oral histories and names. Names as a historical, social product highlight the history of naming as a device against illiteracy and the lack of birth records in South Africa through names associated with historical events, which served as a register to estimate the ages of the name bearers. Names can also be chosen at random and evolve, and, indeed, the tracing of the name of ‘Khanye’ demonstrates how this surname changed over time, responding to a family’s history and migration, as they are influenced by the socio-political and economic impacts of colonialism and, then, apartheid South Africa. The work speaks to the process of migration and touches on the subject of genealogy, which transformed family structures and networks in and around Southern Africa.

SA: Did the process of working on this series teach you anything about identity in general? Did you find any form of resolution?

LK: I was thinking about the notion of ‘Identity’ within the South African context and one embraces individual identities independent of collective identities. Identity remains a space of extreme contradictions – in a way an experiment; it is a mixture of truth and fiction; a blending and clashing of gathered histories and stories, a malleable entity with the pretence of being fixed. However, it presents an interesting challenge in the way that complicates individual agency. Identity cannot be made fully tangible just like the products of a camera; it is a site for the performance of dreams and the staging of narratives of contradiction and half-truths as well as those of erasure, denial and hidden truths. Identity, therefore, becomes an orchestrated fiction and a collective invention. Achille Mbembe makes a profound statement on our perception of the world in his introduction to the Africa Remix (2007) catalogue: ‘Our way of belonging to the world, of being in the world and inhabiting it, has always been marked by, if not cultural mixing, then at least the interweaving of worlds, in a slow and sometimes incoherent dance with forms and signs which we have not been able to choose freely, but which we have succeeded, as best we can in, in domesticating and putting at our disposal.’

People have different reasons for trying to know their family histories or past. I chronicle my family name using various modes of presentation and archival materials in the form of family albums, interviews with individuals involved to weave family narratives that would otherwise not have a platform or form beyond the experiential. Both methods of data collection often lead one to an approximate truth. An individual’s memory about a particular event may include political and personal bias. On the other hand, raw artefacts such as photographs have the inherent limitation of speaking to context. Both these flaws open up an opportunity to generate my mythology and fluid story telling.

SA: Is that sense of photography’s inherent limitations one of the reasons why you work across media, for example with film and sculpture?

LK: My practice has always tried to counter this idea that the photograph is instantaneous. Revealing the different elements of the construction of a photograph as an authoring of my own history is an important part of my practice. For the animation film Pied Piper’s Voyage (2014), I worked with a studio set, with life-sized cardboard cut-out images which look like flat-mannequins. I inserted myself to construct a visual narrative in which I meet my late grandfather, who passed away before I was born. In these fictive narratives, I am the only ‘real’ person, taking on the persona of my grandfather, dressed in a suit, a typical garment that he often donned in family photographs. These different modes speak to how memory and history intersect and what their role is within a photograph. Over the last seven years, my practice has been investigating memory as material. My recent works implement the act of cutting, folding, pasting and assembling medium or life-sized elements to construct each scene. These moveable paper elements of cardboard cut-outs create the illusion of a theatre set and proposes photography both as practice and object. In a similar way to figures and objects in a dollhouse, each cut-out creates the illusion of an entire world. They look like they could be moved, changed or shifted. I wish to emphasise the fabricated nature of history and memory in this work: how the visualisation of an event always induces an element of creation, experimentation and error; an on-going construction.

SA: I am also really interested in the performative aspect of your work – the reference to set design and theatre but also the idea of performing the self and one’s own history. Could you speak a little more about that?

LK: In the process of recreating the family photographs, particularly my mother’s, I began to consider the ways in which these photographs were a performance, allowing the subjects to inhabit a range of personas. Most of the snapshots were made before I was born in 1990, at my grandmother’s house. My mother had such limited access to cameras at that time. (There was one photographer in each neighbourhood in the township. He’d be cycling by and you’d set a date for him to come and take a photo of you dressed in your Sunday best.) With the opportunity to make photographs so limited, every picture became more powerful, giving them the opportunity to plan their outfit, pose and location. In my creative practice, photography is used as a way to recreate moments that I have never myself experienced. I have begun working with theatre scripts such as in my body of work Tell Tale (2018), which is mainly inspired by Athol Fugard’s play Train Driver (2010), set in Port Elizabeth, and a chapter in Lauren Beukes’ Maverick (2004) about a character named Helen Martins, which Athol Fugard writes about in his play Road to Mecca (1985), set in Nieu Bethesda, in the Karoo, Eastern Cape.

My new project titled In Search for Memory is indicative of both my primary use of photography as a malleable medium ongoing interest in the very construct of memory. Initially developed in 2020 as a set of collage prints on inkjet paper, In Search for Memory makes use of literature as primary source material. The images produced are inspired by Malawian writer Muthi Nhlema’s science fiction novella TA O’REVA (2015). The first iteration of this project includes six ‘scenes’ assembled with inkjet print cut-outs staged as dioramas and will later extend in the form of a large-scale mechanised pop-up book installation titled Staging Memories. I will produce a large-scale book installation exploring the materiality of photography in dialogue with the disciplines of theatre and literature and to position the ‘non-fictional’ assumption of photography in conversation with the ‘fictional’ world-building capacity of theatre and literature. This interdisciplinary modality introduces a fluidity of disparate temporalities and imaginaries to the storytelling and performative gestures that continue to inform my practice. I will create an installation that visually references a set of mise-en-scène.

SA: I’m also interested in how you engage with sound – the oral and the aural – in your work. That is, both the importance of oral histories, but equally thinking about the use of sound in your video work. For example, I know your latest commission deals with the tradition of praise-singing.

LK: My latest commission by Bristol Photo Festival 2021 is a black-and-white, three-channel video installation titled Dipina tsa Kganya (2021). It features two performances informed by the notion of healing, enacted through acts of naming and cleansing. The word dipina means ‘songs’ in my mother language of Sesotho. The song referred to is that of my family clan names, traditionally passed down through oral tradition. Additionally, the Sesotho word for ‘light’, kganya, is in the etymology of my last name: Kganye. A central visual component is the lighthouse featured in the middle channel of the video work. A light beam, in perpetual motion, casts light onto the surrounding ocean scene and in turn creates shadows in the two peripheral channels of the work. In the first or left video channel, a lighthouse keeper appears as a custodian of this light, tending to it by continually cleaning the bulb: a light source that symbolically guides those lost at sea. The song featured in the work (composed by musician Thandi Ntuli) plays from a large, custom-built Polyphon music box, which is hand cranked in the third or right video channel. These performative gestures are in conversation with the southern African practice of the ‘praise-singing’ of clan names as a way of passing down the origins of the family story as an act of resistance to historical erasure, to ensure its unwritten continuity. My research inquiry began with investigating the origins of my family name ‘Khanye’ and the history of naming. This led me to exploring my family’s Direto, a Sesotho term for clan names or praise poetry of allegorical stories passed down orally from generation to generation, which a clan of people defines themselves by. In the South African context, every Black surname has its own clan poetic praises; this self-praise poem is an identification with one’s family and lineage group. These anecdotes of praise are of heroism and often expressed at important social groupings. This oral tradition of recitation gives a stage to introduce oneself to the gathering and assert oneself through an embodiment of historical events, social experiences and family lineage. It is an evolving vernacular culture of Southern Sotho oral histories embedded in the performance of naming and self-narration, as a testament of family identity in the Basotho culture. Others are derived from the names of our grandfathers and siblings from the father’s side of the family but as my father was not part of my life, I inherited my mother’s surname.

SA: As part of this commission, your work will be displayed at the Georgian House Museum. What is at stake for you when engaging with a British institution such as this?

LK: My initial reservations with the commission were deeply tied to the Georgian House Museum’s own histories. A historical museum speaks to a very specific history and context that has been identified as worthy to conserve. The museum provides visitors with the opportunity to discover what a Bristol sugar plantation and slave owner’s home might have looked like around 1790. Its 11 rooms, spread over four floors, are used to reveal what life was like above and below stairs, from the kitchen in the basement where servants prepared meals to the elegant formal rooms above. Using themes of people, home, family, ancestry, slave-trade and social hierarchy that are particular to this historically rich structure, we draw closer to the inhabitants, their stories and the social complexities of the house.

SA: What has been the greatest challenge of the commission?

LK: The exhibition was meant to open to the public in Bristol at the Georgian House Museum in April 2021, but will only be opening in April 2022 due to the pandemic.

SA: What has the past year of pandemic meant for your practice and what is the most important lesson you learned during this time?

LK: The anxiety that came with being an artist during a pandemic forced a shift in my perspective with regards to my practice. The work I have birthed during this time is so deeply spiritual.

SA: Thank you, Lebohang. It has been a pleasure to speak with you. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and the Georgian House Museum, Bristol © Lebohang Kganye

Dipina tsa Kganya will be held at the Georgian House Museum in April 2022.

Lebohang Kganye incorporates the archival and performative into a practice that centres storytelling and memory within a familial context. In 2022, a solo exhibition of Kganye’s newly commissioned works will be presented by the Georgian House Museum as part of Bristol Photo Festival 2021. Her solo exhibition The Stories We Tell: Memory as Material (2020) was staged at George Bizos Gallery at the Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa. Notable awards include the Grand Prix Images Vevey (2021–22), Paulo Cunha e Silva Art Prize (2020) and Camera Austria Award (2019). She was also selected as the finalist of the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative (2019).

Sarah Allen is Head of Programme at South London Gallery. She was previously a curator at Tate Modern, London where she curated or co-curated Zanele Muholi (2020); Sophie Taeuber-Arp (2021); Nan Goldin (2019); The Shape of Light: 100 Years of Photography and Abstract Art (2018), as well as collection displays including Mark Ruwedel (2018); Irving Penn (2019) and David Goldblatt (2019). Outside her role at South London Gallery, she sits on the Board of Directors of Belfast Photography Festival.


1-‘Ka 2-phisi yaka e pinky II’, from Her-story (2013).

2-‘Ke le motle ka bulumase le bodisi II’, from Her-story (2013).

3-‘Moketeng wa letsatsi la tswalo la ho qala la moradi waka II’, from Her-story (2013).

4-‘Ngwana o tshwana le dinaledi II’, from Her-story (2013).

5-‘Re intshitse mosebetsing II’, from Her-story (2013).

6-‘Re tantshetsa phaposing ya sekolo II’, from Her-story (2013).

7-‘You couldn’t stop the train in time’, from Tell Tale (2018).

8-‘The nameless ones in the graves’, from Tell Tale (2018).

9-‘Helen’s father grazing his goats’, from Tell Tale (2018).

10-‘Farmer selling Sneeuberg potatoes’, from Tell Tale (2018).

11-‘Johannes Hattingh struck by the bolts from above’, from Tell Tale (2018).

12-‘Never light a candle carelessly’, from Tell Tale (2018).

13>15-Still from Dipina tsa Kganya (2021).


Stephen Gill

Coming up for Air

Exhibition review by Jesse Alexander

On the occasion of Stephen Gill’s retrospective at Arnolfini, Jesse Alexander highlights how the artist’s varied and prodigious output from the last 30 years has been underpinned by restless experimentation and a rich sense of place.

Despite subtle signage suggesting that visitors start their visit to Stephen Gill’s extensive retrospective Coming up for Air at Arnolfini, Bristol on the gallery’s first floor, most visitors will begin at ground level, chronologically reversed, and enjoy the Bristol-born photographer’s more recent works. The ground floor gallery is dominated by Night Procession (2014–17), The Pillar (2015–19) and the more recent series Please Notify the Sun (2020), which was completed during the lockdown. The repeated views from a trap camera installed in a field near his home in Sweden that comprise The Pillar have been published widely, and at varying scales. Yet this installation is the largest display of prints from the series (first published in book form in 2019) and the linear arrangement in the gallery accentuates the flat, expansive topography of this view as well as the cadence amidst the series’ repetition. With the focus set to infinity, the background is always sharp, giving a sense of these creatures’ enchanting, temporary presence, but also perhaps hint at the birds’ own appreciation of the backdrop to the stage on which they perform. In those where the birds have their backs to the camera, they take on the role of the Romantic Rückenfigur, contemplating the meaning of the scene that unfolds before them. It’s hard not to anthropomorphise the birds’ myriad startled expressions and clumsiness or, on other occasions, to simply be in sheer awe of their spectacular elegance.

Where The Pillar gives an impression of place in the sense of its broad surface features, Night Procession, also made with a trap camera, pulls us right down into the floor of the forest, even incorporating mud and plant pigments in the printing process. Adjoining this space is an additional projection of this work: the duplication of images might be unnecessary, and Gill’s original collotypes are no doubt delightful objects, but the luminosity of these nocturnal images projected, all the while accompanied by the braying chant of Ada Gill’s cello, is evocative without being melodramatic.

Although in fact the outcome of a meticulous and diligent strategy, The Pillar and the infra-red flashed fauna in Night Procession typifies the low-fi aesthetics that are often associated with Gill’s work. Upstairs however, where the exhibition ‘starts’, we are reminded of Gill’s precocious technical accomplishment with photography (it’s a little like seeing early Picassos and being reminded at his draftsmanship before he turned to abstraction). The exhibition retrospective is accompanied by a publication bearing the same name of the exhibition but has even more images and fewer words to introduce discrete bodies of work (although there is an essay by the Arnolfini’s director, Gary Topp). Gill acquired technical skills early; his photographs from his teens and his twenties – from his travels and his observations closer to home – have a confidence and effortlessness to them that exceeded his years (it is also worth noting that, unlike the majority of his contemporaries who studied art and design at under- and postgraduate level, he completed a foundation course at college before working in industry). Gill’s raw skill as a photographer is perhaps most apparent in his portraits; the passengers he systematically photographed in Day Trippers (2001), the Gallery Wardens (2003) and the (mostly) older women in Trolley Portraits (2000–03) all seem to have been offered a space in which to present themselves authentically to Gill’s lens, entirely of their own volition, and seem to exude a sense of thoughtfulness and nobility.

Despite his ability as a portraitist, Gill is perhaps more associated with the representation of place (the exhibition is programmed as part of the Bristol Photo Festival 2021, the theme of which is a sense of place). Perhaps some of the least visually striking, yet most amusing works are his Billboards (2002–04) and Birds (2005–10). As with many of his series, these were the products of a strict strategy, and in these the result being a discordant relationship between the final image and text: Billboards shows us the backside of advertising hoardings, and often there is a contrast between the seductive strapline that titles the images, such as L’Oréal Paris. Because you’re worth it, and the grotty corner of some indistinct city periphery, shot with New Topographic-esque deadpan objectivity.

Consumption also features heavily in Gill’s seminal work from the period, Hackney Wick (2003–05), an affectionate essay dominated with flea markets, completed – legendarily – on a camera purchased there for fifty pence. This period and this body of work appear to have liberated Gill from received documentary aesthetics of the time and catalysed an increasingly experimental, exuberant approach in his practice. The abundance of, for want of a better word, ‘stuff’ that we see in Hackney Wick mirrors Gill’s own preoccupation with found objects and their potential for meaning.

Gill has incorporated found objects from an area into the final images in visually dynamic ways, including Hackney Flowers (2004–07), which are a kind of photocollage with objects laid on top of photographs, and Talking to Ants (2009–13), where objects were placed inside the camera, simultaneously obfuscating and embellishing views. Cabinets in the exhibition present some of these ‘primary sources’ – some of which are as ephemeral as drinks-can ring-pulls – and these further enhance the sense of reverence for the place and his subject.

Other projects have focused more specifically on found objects, such as his pictures of rocks and bricks used as missiles during the London riots in Off Ground (2011) and the folded, torn and otherwise frustration-wrought fruitless betting slips he found discarded on the street near his home in A Series of Disappointments (2007). This merging of place and artefact is also explored in Buried (2005–06) which involved burying prints, allowing the soil and ground to react unpredictably with the chemistry in the paper. This curiosity in the alchemical nature of the medium is also evident in Best Before End (2013), where Gill experimented with the effect of energy drinks, controversially marketed towards teenagers, on photographs, revealing their chemical potency.

In addition to the cabinets, the main upstairs gallery features the staggering number of Gill’s photobooks, almost exclusively published by himself. These aren’t ‘on display’ as such, nor are they presented in a traditional kind of ‘further reading’ area, but on a distinctive freestanding shelving unit. Perhaps it is the unimposing jaunty angles of the shelves, or the unfinished wood, which makes handling these remarkable pieces feel like a genuinely welcomed aspect of the experience of the show, and perhaps a less intimidating activity than it might otherwise feel like.

There is a certain radiance in Gill’s practice. It is distinctly playful; belligerent without being aggressive or stifled in self-assured irony. Maybe there is a youthfulness in his determination to persevere with a self-imposed strategy, or one of his many dilatory methods: an unstoppable belief that a project will, sooner or later, inevitably come together. But politics runs quietly through the veins of Gill’s work and, moreover, his willingness to embrace the aleatoric and to abrogate responsibility for substantial aspects of creative processes are admirable characteristics. Whilst I’m reluctant to draw things to a close with an often-cited remark about Gill, his output is astonishing. There is a huge amount of highly accomplished work in the exhibition, without becoming overwhelming, and also in the six hundred odd-page accompanying monograph. There is much more that could have been shown, but there is a lot more to come.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Arnolfini, Bristol © Stephen Gill

Installation views of Coming up for Air at Arnolfini, Bristol from 16 October 2021 – 16 January 2022, part of Bristol Photo Festival 2021. Photographs by Lisa Whiting.

Jesse Alexander studied at the Surrey Institute of Art & Design, Farnham, and the University of Wales Newport, and is a photographer, writer on photography and lecturer based in Somerset. His writing and projects are primarily concerned with landscape and the representation of place, and he is the author of Perspectives on Place: Theory & Practice in Landscape Photography (2015). He is currently Course Leader for MA Photography at Falmouth University.


1>2-Installation view of Coming up for Air at Arnolfini, Bristol, 2021. Photograph by Lisa Whiting.

3>4-From The Pillar 2015–19.

5>6-From Night Procession 2014–17.

7-From Pigeons 2012.

8>9-From Talking to Ants 2009–13.

10-From Hackney Flowers 2004–07.

11>12-From Hackney Wick 2001–05.

Cao Fei


Essay by Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo

Following Cao Fei’s recent Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize ‘win’, Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo investigates the artist’s incorporation of science-fiction narratives and exploration of technology’s role in shaping our collective futures against the backdrop of China’s ongoing conquest of space.  

“We have a winner!” the Deutsche Börse website published after Cao Fei was awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021, staged at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. For art world specialists, the reading is easy, perhaps too easy. But for the rest, a few questions quickly arise: who is Cao Fei; what is the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize; and who wins?

Cao Fei is probably one of the most innovative Chinese artists to emerge on the international scene. Her career has been meteoric. In 2000, Fei was still a student at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts when she was ‘discovered’ by curator Hou Hanru, who introduced her to the art world. Since then, Cao Fei, who is best known for her multimedia and video productions, has presented work at the Venice Biennale, Centre Pompidou, Paris, and Guggenheim Museum, New York, amongst many others. It was for her first large-scale solo exhibition in the UK, Blueprints (2020) at the Serpentine Gallery, London (supported by LUMA Foundation and Muse, the Rolls-Royce Art programme), that she was awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. The other nominees were Poulomi Basu, Alejandro Cartagena and Zineb Sedira.

The Deutsche Börse is of course an international exchange organisation and innovative market infrastructure provider, offering customers a wide range of products, services and technologies across the entire value chain of financial markets. Perhaps one of the broadest questions when thinking about the current global political context is: why did a Chinese artist win an award from a German exchange organisation at an English gallery for the exploration of photography?

In attempting to answer this question posed by the price of photography, one could start with the exhibition’s title. A blueprint is a reproduction of a technical or engineering drawing through a process of contact printing on light-sensitive sheets. It was introduced by the English scientist Sir John Herschel in 1842, and used widely for over a century. One might, in turn, ask: what is Cao Fei’s engineering project? Her presentation at the Serpentine Gallery came shortly after her latest commission was exhibited on the rooftop of the National Gallery of Singapore: a large-scale, kinetic sculptural installation entitled 浮槎 Fú Chá, alluding to a mythical Chinese raft that not only sails across the ocean, but also floats up towards Tianhe (both a translation of “Milky Way” as well as the name of the new Chinese space station, which recently launched its first module). At the top of Cao Fei’s rooftop structure flashed a neon message: “Almost Arriving”.

It is also helpful to go back in time. In October 1957, against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Russian satellite Sputnik triggered the Space Race. The launch ushered in a new era of political, military, technological and scientific advances. Today, half a century later, in the context of planetary crises which threaten our collective future – from climate and biodiversity to pollution and waste – many humans are re-thinking alternative ways of living, whilst others of continuing the conquest of space. In 2020, the 3D-printed building company ICON won a contract from NASA to develop a robotic, extraterrestrial construction system for the Moon. Furthermore, a well-known South African entrepreneur and business tycoon has founded an aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company, SpaceX, that uses engines powered by cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen. An American rover on Mars not only looks for signs of habitable conditions in the planet’s ancient past, but also for signs of microbial life in the present.

Following centuries of isolation, the Asian giant has undergone, in just a few decades, some of its most significant transformations in its very long history, particularly across coastal and industrial areas. However, China seems reluctant to choose between the innovations of the West and the traditional immobilities of the East, yet is determined to undertake the modernisation of its economy. Cao Fei’s characters navigate these chaotic realities with vigour and agency by harnessing the unique possibilities of technology. It is impossible not to think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian science-fiction novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), Steven Spielberg’s film Real Player One (2018) or the young entrepreneur who bought a digital artwork for $69.3 million at Christie’s on 11 March 2021: the same person who owns millions of hectares of virtual land, who might soon begin building his foundation thanks to Frank Gehry; perhaps in a few months his new digital art archipelago will be ready to show his NFT collection.

Cao Fei’s research has a complex, open structure that corresponds to the irreducible depth of the themes she explores. Her conceptual approaches consist of making evident the fact that the subjects of representations of labour are not absent from art production. More specifically, her films suggest that the visual strategies of ironic simulation might not have come to an end as Benjamin Buchloh stated when The Forgotten Space (2010), one of the most important film essays by Noel Burch and Allan Sekula, came out. Cao Fei’s work presumes that simulacrum will serve the purpose of conveying workers’ aesthetic, social and political experiences. Whilst actual labour conditions are no mystery, Chinese workers pay a particularly heavy human price in enabling our civilisation to “go-green”, especially in the Heilongjiang province, where such activity occurs in an atmosphere saturated by hydrofluoric acid. China is the leader in the production and trading of rare substances crucial in the production of “clean” energy, electric vehicles and consumer electronics; the very same used by us every day and by Cao Fei in unveiling her narratives about development, love and technology.

The work of Cao Fei thus possesses a strong common thread: the denunciation of the communist utopias of the past, as well as China’s capitalist rise in the last twenty years. In charting the transitions that Chinese society is undergoing and benefiting from, is she merely criticising a culture ruled by video games and hyper-consumerism?

With policymakers recognising science-fiction as a potentially powerful tool for promoting state-sanctioned ideology, government agencies have encouraged Chinese filmmakers to incorporate such narratives which align with the regime’s broader ideological and technological ambitions. In other words, China uses mythology and science-fiction to sell itself to the world, as we can see today through its space programme. Cao Fei asks questions about technology’s shaping of a collective future, but who is part of this collective? The fantastical aspects of Fei’s work might explain why the science-fiction genre is being promoted internationally first and foremost over other commercial products that present images of China’s communist-capitalist regime. Unlike China’s expanding capabilities in space, which are seen by the world as a threat, the country’s fictional extraterrestrial developments pose no real-life risk. But none of this seems like science-fiction any more. It is impossible to forget that in January 2021, the UK’s Brexit transition period ended, culminating in exiting the EU after years of negotiations between London and Brussels. The effects of the country’s divorce from the Union have been felt everywhere, in economic, socio-political and scientific terms. Under the Brexit arrangements, the UK no longer participates in European satellite navigation systems, such as Galileo or EGNOS.

Over time, Cao Fei’s UK audience might become more comfortable with the notion of China as a global technological leader offering its customers a wide range of products, services and technologies. And this, in turn, might cultivate an interest either in the blueprints of the mythical Chinese devices floating through the Milky Way, or an awareness of the significance of memory and the ways in which the past can come to haunt the present: images are, in effect, the opium of the West.

I have one last question: who is the winner? ♦

All images courtesy artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers © Cao Fei

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, ran from 25 June – 26 September 2021.

Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo is an artist and curator, currently completing his PhD at the École nationale supérieure de la photographie (ENSP), Arles. After one year at the National School of the Arts (NSA), Johannesburg, he graduated in Photography in Chile and completed his Masters of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson, Nice, in 2014. He has curated exhibitions including Mapuche at the Musée de l’Homme, Paris, and Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation at the Rencontres d’Arles, which has been on tour for four years under his permanent supervision. Valenzuela Escobedo is a guest tutor at international art schools and institutions, most recently at the Institut d’études supérieures des arts and Parsons, Paris, International Summer School of Photography, Latvia, and Atelier NOUA, Bodø. He is co-founder of Double Dummy studio, a platform that creates a space for producing and showcasing critical reflections on documentary photography.


1>4-Cao Fei, Nova, 2019.

5>7-Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018.

8-Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006.

9-Cao Fei, Cosplayers, 2004.

Brea Souders


Essay by Alessandro Merola

What will be left for us to probe? What ‘aesthetic entrances’ will be used? Alessandro Merola on Brea Souders’ weaving of pixels and pigments that offers intricate yet epic articulations of the natural world, continuing long traditions of American landscape photography.

The counter-mapping of Michael Wolf, Doug Rickard and Jon Rafman – armchair street photographers who arrived following the inception of Google Street View in 2007 – was distinctly radical at the point of emergence. They mined data captured by roving robot cameras to uncover the forgotten, harrowing and sometimes sublime. Yet, given our urge to seek out the unchartered and unseen, have the possibilities of such appropriations been exhausted? After all, as Philip Larkin ventured: ‘All streets in time are visited’ (1961). So entered Google Photo Sphere in 2013. The software enables users to take 360-degree panoramas deep in the wild, where there are no roads, utilising AI to stitch together hundreds of images and construct navigable constellations. Whilst Rafman even trawled Street View to discover parallel histories of the medium – with one screenshot a repeat of Garry Winogrand’s ‘Los Angeles, California’ (1969) – users of Photo Sphere can contribute to the world of images by rendering a slice of earth for the first time ever.

Of the many quandaries such technologies have tabled for photography, one looms on the horizon most existentially: once we reach Jorge Luis Borges’ vision of a map so vast and detailed that it becomes indistinguishable from the empire itself, what will be left to probe? As an artist exploring the limits and possibilities of the medium, Brea Souders has channelled this conundrum into an inspired new work, currently exhibited at Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York. Comprised of images culled from Photo Sphere’s reconstructions of the American West, Vistas stages a geology of ghosts; of shadows sheared from their real bodies. The latter have been erased by Google in a concession to privacy, but the silhouettes – often truncated, splintered and smashed in uneasy syncs – remain, with the algorithm not recognising them as humans. Indicative of her adventitious practice, Souders has shaped these artefacts through an arduous process, circumventing the algorithm’s asperities by painting over screenshots with watercolours. It’s an exercise rooted in late 19th century traditions of colouring, by hand or through printing, souvenir postcards presenting national parks in the West. They allowed Americans to see the utopias they could not visit; ‘aesthetic entrance[s]’ through the picture frame, as geographer Denis Cosgrove has noted,[i] which have only intensified in the intervening years.

The renaissance of image-manipulation – as well as collecting, reproducing and distributing online – has often turned images into degenerate imitations, orbiting miles away from their origins. Hito Steyerl posited: ‘The poor image is a copy in motion. […] As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed.’[ii] Such disassociations are especially manifest in our encounters with images of the earth, considering that as our assimilation into virtual space becomes more entrenched, our relationship to physical space becomes more estranged. Swooping down on oil fields and feedlots (2012–13) via Google Earth, Mishka Henner conveyed this most saliently. His beautifully abstract composites, enhanced and blown-up, belied the atrocities they depicted, consequently exposing the ways we are increasingly conditioned to witness the world at a surveillance camera’s remove.

Yet, can image-manipulation – digital or analogue – also be a means to bridge the gulf between the viewer, photographic original and place portrayed? Souders’ devoted brushworking of each nook and cranny transmits a venting of nostalgia and homesickness so fiercely felt that these locales – some of which have been reconfigured by fires and mudslides since their uploads – become either impossibly intimate or devastatingly remote. There are instances when Souders moves from pale, pastel hues to produce more retinally-dazzling displays akin to a sun-stroked trance, thereby subverting her predecessors’ primary logic for painting postcards: to make black-and-white more real. Stones swirl luminous yellow; shrubs glow neon green; and mountains ache with a melancholy blue, the same shade Rebecca Solnit called ‘the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance.’[iii] Souders seeks to kindle a tactility with these faraway fragments; to commune with the longed-for original. After all, what is desire if not endless distances?

The spectacular mysticism of Souders’ visions invokes an inalienable subjectivity, yet one which is not only steeped in the drama of the self, but bound by a larger awareness of its passage through certain photographic traditions. For, virtually mediating, and appropriating images of, terrains initially imaged by men – Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan et al – the artist activates an agency historically withheld from women. Vistas thus becomes all the more disruptive by way of the fact many of its scenes relay female viewpoints; those of women trekking, documenting, mapping and populating. Their imprints recall those of Ana Mendieta’s Silhueta (1973–78), which saw her burn, carve and mould her form into the landscape to ‘return to the maternal source’.[iv] Whilst Mendieta’s interventions were inherently fleeting – the frames of her figure were filled with flowers, blood and candles, all unguarded against a gust of wind or incoming tide – the very act of their documentation ensured the performative pieces endured within an arc of photographic history. Similarly, what Souders has excavated on Photo Sphere are evasions of the ephemeral; traces of traces of the body, ‘stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask’.[v] But what if the Internet itself is not immune from decomposition? In weaving pixels and pigments, Souders secures the survival of each shadow self within imaginary, symbolic and ultimately material registers. Her literal layering of experiences – encounters with and yearnings for the sublime – amounts to an intricate yet epic articulation of the multivalent meanings we can ascribe to the land.

Overcoming loss by ‘fixing a shadow’, the ‘most transitory of things’, is tied up with the advent of photography.[vi] In The Pencil of Nature (1844), William Henry Fox Talbot of course recounted that it was through his fruitless attempts to trace Lake Como’s refracted image in the camera obscura with a pencil that the idea of the photogram occurred. Given human proclivities to orient the self within the world (the oldest known paintings comprise outlines of hands splayed across cave walls in northern Spain), it was only inevitable that the creator’s shadow would enter the frame via the “shadow selfie”. Lewis Hine’s ‘John Howell, an Indianapolis newsboy’ (1908) pictured as much of his figure and tripod as its “subject”, whilst Alfred Stieglitz’s ‘Shadows in Lake’ (1916) echoed Narcissus’ projective stare. With Vistas, however, it is impossible to discern, in the source images themselves, the strategic shadows from the inadvertent ones. Indeed, these photographers were not responsible for an imperfect algorithm that only partially-excised them, nor were they ever able to escape the West’s radiant rays. A less ambiguous consideration is perhaps of that which moved them to pull out their phones in the first place; the mantra of the Instagram era, “pics or it didn’t happen”, looming large.

There are several occasions when Photo Sphere’s algorithm comes, via chance, perilously close to eliminating the human trace in its totality, leaving behind only the shadows of dismembered hands holding onto phones. Maintained in monochrome, four are arranged in a grid layout, constituting the series’ cynosure. They are the eeriest of the images, but equally evocative. For herein lies the alleged democratic virtue essential to photography, as discovered by Talbot at Lacock Abbey: all is illustrated by reversible patches of light and dark. What, then, is the difference between bodies and shadows? I was here, imparts each vista. Gazing into the iridescent blacks of these silhouettes, it is possible to meet ourselves – wanderers, cowboys, pioneers, goddesses, custodians – stood on a cliff-edge somewhere with a wildness in our bones, the sun soaring above and phones pointed ahead, ready to make history and impart back: We were there, too.♦

All images courtesy the artist and Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York © Brea Souders

Installation views of Vistas at Bruce Silverstein Gallery, New York until 20 August 2021. Photographs by Olympia Shannon

Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.


[i] Denis Cosgrove, “Prospect, Perspective and the Evolution of the Landscape Idea” in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 10, no. 1 (1985), p. 55.

[ii] Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image” in e-flux #10 (2009), available at e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image, accessed 22 July 2021.

[iii] Rebecca Solnit, “The Blue of Distance” in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (New York: Viking, 2005), p. 29.

[iv] Ana Mendieta, quoted in Ana Mendieta: A Retrospective, eds. Petra Barreras del Rio and John Perreault (New York: New Museum, 1988), p. 10.

[v] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Doubleday, 1990), p. 154.

[vi] William Henry Fox Talbot, “Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing, or the Process by which Natural Objects may be Made to Delineate Themselves without the Aid of the Artist’s Pencil” (1839), p. 6, available at blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/foxtalbot/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2016/02/somecccount-booklet.pdf, accessed 22 July 2021.

Stephan Keppel

Hard Copies

Essay by Taco Hidde Bakker

Taco Hidde Bakker reflects on his recent curation of Stephan Keppel’s Hard Copies at Camera Austria, Graz, a parallel book and exhibition project characterised by the entanglement of the material appearance of (things in) cities, ways of picture-making and arrangements of images and found objects.

“Who is the master and who is the copy?” turned out to be the crucial question when the Dutch artist Stephan Keppel and I finished our preparations – including multiple calls to discuss our plans to build a physical scale model – for Keppel’s first-ever international solo exhibition, at Camera Austria, Graz. After more than one year of multiple lockdowns and an ever-deepening screen-dependence (pulled toward them like moths), this question seemed more pertinent than ever. It is also an underlying theme in Keppel’s work produced over the last decade, where in recent years he experiments with physical objects placed within the vicinity of their variously Keppelesque representations. Ultimately, what we wished to achieve in our exhibition was an interplay of visual correspondences within a wide selection of many different works made and printed (and collected) by Keppel from the point his “city series” began. Since 2011, Keppel has published four books dedicated to as many cities: Den Helder, Paris, New York and Amsterdam.

For the artist and curator arriving into Graz, as outsiders, my wish was for Keppel, who never visited Graz previously, to see it beforehand and possibly include new works in the exhibition. The idea was that this fresh encounter would result in the artist’s idiosyncratic processes of scanning, printing and reprinting. In a four-week frenzy in May, Keppel processed several images that he had captured in late April. One experiment with an image showing the word “ZIMMER” (“ROOM”) on a façade led to the provisional title of what might become a new city book or booklet: Immer Zimmer (Always Room). In the exhibition, we managed to weave the many facets of Keppel’s urban reflections together in a playful yet reserved manner. Some curatorial anchors worked-up in the scale models materialised wonderfully, while we also left ample room for improvisation. I take it as compliment that many visitors thought that things were done on purpose whereas in actual fact they were gifts, such as the rhythmic reflection of the light tubes in the four vitrine tables showing books, reference materials, (test) prints and found objects.

Stephan Keppel’s four photo/graphic books attest to an incisive exploration of the relations between built environment, image and book. In Keppel’s books and spatial presentations, there is an entanglement of the material appearance of (things in) cities, ways of picture-making, arrangement of images and found objects. The working process of his books published so far swings between cycles of taking photographs, appropriating image files, printing the files using (often discarded) printers, rescanning and reprinting. This results in idiosyncratic, oftentimes abstracted images with material qualities that are interwoven with the material surfaces of the built world to which these images also refer. There arises visual tensions between the image as image and the image as a window onto something beyond its own.

The tone was set with Reprinting the City (2012) on the small Dutch city of Den Helder. It is the first of the four books that Keppel laid out and edited in collaboration with the designer-publisher Hans Gremmen from Fw:Books. The book is A4 – the default copying paper format – and the following three books keep to this size. It can be read as a stack of documents against the grain (the mode is more medium-focused than documentary). In the cover image, a dotted halftone screen overrules an image of calm waves on the ocean’s surface. A black stripe emerges from an out-of-sync double printing of the same motif, overlaid at the edges. Discarded objects figure prominently, including DVD players, disk drives and record players. The thrift store and street are pleasure grounds for Keppel’s eyes. He is a ‘street comber’ according to the artist Roeland Zijlstra. The comber is normally someone who combs the beaches for treasures that might have washed ashore. Zijlstra furthermore notices that Keppel’s way of rendering discarded objects means that ‘he removes from the remainders of life the sadness that adheres to them and he exposes an underlying character – tender robust radiant intimate.’

A key feature of Keppel’s practice is that it is recursive. Already in Reprinting the City, there are several indicators of a recursiveness that becomes much more pronounced in later works. There are photographs of prints lying on the floor, their edges curling up, and photographs showing images (misprints perhaps) that might appear elsewhere, too. There is a flat file cabinet placed on its side, and a playing with halftone screens. In the dream-like Entre Entree (2014), Keppel took these experiments a step further. He stayed in Paris on two residencies for a full year, at the Van Doesburghuis in Meudon-Val-Fleury, a studio-living space designed by Theo van Doesburg in the 1920s, and at the Atelier Holsboer in the Cité des Arts. Keppel circled around the city’s busy Boulevard périphérique, and explored the city’s outskirts. Façades of postwar modernist or brutalist buildings, entrances, doors, marble and the occasional exotic plant feature prominently. Paris offered a new passage into Keppel’s world of strolling, picturing, scanning, printing, reprinting and of photographing studio settings.

Keppel honoured the city he spent the least time in (physically) with the heaviest tome, Flat Finish (2017). “It is so New York,” said the photographer Ken Schles. The city wears differently than Paris; it is much more unruly in its architecture, despite the solid grid structure of its layout and the ever-polished “renewal” taking place in a Manhattan ruled by speculative flash capitalists. Keppel’s an-iconic vision of New York is far removed from any tourist guide. When the Empire State Building comes into view, it is a heavily pixelated dilution from tweeted pictures. The second-handedness of the city comes to the fore here. Keppel scanned the websites of sellers of reused building material before going to New York, examining the archives of the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal beforehand. Upon arriving, he already had a focus on the recycling of the city which eternally rebuilds itself. Of course, this once again looped back into Keppel’s own practice of circling and recycling. As the artist and writer Adam Bell remarked in a review in the Brooklyn Rail in 2018: ‘[Keppel’s] repurposed images function as building blocks for [his] own metropolis while also pointing to the regenerative and iterative process of both the built world and Keppel’s image-making.’

Keppel appropriates the cities that have become the locus of his books (the city mostly being a geographic limitation determining the working terrain for a certain period of time) and adapts them to the iterative processes of his printing obsessions. How would the city of Amsterdam, which he adopted as his home, be incorporated into his image world? The fourth “city symphony” is the most elaborate to date. With each new book, the domain expanded with regard to image types and sources to be included. While in the earlier books only the exceptionally well-versed city expert would recognise the images’ origins, in his new book Keppel included detailed notes about his sources in a type of coda. Keppel’s eye for intriguing details is contagious. Details that nearly everybody rushing from A to B would not notice become monumental in Soft Copy Hard Copy (2021): visible are hand-painted numbers from World War II, flattened house numbers from the days of the Amsterdam School building style, tape marks on the sidewalk and concrete cylinder leftovers from public construction works. Here, Keppel weaves many more strands together, from his minute photographic observation of architectural details or of prints in flat file cabinets to various found “readymades” in the streets or even found diapositive slides originally belonging to the Stedelijk Museum, showing artworks from their collection by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondriaan and Joel Shapiro. There is a page scanned from the novel An Evening in Amsterdam (1971) by K. Schippers. This author is an astute observer, too, with a keen eye for unattended details and the serendipitous: ‘Sometimes the curb is just a sidewalk tile, situated vertically, or a brick, placed on its side. Never similar, always a difference of levels. Never connected perfectly, curbs. See, there’s a crack between these zig-zag shapes that were meant to connect them tightly.’♦

This essay is adapted by
Taco Hidde Bakker from his text “Cities of Thrift and Ink” accompanying the exhibition Hard Copies at Camera Austria, Graz, until 15 August 2021.

All images courtesy the artist and Camera Austria, Graz © Stephan Keppel

Installation views of Hard Copies at Camera Austria, Graz. Photographs by Markus Krottendorfer

Taco Hidde Bakker is a writer, teacher, translator and curator in the field of the arts, specialising in photography. He studied at two art schools before obtaining an MA in Photographic Studies at Leiden University. He has contributed his writing to numerous artists’ books, catalogues and magazines, including Camera Austria International, Foam Magazine, British Journal of Photography and TRIGGER. Bakker is the author of the text collection The Photograph That Took the Place of a Mountain (Fw:Books, 2018). He teaches Theory at the Utrecht University of the Arts.


1>9- Installation view of Hard Copies at Camera Austria, Graz, 2021. Photograph by Markus Krottendorfer.

10-Studio view Tonerprint, from the series Soft Copy Hard Copy (Amsterdam), 2021.

11-Stephan Keppel, ‘Painted house numbers from World War II’, from the series Soft Copy Hard Copy (Amsterdam), 2021.

Stephan Keppel, ‘Spuistraat 22’, from the series Soft Copy Hard Copy (Amsterdam), 2020.

Stephan Keppel, from the series Reprinting the City (Den Helder), 2012.

16-Stephan Keppel, ‘Les Plantes Pantone’ (Paris), 2014.

Stephan Keppel, from the series Entre Entree (Paris), 2014.

Stephan Keppel, ‘Unibeton II Paris’, from the series Entre Entree (Paris), 2014.

Hoda Afshar

Speak The Wind

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani considers Hoda Afshar’s use of magical realism as a strategy which seeks to redeem documentary photography from its propensity for an Orientalist discourse.

Is photography redeemable? What I mean by that is: is it able to be recovered or saved from its past faults? More specifically, is documentary photography redeemable? As a photo historian, I regularly ask myself these questions, and, as a lens-based artist, Hoda Afshar has been centring these inquiries into her practice – especially since 2014, when she started her series In the exodus, I love you more, which marked her return to the documentary form. Born in Tehran in 1983 and now based in Naarm (Melbourne), Afshar pursues her investigations into the potentialities and limits of the medium with her newest editorial project entitled Speak The Wind, published by MACK. Historically, photography, and particularly documentary photography, has been a powerful imperial language, one of the many colonial tools facilitating, in particular, visual constructions of East/West and South/North dichotomies. In 1978, Edward Saïd wrote that the “Orient” and the “Occident” were man-made, and I would add that they have been perpetuated by man-made photographs in which the Other became a character of a Western narrative.

In her practice, Afshar wishes to “embrace the limitations of photography”, and, by doing so, proposes a tale of dismantlement, decentring and restructuring. It is from the locus of liminality that she takes apart her medium, challenging representation from within. The first and last images that frame Speak The Wind are a colour and a black-and-white photograph of the same wind-carved feature taken from two opposite perspectives. Through this structuring, Afshar seems to suggest that her creative documentary practice is embedded within a flux of change. As Trinh T. Minh-ha wrote: ‘To create is not so much to make something new as to shift’ (1991). Speak The Wind does not offer objects or characters to gaze at, but an articulation of images to consider, an assemblage of enunciations.

Here, Afshar roams several islands in the Strait of Hormuz. Located on the southern coast of Iran, in the Persian Gulf, the islands have been a cornerstone of international trade since Antiquity and is still today a hotbed of geopolitics. Every day, the islands’ inhabitants can watch hundreds of oil tankers passing by and observe their natural resources – such as ochre, iron and copper – being exported. Beyond these economic realities, minerals moulded the islands and shaped their landscapes. In 2015, for her first trip, Afshar arrived as “the Iranian” – the non-insular, the Outsider – and set foot for the first time on the black sand of Hormuz’s beaches, walked on its red soil and witnessed its ochre horizon. Having learned of local shamanic curing practices, Afshar did not expect to experience the magical gusts. During her many trips to the island, not worried about being afflicted by zār ­­­(the local, “harmful wind” believed to cause discomfort or illness), Afshar pursued her creative negotiation and critical engagement with the medium. Little by little, her visits transformed her participant observation into an observing participation. Rather than forging a typology, like an ethnographer might do, the photographer started crafting a topography – as understood by Chela Sandoval as a feminist oppositional consciousness (1956) – tied to the specificity of Hormuz as a contact zone, a multi-layered territory and a crossroads of realities and fictions.

In Speak The Wind, Afshar has conceived the renditions of her practice and journey methodically, and, as such, the book echoes Nancy Fraser’s theory of ‘participatory parity’ (2005): the subjects are not only spoken about but speak themselves. Indeed, the book includes anthropomorphic drawings of the winds made by the islanders and interviews conducted by Afshar about the experience of being possessed by zār. Through this polyphony, the photographer developed an alternative vision, a conscious third eye, to take up Fatimah Tobing Rony’s notion (1995): a hybrid gaze, between heart and brain; a bodily experience generating ‘pensive images’, as considered by Trinh (1991): ‘The image is subversive, not through violence and aggression, but through duration and intensity. The eye that gazes with passion and acuteness is one that induces us vaguely to think – as the object it sees is an object that speaks. The image that speaks and speaks volumes for what it is not supposed to say – the pensive image – is one that does not facilitate consumption and challenges the mainstream.’

Afshar’s ‘pensive images’ are a subversion of the medium’s propensity for an Orientalist discourse, in particular through her choice of addressing “non-rational” elements. Her images work as a transformation of states: from gaseous to solid, from ungraspable winds to tangible photographs. And so, I ask myself, can magical realism – current in literature and in paintings ­– play a role in the development of a truly multicultural and decolonial photographic sensibility? Can Afshar use magical realism’s subversiveness as a strategy to (partly) redeem photography? Can she reconcile the distinction suggested by Martha Rosler when she wrote: ‘photography is something you do; magic is an ineffable something that happens’ (2004). In texts, magical realism serves marginal voices, submerged traditions and stories driven by local knowledge: all three elements are included in Afshar’s book. There are no literary works that are wholly conceived out of magical realism, but rather passages, yet the effect of these moments affects our entire reading. In the same way, the photographer offers moments of pure magic as well as other moments when the images are aware of their own artifice, thus maintaining a flow between fact and fiction. A red cloud in green water. Glittering black sand enabling us to walk on a starlit ground. The red waves of a bleeding sea. The marvellous grows organically out of the ordinary, “abating” Cartesian distinctions. In Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road (1991), the tales of the adventures of Azaro, the child narrator – who exists between the real and the spirit worlds – says: “The wind of several lives blew into my eyes.” With Speak The Wind, Afshar shares with us a magical gaze dialoguing with unseen winds.♦

Images courtesy the artist and MACK © Hoda Afshar

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, PhD researcher and critic, working between Paris and London. She is interested in the links between photography and politics. She regularly gives talks at Les Rencontres d’Arles, Paris Photo and Tate Modern. She is on the editorial board of MAI:Visual Culture and Feminism and co-editor of The Eyes magazine.