Ming Smith

Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

Taous R. Dahmani contemplates the ways in which Ming Smith’s self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – constitute a practice of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world.

Several years ago, in the hope of discovering early photographs by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, I opened, for the first time, the pages of The Black Photographers Annual (1973). While Moutoussamy-Ashe’s work does not appear in the first volume – but only from the second – starting my reading with the first issue meant I came across the name of Ming Smith and what was apparently her very first publication. Launched in 1973, on the initiative of the Kamoinge Workshop, the periodical operated as a unique space for African-American photographers to determine independently both the content and conditions of publication and give them control over words and images: something that had been denied to the vast majority of them up until then. In her Aperture monograph (2020), Smith – who was the first female member of the collective – recalled: “this group of Black male photographers wanted to take control of their own images – their humanity.” The empowering agency necessary for the implementation of such an editorial project is an effective way for photographers to come into existence as authors of their images. In the introduction to the first volume, Clayton Riley suggested that The Black Photographers Annual enabled an “awareness of self”. At the time, I understood this phrase in line with consciousness-raising practices in the broader political context of 1970s America and its possible links with the affirmation of the African-American photographers’ “photographic identity”.

Of the forty-nine photographers published in The Black Photographers Annual, I remember being struck by Smith’s portfolio. More specifically, the second photograph piqued my interest when I realised that the silhouette in the lower left corner could be the reflection of the photographer holding her camera with both hands. Through a game of reflections, that can sometimes make us lose our spatial cues, the figure of – what I still hope is – Smith comes into being. The relationship between the photographic process and that of the construction of an identity was asserted by Smith as early as 1973 as quoted in her bio from The Black Photographers Annual: “My photographs attempt to open the passageway to my understanding of myself.” A passage Smith would take throughout her career, making her self-portraits some of the most interesting aspects of her work. Seeing herself, beyond imposed images.

As Neelika Jayawardane wrote: “When Smith picks up her camera and photographs the intimacy of her face and body in a multitude of situations and places, it is a response to her own beautiful aliveness, her situatedness within a moving world.” Framing herself at the bottom of the picture is something she would do again in the 1989 self-portrait with her Canon camera, where, against the backdrop of a floral wallpaper, she contorts her torso in order to aim at a mirror, the reflected image revealing the upper part of her face, the skin of her back and her hand, once again, holding her camera. This image ought to be considered in line with the long and popular tradition of women photographers’ self-portraits-with-their-cameras, as exemplified by one of Smith’s friends and influences, Lisette Model – from the 1955 half-naked bathroom picture to the 1982 Paris hotel room photograph.

In one of the interviews published in her monograph, Smith stated: “being a photographer was a journey that was about my conversation with my camera.” Smith’s photographic practice is undoubtedly marked by experimentation, offering several departures and different arrivals around her identity as a photographer, a woman, an African-American, a dancer, a music-lover, etc. – an idea echoed by Trinh T. Minh-ha in When the Moon Waxes Red (1991): “Since identity can very well speak its plurality without suppressing its singularity, heterologies of knowledge give all practices of the self a festively vertiginous dimension.” Time and time again, Smith dared to turn her lens towards herself because of the urgency of affirming her kaleidoscopic being to the world. For being the first African-American female photographer to be collected by MoMA did not, according to her, make much of a difference in her life, and certainly did not interrupt the process of her own recognition and self-affirmation as a photographer.

As a model, dancer and jazz-enthusiast, performativity played a central role in Smith’s self-portraits, as exemplified in Me as Marilyn (1991) or Self-Portrait as Josephine (1986), the latter serving as a clear homage to Josephine Baker but perhaps also to Katherine Dunham, whose “Technique” Smith learnt when she arrived in New York from Ohio. In his book In the Break (2003), Fred Moten pointed out that “black performance has always been the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus – invagination, rupture, collision, augmentation.” A quality we can also easily find in Smith’s 1990s Ellen Gallagher-esque collage of a 1972 self-portrait. The multitude of her self-portraits – their heterogeneity and transformability – work as an emancipatory practice. Not published in the book, and yet essential in the construction of the self through the image, is her 1986 self-portrait as she is breast-feeding her son – an image taken ten years after Deborah Willis’ triptych, I Made Space for a Good Man (1975-76), entitled after a Philadelphia College of Art professor told then-art student Willis that “a good man could have been in [her] seat.” Performing maternity for their cameras states something about female photographic experiences, disobeying traditional considerations about the constructed image of The Photographer as male and White. As bell hooks wrote in Art on My Mind (1995): “to transgress we must return to the body.” We could also mention Diane Arbus’ 1945 self-portrait with her daughter, Doon, where, once again, the maternal body is at the centre of an experimentation with the photographic medium and still asserts desire and reflexivity.

I could write many more words on Smith’s self-portraits; I could also write about Smith’s photographic walks into the night, her spirituality, the blurs, the paint, the poetic titles, the light and the darkness, the phonic substance and the auratic nature of her photographs – and a lot of people have been very good at doing just that. But when reading the interviews Smith gave about her practice, I am struck by the lexicon of sensuality used by the photographer to describe her relationship to image-making. The inexpressible in the expressed. Smith often states that she “follow[s] [her] impulses”, or that photographic discovery is “a turn-on for [her]”. Yxta Maya Murray even wrote that “she picked up her Canon and held it to her face as if it were a lover.”

So I wonder, should we not start considering Smith through the prism of the erotic? Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation (1966) and Trinh (1991) argued for “an erotics of art”; Moten too, speaking of Duke Ellington’s music (2003), spoke of an “erotics of the cut”. As such, should we not consider an erotics of Smith’s practice? After all, the cover of Smith’s monograph is her photograph entitled Male Nude, New York (1977). But what inspires me the most to make this point is Audre Lorde’s essay “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”, published in Sister Outsider (1984). For the African-American writer, poet, feminist and civil rights activist, the erotic needs to be understood as a creative power: “We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.” And she added: “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” Perhaps all that is left here for me is to invite you to have a look at Smith’s monograph, as an introduction to her work and an invitation to read between the lines, with Lorde’s words in mind.♦

Images courtesy the artist and Aperture © Ming Smith

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.

Top 10

Photobooks of 2018

Selected by Tim Clark

An annual tribute to the most exceptional photo book releases from 2018 – selected by our Editor in Chief, Tim Clark.

In association with Spectrum.

1. Carmen Winant, My Birth
Self Publish, Be Happy Editions

My Birth by Carmen Winant is perhaps this year’s standout title from Bruno Ceschel’s famed Self Publish, Be Happy enterprise. Yet it is also utterly unlike any other. Deftly fusing image and text, the book – a facsimile of the artist’s own journal – combines photographs of Winant’s mother giving birth to her three children alongside found imagery of other, anonymous women undergoing the same experience. This visual strategy aims at “the flattening of cross-generational time and feeling”, while the title is a nod to Frida Kahlo’s 1932 painting of the same name. Immediate, precarious and utterly vulnerable, Winant’s project, which coincided with an on-site installation at MoMA’s Being: New Photography 2018, is also bold and fearless. Sensitive to the world, and to the world of images, My Birth asks probing questions that move beyond transgression to open up a space for considering childbirth and its representation as a political act.

2. Zanele Muholi, Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness
Aperture Foundation

What really matters now are the needs that art answers, and visual activist Zanele Muholi always delivers with great rigour. Having first emerged as a photographic spokesperson of members of the black queer community in South Africa and beyond, her long-awaited monograph sees Muholi turn the camera on herself to powerful effect. This arresting collection of more than 90 theatrical self-portraits first reclaim and then reimagine the black subject again in ways that resist, confront and challenge complacency to racism – both historic and contemporary. During these times when violence, misogyny and even white supremacy are rife, the photographs’ accumulative presence flies in the face of stereotypes and oppressive standards of beauty.

3. Raymond Meeks, Halfstory Halflife
Chose Commune

This is the kind of pleasurable photography that approaches something so eloquent yet understated but which we cannot altogether grasp. Master of the quiet photograph, Raymond Meeks is also a prolific photo book maker. Meeks’ current collaboration with Chose Commune bears all the hallmarks of his lyrical explorations; strong narrative and occasional riffs off poetry and short fiction, all the while concentrating on the symbiotic relationship between family, memory and a sense of place. Here, black and white photographs of young men, making their way through openings in hedgerow to access prime spots for river-jumping in the Catskill mountain region of New York, are both visceral and spontaneous. Their pale bodies fling themselves into the dark void, frozen as if mid-flight, pivoting from the point of view of an adult seemingly remembering a moment of fledgling sexuality and uncertain future.

4. Michael Schmelling, Your Blues
Skinnerboox and The Ice Plant

Taken between 2013 and 2014, and shot while on commission for the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Colombia College Chicago, Michael Schmelling’s photographs in Your Blues are our guide through the city’s vibrant and eclectic music scene, where “the dominant form is hybridity”. Musicians and revellers, parties and recording studios, lovers and strangers all collide, depicted through casual views and with feelings of familiarity. This then forms a ripe photographic account of the varying degrees of individualism within this community. Blues, punk, hip hop, psychedelic jazz, emo, hardcore and house music are all part of Chicago’s cultural inheritance and encompassed here via Schmelling’s vignettes and reflections on niche and local performers in unconventional venues. Akin to a novel of images, Your Blues provides a noteworthy contribution to this year’s offerings.

5. Max Pinckers, Margins of Excess

A response to the ‘post-truth’ era, Max Pinckers’ speculative documentary work revolves around the narratives of six protagonists who all momentarily achieved infamy in the US only to be ousted as fakes or frauds by the media. Such highly-idiosyncratic stories range from a self-invented love story set in a Nazi concentration camp to a man compulsively hijacking trains. With fever-dream urgency, Margins of Excess brings together fragments of these lives through staged photography, archival material, interviews and press clippings: the explicit folding of imagination into imaging “in which truths, half-truths, lies, fiction or entertainment are easily interchanged.” Pinckers’ take on embracing reality in all its complexity via this particular strand of storytelling offers an interesting reminder: that contemporary documentary practice might be more productively considered as small arguments, gestures or even critical methods.

6. Michelle Dizon and Việt Lê, White Gaze
Sming Sming Books

Readers of 1000 Words will recall the recent magazine feature on this gem of a photo book from collaborative duo Michelle Dizon and Việt Lê, which deserves much wider recognition in light of its poetry, playfulness, acuity and, most crucially, decolonising strategies. Intellectually energetic, White Gaze repurposes imagery from National Geographic to confront notions of white privilege and Western-centrism by reworking and negating image and text from the publication’s original pages. Countless uncomfortable truths hidden at the bottom of every lie, every act of denial or white complicity, come to bear through the interplay of the two languages, critiquing how meaning is constructed to administer imperialist narratives and racist histories.

7. Mimi Plumb, Landfall
TBW Books

As far as great discoveries go, the case of Mimi Plumb’s resurfaced archive has been a fairly recent but major breakthrough. Having taught photography throughout much of her career at San Jose State University and San Francisco Art Institute in the US, it has only been during the past five years that her work has really come to light following the 2014 exhibition of her Pictures from the Valley series. Now, a collection of images taken throughout the 1980s have been published by TBW Books under the title, Landfall, containing black and white photographs full of foreboding and unease, yet always delicate and beautiful in register. They appear to encapsulate a time when the world at large seemed out of kilter – with obvious parallels to our present moment. Stylistically, too, there’s a whiff of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Henry Wessel to these images that certainly will not fade quickly.

8. Chloe Dewe Mathews, Caspian: The Elements
Aperture Foundation and Peabody Museum Press

It’s heartening to observe this renewed period for Aperture Foundation’s photo book publishing arm, albeit still very traditional in format. One of its many great, recent titles comes courtesy of British photographer and filmmaker Chloe Dewe Mathews who spent five years roaming the borderlands of the Caspian Sea, where Asia seamlessly merges into Europe, to come away with a compelling record of the region’s complex geopolitical trevails. Much of this of course is largely bound up in the singular importance of gas and oil reserves and the disparate economies of bordering countries – Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – but it’s Mathews’ receptiveness and examination of the ties between people and the landscape, as well as the religious, artistic and therapeutic aspects of daily life, that are so intriguing.

9. Thomas Demand, The Complete Papers

While there is obviously no equivalent experience to viewing a Thomas Demand artwork at its intended size and scale, this new volume on the oeuvre of the acclaimed German artist more than makes up for it in scope, depth and scholarship. Edited by Christy Lange, and with texts from voices as diverse as the novelist Jeff Euginedes to curator Francesco Bonami, The Complete Papers provides a hugely comprehensive view of Demand’s past three decades of artistic production. Known for using pre-existing images culled from the media, routinely with political undertones, which he then recreates from cardboard and paper at 1:1 scale before photographing the assembled scene, admirers of the work will no doubt appreciate hitherto unseen pieces from the early 1990s when he first started making paper constructions for this sole purpose of photographing them. With the customary bibliography and full exhibitions listing, this is a researcher’s dream. A catalogue raisonné of the highest order.

10. Sunil Gupta, Christopher Street, 1976

Sunil Gupta’s Christopher Street, 1976 performs an act of personal remembrance by bringing together photographs shot in in New York when the artist spent a year studying photography with Lisette Model in between cruising the city’s streets with his camera; part of a burgeoning, proud and public gay scene prior to ensuing AIDS epidemic that subsequently sent it underground. The photo book is minimally designed, presenting one black and white photograph on each right-hand page in a spiral-bound volume, marking the latest release in Stanley/Barker’s small but judicious selection of titles. It celebrates both a key moment in Gupta’s identity and the political value embedded in the struggle for LGBT liberation, the consequences of which were far-reaching.

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and since 2008, has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words. 

Top 10

Photobooks of 2016

Selected by Tim Clark

An annual tribute to the most exceptional photobook releases from the year that was – selected by our Editor in Chief.

1. Gregory Halpern: ZZYZX

Once the hype subsides, and you let Gregory Halpern’s images bathe you in glorious California sunlight, it’s clear to see why ZZYZX was named Photobook of the Year at The Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards. MACK’s production is sumptuous and as far as photography goes Halpern’s is of the highest order.

The book takes us on a journey, starting at the desert east of Los Angeles, across the city and up to the Pacific Ocean but seen through the filter of Halpern’s ineffable vision, it is in fact more akin to somnambulation. Images depict odd characters and quiet moments – things observed, rendered through description and suggestion – which on accumulation build up a picture of a sort of Babylon on the brink of collapse. With an untold narrative, contained but concealed, we slowly feel the burning desire for a place; a dreamed-of place since, as Italo Calvino one wrote, “desires are already memories”.

2. Edmund Clark and Crofton Black: Negative Publicity
Aperture/Magnum Foundation

Part research document, part exhibition catalogue and part dossier, Negative Publicity presents a complex and multi-layered reflection on the CIA’s programme of ‘extraordinary rendition’. Clark has turned his camera to spaces and surfaces that contain a hidden, violent tension, those which stand in for the countless people who have disappeared into a mysterious prison network – the vanishing point for the law. Yet no drama is pictured here, just the drama of a picture. Collaborating with counter-terrorism expert Crofton Black, he has paired images and redacted documents to interrogate the nature of contemporary warfare and invisible mechanisms of state control. A book that really matters.

3. Sara-Lena Maierhofer: Dear Clark; Portrait of a Con Man
Drittel Books

Sara-Lena Maierhofer has made it her business to tell the tale of a real-life imposter who went by the name of Clark Rockefeller, among other personas, having passed himself off as a scion of the wealthy family. Dear Clark pieces together remnants of his life, through material such as birth certificates, brain scans and family photographs alongside images that speak to key themes of multiplicity and transformation. The book’s material qualities are almost akin to installation with design touches like tipped-in images that perfectly heighten the searching quality of the project. Reality and fantasy, fact and fiction are masterfully at play here as Maierhofer makes tremendous art out of deception and the corrosive effects of lies.

4. Michael Hoppen Gallery: Evidence Case File
Guiding Light

This richly illustrated, cleverly designed book offers a small but brilliant insight into the collection of reknown photography dealer Michael Hoppen. In parallel to The Image as Question: An Exhibition of Evidential Photography, recently on display at the eponymous London gallery, it sets out to disturb the big claims of photography as ‘record’ or ‘proof’. A judicious selection of works harks back to the medium’s 19th century origins and also includes images from 20th century stalwarts as well as contemporary artists. The book empties images of their original evidential function and reconceptualises them in a new context and in a new time. Questioning what a ‘fact’ is a well-trodden area of investigation yet the presentation, editing, sequence and paper choices are very well-measured and all equally important to the publication as various parts separately. Rewards the curious.

5. Laia Abril: Lobismuller
Editorial RM/Images Vevey

Laia Abril is continually on the up and the photobook has always been an essential part of her output. Just recently-released, Lobismuller sees the Catalan artist produce a meditation in photography and text upon Spain’s first documented serial killer. The Werewolf of Allariz, known as Manuel Blanco Romasanta was originally named Manuela since it was initially believed he was a woman. This central figure was also dubbed the ‘Soapmaker’, owing to his habit of using the fat of victims to produce high-quality soap. Gender issues, psychology, landscape, mythology and folklore… the mesmerising story is wrapped upon layer of exquisite literary narrative. Between each image and each piece of text, a creepy affinity can be established, demonstrating Abril’s fluidity between medium and genre, which has come to characterise her practice.

6. Todd Hido: Intimate Distance

This is a lavish monograph befitting one of the most influential US photographers. Todd Hido’s unique brand of cinematic spectatorship is surveyed en masse in Intimate Distance, bringing together twenty-five years of photographs full of substance and thickness of atmosphere. The book tracks the development of a career via Hido’s overlapping motifs and preoccupations: disarming nudes, smudged landscapes and interiors or housing lit up as if glowing chambers, inviting us to consider his world-as-image and rethink his oeuvre from a fresh perspective. The need to know oneself and the fear of self-knowing find their beautiful expression here. His is an art of longing.

7. Francesca Catastini: The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

“Knowledge is not made for understanding, it is made for cutting,” reads the Michel Foucault quote that appears in the postscript to Francesca Catastini’s The Modern Spirit is Vivisective. It serves as a useful coda for considering the work. True to its title, this handsome book is an investigation into the process of studying human anatomy, combining the artist’s own photographs with vernacular images of old anatomy lessons, illustrations from Renaissance manuals, complemented with scientific, literary, and philosophical texts. Using chapters as its organising system – On Looking, On Canon Lust, On Touching, On Cutting, On Discovering – the book reveals a great capacity for sequencing images, and the possibility to conceive of them as a form of literature.

8. David Fahti: Wolfgang

Gathered on the pages of David Fahti’s Wolfgang are black and white photographs sprinkled with quotations from Wolfgang Pauli, a pioneer of quantum physics also held responsible for a large number of unexplainable failures of equipment at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland. Countless accidents, surprises and flashes of unlikely beauty and absurd humour work to conjure up Pauli’s omnipresence despite his absence in the images. Skinnerboox enlisted celebrated book designer Ramon Pez to step in and around the project and the production is all the better for it. A sum of its wonders; art, design, photography, science and history collide and fuse together to powerful effect.

9. Tito Mouraz: The House of The Seven Women
Dewi Lewis Publishing

Misty forests, bemused animals, brooding portraits and delipidated out-houses are just some of the gothic-infused imagery on display in Tito Mouraz’s The House of The Seven Women. They are visual elements invoked to give material form to a myth of the Beira-Alta region of Portugal, where the photographer was born and raised – that of a house believed to be haunted by the ghosts of seven sisters, including one witch. Strange happenings were said to occur on the occasion of a full moon, namely the women would fly from their balcony to a tree opposite and seduce passers by. An eerie and enigmatic mood piece, the work translates brilliantly to book form, classical and full of craft.

10. Adam Golfer: A House Without a Roof
Booklyn Press

The complicated histories of founding the state of Israel and the subsequent violence and displacement of Palestinians as a result of military occupation serve as the subject for this debut book from photographer Adam Golfer. A House Without a Roof draws on his own personal past and familial connections to the place to form an interesting, first person perspective while foregoing any conclusion about its troubled present. This is not easily reducible or categorisable work and Golfer deftly blends Internet-sourced imagery, archival material and extensive use of text with his photographs of the ongoing conflict, as seen at ground level. At least, it transmits the disorienting sense of an outsider locating oneself within a historic ‘home’, constructed through both real and imagined narratives. 

Tim Clark is a curator, writer and editor. Since 2008 he has been Editor in Chief and Director at 1000 Words Photography Magazine. Previously Associate Curator at Media Space, The Science Museum in London, exhibitions he worked on included Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy (2015) and Gathered Leaves: Photographs by Alec Soth (2015-2018), a major, mid-career touring retrospective. He has also organised many exhibitions independently, most recently Peter Watkins: The Unforgetting at Webber Gallery (2017) and Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers at Flowers Gallery (2014), featuring works he commissioned by Tereza Zelenkova, Virgilio Ferreira, Lucy Levene and Henrik Malmstrom. Together with Greg Hobson he has curated Photo Oxford 2017, which featured numerous solo presentations by artists such as Edgar Martins, Mariken Wessels, Martin Parr and Sergei Vasiliev and Arkady Bronnikov from The Russian Criminal Tattoo Archive among others. His writing has appeared in FOAMTIME LightboxThe TelegraphThe Sunday TimesPhotoworks and The British Journal of Photography, as well as in exhibition catalogues and photobooks. He is also a visiting lecturer on the MA in Photography at NABA Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti Milano.

Susan Bright

Curator and Author of Feast for the Eyes: The Story of Food in Photography


For the latest instalment in our Interviews series Sabine Mirlesse catches up with curator Susan Bright in her adopted city of Paris to discusses various burning issues relating to photography and the culture that surrounds it. From the unfair dismissal of fashion photography to the trials and tribulations of a practice-based PhD in curating to reflections on the photobook craze and the under representation of women photography professionals on boards, panel discussions and juries, it’s all broached here. She also unveils her forthcoming curatorial and book projects, exclusive to 1000 Words.

Sabine Mirlesse: Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you choose photography?

Susan Bright: Initially, I didn’t choose photography, I chose art. I studied art history and then art theory and came to photography (as a career) somewhat circuitously. By the time I had finished my masters in art theory I knew I wanted to be a curator, but the fact that was going to be with photography had not settled. Through a series of encounters and some missteps I ended up volunteering at the V&A in the photographs collection. I applied as I had bought Mark Haworth Booth’s book An Independent Art and I was very taken with the way that he approached art through social history and a history of the museum. It was whilst I was interning that my commitment to photography was cemented. From that internship I got a job as Assistant Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery in London. By then I never doubted my career would be in photography. I was very lucky to learn the basics at two of the very best institutions in the UK.

SM: I think I also have to ask you the obvious question; have you ever attempted being a photographer yourself? It’s something you always wonder about curators and writers on the subject, if they ever gave it a shot from the other side initially…

SB: People outside of photography ask me this question all the time, but this is the first time in an interview and it’s rather refreshing. People outside of photography are always so incredulous that I don’t take pictures and find it somehow ‘ironic’. I smile, and ask patiently if a sports manager is also a professional athlete, an editor also a novelist or if a DJ creates their own music. Then they kind of get it, but not really. Often people outside of art and photography really don’t know what I do, but let’s be honest, most don’t really care either. If I worked for an institution it would make it all much easier, and to an outsider big names are impressive and have clout. Working with museums rather than for them tends to cause confusion.

Curators within museums often come from a more traditional art history or history route and at smaller or commercial galleries the staff have often studied photography and then realised that they did not want to be photographers but wanted to work with it somehow. So no, I have never attempted to be a photographer. I did contemplate doing ceramics for an undergraduate degree, but panicked at the last minute and thought that I should get a ‘proper’ qualification. It’s not something I have ever regretted, or indeed even thought about until now.

SM: Why do you have an affinity for fashion photography?

SB: I have always been interested in fashion photography. If I think back to the first photography I really loved as a teenager it was fashion and music photography, which of course are often intertwined. I grew up in the 1980s – how could I not be interested in music and fashion? I had a lot of postcards, records, magazines and posters. It’s just always been there as an interest. It’s not like I follow every fashion photographer religiously but I do turn to it when I am bored of art photography and it feels so refreshing and vibrant. Looking at vintage fashion work tells you so much about the time, especially about attitudes to women. I think I read them a bit more like social history documents. And of course they look fantastic on the whole and are unfairly dismissed as being superficial, which I think is nonsense. Fashion is about identity and artistry and how can that be anything but fascinating. Of course the commercial forces often dictate more than they should in how the images are formed, but you can look beyond the mainstream for work that is utterly vital and vibrant.

SM: For example?

SB: An example of this a small publication of nudes instigated by Dan Thawley who is the Editor in Chief of A Magazine Curated by. It is a riposte to a monograph by photographer Jean Clemmer published in 1969 which was daring, provocative, sexy but needless to say sexist. The clothes were Paco Rabanne’s sculptural garments and are reminiscent of a kind of sexual liberation chain mail if you can imagine such a thing. Dan asked the French designer Julien Dossena, the now head of Paco Rabanne, to ‘curate’ a series of photographs – mostly nude, but also with some of the vintage sculptural pieces. The photographer is Coco Cápitan and she revisited the original publication and shot a portfolio in the grounds of Villa Noailles (a 1920s Modernist Villa in Hyères on the French Riviera). The resulting magazine is an edition of 1000 and starts with a incredibly smart interview between Dan and Jean Clemmer about femininity, the body, the gaze, complexity of design and the sexualisation of women today. The photographs are interspersed with short poems by Cápitan in her childlike handwriting. The photographs reference and update the original book and the heritage of the Paco Rabanne brand. They are gentle black and whites done with humour, gusto, sensitivity and sensuality. The models have agency and attitude and are not just passive male fantasies. Their sexuality is very much their own and there is a freedom in a way that the 1960s sexual revolution did not really offer women a freedom at all. In a way the photographs are devoid of voyeurism (as much as is possible when photographing nudes).

SM: What is our forthcoming food photography book with the Aperture Foundation about?

SB: If any photography has been unfairly dismissed in the canonical history of photography then it is definitely that of food. My interest was first sparked when I was working on the Tate show with Val Williams and through conversations with Simon Watney. We included some Good Housekeeping cookbooks in How We Are and they said so much about 1950s and 1960s Britain – the rise of package holidays through references to Scandinavian salads and other ‘exotic’ European dishes, the desire to keep women in home after the war (the introduction is so sexist it will make you gasp), the advent of colour photography in publishing as brought to the UK by émigrés from Germany, the aspirational nature of the British middle classes (as can be even more apparent through into the 1970s with plays such as Abigail’s Party and TV like The Good Life), immigration, trade and empire through the growing popularity of curry and availability of capsicum. The photographs look so kitsch and rather disgusting to contemporary eyes. So many years later I met my editor Denise Wolff at Aperture and we find out we share a common interest in how food is photographed. We knew we had to do this book. It coincides with a glut of food photographs appearing on social networking and photo sharing sites (which again are really never about the food, but aspiration mostly), and a very concentrated interest in food politics and health. The book runs chronologically and covers many aspects of how food is photographed – cookbooks, adverts, art, packaging, fashion etc. I address how food is imaged and the complex questions about consumption, desire, pleasure, class, mortality and domesticity that arise from the act of photographing it.

SM: Aspiration for what, the same as the 1970s British middle classes as you mentioned? What would you say they aspired to for example?

SB: No, the aspiration now is very different. An Instagramed $12 ice cream is showing you can afford that and have the life style to match – it’s more about public showing off. Aspiration in 1970s Britain was more complex in a way. Young adults would have remembered the war, the rationing and their ideas of luxury were very different from what we consider today. Steak, salmon, brie would all be seen as luxury items and the idea of wasting food was totally frowned upon. Dinner parties were seen as extravagant. There is so much of British identity that was sewn into escaping this. Jonathan Coe writes about this brilliantly in novels such as The Rotter’s Club.

SM: What made you want to do a PhD? Tell me about your thesis. Tell me what you hope this new title will bring you.

SB: I knew I wanted to do a curatorial project on motherhood with the birth of my daughter. I figured that if I was going to spend years researching it then it would be good to have some institutional support and a structure in which to frame the research as the subject is so vast. I also wanted to rethink my relationship to curating which had been on rather a frenetic path. I wanted to take a breath to think through the changes in photography and my relationship to it too. The PhD process certainly allowed me to do all of those things. By giving me the opportunity to read widely around new developments in photography and how that affects curating I have come back to curating so much more informed. To have the time to step out and reconsider was a luxury in many ways.

So my PhD is practice-based in curating, which means I write a thesis and present my practice, (which is the exhibition Home Truths). In the thesis I investigate contemporary ‘maternal ambivalence’, which I define as stemming from a reaction to social norms, expectations and the cultural conditions. I use the literary frame of ‘life narrative’ to examine maternal ambivalence in the artworks I curated, contextualising these within depictions of mothering in the larger photographic culture of motherhood.

SM: Could you elaborate on some of these depictions?

SB: These depictions were directly dealt with in a digital display I curated with Katrina Sluis titled Motherlode, which was shown at The Photographers’ Gallery at the same time as Home Truths. These include tropes that easily categorised into generic lists of activities including: the sexy nude pregnant portrait, the post-birth snap-back-into-shape transformation, cute outings with children, loving husbands (and a lack of nannies), and going back to work within weeks – the latter putting huge moral pressure on the idea that mothering itself is not a socially or economically significant activity.

At the heart of all my research lies an investigation into different maternal life narratives (in literature and social networking and art photography) and how exhibitions have to respond to autobiographical approaches in photography as we increasingly experience them on the web. As to what the new title will bring me I don’t know. Very little probably.

SM: Very little because a PhD in art is not appreciated or valued in some way?

SB: No, it is valued and appreciated but it will not change my job nor will it change my pay scale or make any other tangible difference. The title is just that and I do not really care for titles. The process of doing it has been vital to me and I believe it has made me a better writer and researcher and prepared me with tools to explore deeper into issues that I perhaps would not have done so before.

SM: What do you think about the photobook craze?

SB: I come to the photobook from the receiving end rather than the making end. So on one hand I can see it’s a great way for photographers and artists to see their work realised, allowing them to be able to do this easily and exactly how they like it though self-publishing. The flip side to that ease is there are an awful lot of not very good books out there. To make a book it has to make sense of the work… I don’t feel it always does. Also with self-publishing numbers are small, and the collectors smaller so I would question if artists are really ‘getting their work out there’. If they want their work to be seen, then obviously the web is the best place for that.

I attend events like Offprint and the New York Art Book Fair and I feel like I am in a totally alien environment. I tend to go with friends who collect and I realise I don’t share their passion. They are fascinating to me… their knowledge and hunger is obsessional. It’s like being with people who are obsessed with vinyl or even stamps, it just happens to be photobooks, but more than that it’s about collecting – having the latest, having them all. And when I am at events like Off Print and NYABF I ask myself where are the women? They are not starting up small publishing houses, they are not buying in the same way men do and they are not represented in the books in the same way. There is absolutely no reason for this, if ever there should be a field that is not gender biased then it’s the making of photobooks, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case. I only buy what I really love (and one artist for investment) and recently got rid of 7 huge boxes of books. It felt wonderful. Having so many photobooks got really oppressive – I am really selective now. It has to be pretty special to make the cut.

SM: What happened to the seven huge boxes of books? I often wonder about where all the mediocre limited edition self published books end up…

SB: Those seven boxes of books went to the Library at the Paris College of Art. I think students will benefit from them a great deal more than I will.

SM: You are also a teacher. Can you tell me what you think has changed in terms of how photography is being taught at higher education levels? What’s your take on the whole MFA trend – is it just a cool club that leaves you in loads of debt or something you’d recommend for a young artist wanting to move forward?

SB: I teach very little nowadays – just one class a semester that I team-teach at Paris College of Art. I started teaching about ten years ago and very little has changed. To be honest it often leaves me very disillusioned and I think the whole state/public tertiary education system is a mess and one that is under huge commercial pressures that do not always serve students well. Classes are getting bigger and the prices are getting higher. I have reached a point now where I think that alternative workshops and events and private colleges might give photographers a better education in some ways. I am a huge advocate for state education and it saddens me to say this. Having said that I do think MFAs can be incredible. For a photographer to do one it shows they are serious about what they are doing and can certainly give them access to not only equipment but also different voices that may challenge them to think about photography differently and their practice more specifically. It also introduces them to their peers – this is something that I don’t think students realise is incredibly valuable. The money situation is certainly an issue – a big one – but overall I would recommend a MFA for a young artist wanting to move forward. Where that is done, how it is done (part time, full time or intensive) should be meticulously researched so that it’s absolutely the right decision.

SM: What are your reflections on being an independent curator rather than being attached to one institution? What are some of the pros and cons of being free as a bird? I know you’ve been approached regularly for fancy positions, if I’m allowed to keep it vague but mention it just the same. You turn them down each time?

SB: I think the ‘proper job’ is something that plays on all independents’ minds. It goes with the territory. Being independent is not a secure position, you either rise to it or you don’t. You are either suited to it or not. What comes along with it are existential crashes of confidence, panic about what you ‘should’ be doing, comparisons with those in institutions, and other such human moments. These feelings are part and parcel of the lives of those who are not attached to a job (and perhaps also those who have a regular job too). But what I know is these feelings are same for writers, actors, and artists, everyone who has chosen a slightly different route. And to make matters worse they are all are exacerbated with age. The advantages of working independently are endless as I see them – these include flexibility, lack of boring meetings, more freedom to work on projects of your own doing, a faster turn around etc. Cons include: lack of support, nice colleagues, and of course the regular pay cheque. In some ways the grass is always greener though. As you mentioned I have been approached for some quite prestigious positions. My ego goes crazy until I read the job spec and I think ‘I don’t want to do that’. It’s always such a surprise as I guess I still think that is what I want to do, or what I should be doing, or what I have been working towards. The life I have been able to make for myself always seems more appealing when it comes down to it. So I will keep working independently until a job or my life situation needs or wants it. When I read a job that comes up favourably I will go for it. I honestly don’t know what that would be or where, but I always keep an open mind to it. I have just moved to France and have the language barrier to consider, so in a way I have perhaps unconsciously (or perhaps it was consciously) made a situation for myself where I have to carry on doing what I do. Life comes in phases – now I am closing my PhD I feel like my life is taking off a bit again after five years of knuckling down and researching and writing. I feel like I can take more on now, travel more and think more widely about where my career might lead, what is important to me, and also the possibilities of photography. It feels fantastic!

SM: Can you unleash your thoughts on the representation or lack thereof of women photography professionals on boards, panel discussions and juries? You boycotted Photo London 2016 for this reason I remember so I believe you have some strong opinions about it (rightly so!)

SB: I think with these things you always have to look at numbers. It’s a simple matter of counting and then you can see the disparity easily. With Photo London I counted up the female/male ratio and it did not look good. I have just looked at the archive. It proudly says there are over 50 events – on the archive there are seven women. This does not include panels. There is a panel on journalism in a Digital Age (five on the panel – one woman). And there is a panel on women photographers (titled Loose Women!) If there was a better spread of women on the overall programming there would be no need for a separate panel. You don’t want to get me started on the representation of anyone of colour! There may have been more women in the full programme – but I am sure it was not one that showed an even spread. It’s SO EASY to prevent this. I makes me tired that I still have to say this. We all have a responsibility regardless of our gender to make sure there is an even and fair spread of all people, all types of photography and all ages, race, sexuality etc represented in a big event like this.

But you see it over and over. I have lost count of the amount of panels I have been on where I am the token woman. People wonder why women drop out of photography – but if you can’t see it you can’t be it. How are young female students supposed to feel inspired by female mentors, photographers, etc when they are simply not visible? Also look at agencies like Magnum – how many women are there in their 40s and 50s in comparison with the men? Again, I am just looking at numbers. Go back twenty years of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize and count. The thing is when I teach there are predominantly young women in the class, so what happens between then and being awarded or nominated for prestigious prizes such as the Deutsche Börse? That prize is nominated by shows and books – for me the simple answer is to be sure that women are given shows and publishing opportunities so that they can then be more likely to be nominated. It’s a constant effort all of the time for everyone. I think as we are entering a period of revised misogyny, homophobia and racism in the culture at large it’s especially important to stress this. With juries I have to say it’s a different story, I have found them always to have a better spread.

SM: I recently was discussing with someone how often the role of the gallerist or the photo editor is a woman and the photographer/artist is a man. Do you agree? Why do you think that is?

SB: I read an interesting interview with Max Houghton recently who said, “We have a set up a wonderful service industry around male artists; there are lots of models that show this: the gallery, the magazine, the museum.” I have been mulling this over ever since I read it. It also goes back to teaching and all those young women who by the end of their degree have no desire to be a photographer but want to work within photography. I am not sure I would go so far as to say we have a service industry but there are certainly a lot of women working within museums, magazines and galleries, but there are also men. Looking at some of the new high-profile appointments in museums they all went to men. I would certainly say in the UK and US the majority of assistant curators and curatorial assistants are women in the major institutions. It then begs the question why all these women are not more invited onto panels. But honestly, I don’t know why there are not more female photographers and artists in the mix. Again it goes back to making sure they are not working in vain and are getting the exposure and fair representation through publishing and exhibitions and in the market (by which I mean the auction houses– rather than commercial galleries. The former is still very much pushing and promoting the dead white American male, which are the big sellers).

SM: Let’s talk about being sick of photography and what you turn to for inspiration when that happens?

SB: I don’t really get sick of photography – but I do get sick of the culture around it. The same names writing in the magazines, the same artists getting shows and being represented by commercial galleries. It makes me feel claustrophobic and the whole thing can feel village-like. When this reaches fever pitch I tune out and turn to literature – always. Fiction mostly, but also social histories and memoir feature heavily on my reading lists. I also read a huge amount of children’s stories. But then something shifts and I am into it again. I have to say this usually comes from something fictional I have read that leads me back to thinking about the medium in a different way. Or I just go to a wonderful show and get excited by the possibility of an exhibition – the curated space is totally inspiring to me. I have taken to going to shows at night so they feel more like theatre, this simple shift in time and atmosphere really makes a difference and adds a drama that is missing in daylight.

SM: How about this exhibition on death you are preparing? Can you tell me about it?

SB: I am co-curating this with the artist and scholar Ruth Rosengarten. We joined forces as the topic represents the area where our research interests intersect and overlap: mine in the autobiographic turn in photography, Ruth’s in family archives and the blogs and photobooks that track the trajectory of an illness. We have noticed how over the past few decades, photographic images have proliferated (whether in exhibitions, photobooks or online on blogs, image-sharing sites or social media) focusing on the aged and the terminally ill. This coincides with two interrelated factors: on the one hand, a cultural turn towards the autobiographic, finding expression in texts, films and the expanded field of self-portrait photography; on the other hand, the spread of what has come to be termed the “grief memoir” and of the idea of working through feelings of loss.

Despite the creative freedom granted by digital imaging many artists continue to use photography as a means of holding onto evanescent time and encapsulating moments as they evaporate. This, of course, is key to much theoretical thinking around photography and death where death is ensnared in the history of photography itself, in particular in the wake of Camera Lucida.

SM: One of my favourite passages on the notion was part of an essay written by Eduardo Cadava in the collected writings on Camera Lucida edited by Geoffrey Batchen, Photography Degree Zero. I like it so much I have it tacked to my website. It’s about photography condensing the relation between the dead and the living. I think one of the reasons it appeals to me as well is because it explains in a nutshell the spiritual aspect of photography. Yes I said spiritual. Yes you just cringed I think.

SB: Well I think that idea works up to a point and certainly with photographs that document an event, but the counter-idea of the photographic image as a construct or invention has also had a place in the ever-growing genre of photographs of the aged and dying. When a photograph is made or staged I am not sure that idea translates to the more expanded ideas around photography.

The constructed image, since the very inception of photography in the 19th century, and shadowing empirical, documentary image-capture like an uncanny doppelganger, has existed photography that avows its own inherent artifice, its status as fabricated object. This can be seen in the one of the first photographs ever made (Hippolyte Bayard, Portrait as a Drowned Man, 1847) and the composite Fading Away (1858) by Henry Peach Robinson.

SM: That is to say, people who photograph a fictional death?

SB: Those two examples do but that is not what we are interested in. We have decided to make our starting point for this investigation into a counter history to the subject in the late 1960s and 70s and deal with both ageing and dying. This period saw an increase in documentary styles of photographing the dying, but we wish to step away from the indexical and consider the more metaphorical role of photography – one that relies on fabrication, invention and construct. Artists that fit into this idea include: Helen Chadwick, Jo Spence, Duane Michals, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Stéphanie Beaudoin and Tatsumi Orimoto, for example.

SM: What are some of the first elements you consider when you began the making of an exhibition in general? Can you walk us through your thought process a little?

SB: Every exhibition is different. It can start with an idea or a feeling, which I then drill down to something tighter or it can start with an artwork that I think resonates with another and a theme emerges. I must say I work pretty intuitively and often what I am trying to say comes clearer to me as the project evolves – I guess that is a pretty common creative process. I tend to work very closely with artists – this process reflects the idea of ‘conversation as creative practice’, whereby many private thoughts become public through the act of curation. It’s very much a joint effort. But a lot of curating is hard admin and this needs to be made clear as I think many people are not fully aware of this and think its rather glamorous. There are endless checks on prints, sizes, transport, plans, etc. It’s the beginning and end of the process that feel more fluid and creative. I learn something about the work from every installation. It’s always a wonderful surprise to see something I so clearly have in my head manifest into physical space. It’s like magic.

More recently I am thinking more about what the exhibition space offers and how to make the most of this space – not just in terms of installation but what a physical space can offer an audience that is different from experiencing work on a screen. This can be seen in the long-term discussions I have been having with an artist who is due for a mid-career. But I am not sure what audiences really gain from mid-career retrospectives apart from drawing the threads together. I don’t think that is enough. So we are working on something much more expansive, looking at her influences, obsessions and daily life and how to add those into the mix to give the audience a much clearer idea of what is in the work but not necessarily obvious from looking just at the photographs. It can go any way and can bring in all her artwork that is across other mediums. I want it to feel like a real experience to visit: confronting, surprising and honest in that influences and inspirations can be out in the open. I foresee there may be events and performances too. It’s challenging for both of us, and we are not quite sure how it will pan out, or what kind of venue will be right, but we hope to create something that will hopefully make an audience look at her work anew and open up the possibilities of how we can bring in autobiography into an exhibition in a physical space.

SM: You left New York City for Paris a year ago, a big change! Can you tell me a little about the trajectory of your geography over the years – why you left the UK and then why the move to Paris? Any plans to move back to England? Can you tell me about what the differences between the photo scenes in New York versus Paris versus London are in your experience?

SB: Paris doesn’t really feel like a change in many ways as I am European and am very comfortable with many of the sensibilities – much more so than I ever was in the US. In other ways it’s a huge change, but I think these changes are more personal. As mentioned I am coming to a certain phase of my life with my PhD finishing so that is a big change and my family situation is different. In a good way – Paris marks a change for how we operate as a team and it’s so much more satisfactory for everyone.

I left the UK in 2007, I had had a big year curating Face of Fashion at the National Portrait Gallery and co-curating How We Are at Tate with Val Williams alongside a smaller exhibition about sculpture, abstraction and photography in Oslo. There was a bit of a feeling of what now? I was also pregnant. So what happened was my husband got a job in New York so we decided to go for it. I had always wanted to live there so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to go. We ended up living there for nearly eight years. I never imagined it would be that long. We moved to Paris for many reasons – most of them personal. I really missed Europe and wanted to be ‘home’. Home is Europe, not the UK.

SM: I think you have a better quality of life in Paris than in New York. A number of friends in New York have since left for other cities as well. New York isn’t the affordable place our Baby Boomer parents got to enjoy and make art in anymore. As for photography – I think the US feels a bit more commercial if I’m allowed to sweep it all into one which is pretty unreasonable. There is more community feeling in photography in Paris as well – you see the same people at the same fairs and festivals, it becomes your network and to some degree social circle. In France they are much more romantic about photography, to a fault.

My own observations living in Paris the last five years have led me to become aware of a heightened sense of nostalgia that the French hold for traditional photography – everything from Capa to Cartier Bresson to William Klein. Have you observed that as well? If so what do you think of it? Do you see it as an obstacle or a form of enrichment?

SB: Yes, I think that is a fair observation. Living in different countries you see patterns of how photographic history is played out publicly. These points are generalisations, but in the US I feel there is a hero worship of certain photographers – Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, for example – and this is similar to the way the French revere their heroes. And I think it’s fair to say that Europeans know a lot more about American photography than Americans know about European photography (let alone photography from other parts of the world). I have also found the French still have a great deal of respect for photojournalism even in the gallery world – this is not a sentiment that is generally shared in Britain at all. I think Britain could benefit from promoting and respecting their own – they are still somewhat in thrall of American photography to a degree. But the French sense of nostalgia is an interesting and complex one, which is tied very closely to issues of national identity. I know this sounds woolly, but I think its both an obstacle and a form of enrichment – it all hinges on how it’s curated, what contemporary work its working with (or against). I don’t think it’s enough just to show this kind of work without some kind of curatorial framing or investigation into why its being shown now and what it means to represent the work now. It’s this reframing that I find is sometimes lacking in France.

SM: Do you think there are just too many photographers these days?

SB: No, I think the history of photography is littered with disaster metaphors of abundance, although usually directed at photographs rather than photographers. Think of narratives such as bombardment, floods, feeling overwhelmed etc. Just because anyone with a smart phone takes photographs (and often calls themselves a photographer) it doesn’t mean they are one. If that were the case we would all be writers too – we all write (shopping lists, emails, texts etc) but nobody would say there are too many writers.

SM: If you couldn’t be involved in photography, what other profession would you attempt?

SB: I really, really wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter. But having done a little bit of television I know this would have been a disaster as I am not good on TV. So hopefully I would have discovered this early on and worked in radio which I absolutely love. I think it’s very important medium. The rise of podcasts gives me such pleasure. I have been chatting with a friend about us doing a series about photography – when things settle a bit we will put our minds to it properly.

SM: I had to just quickly google what Blue Peter is, not being British, and it says it oldest television programme for children. I’m sensing a theme here. Am I allowed to mention that one of the first times we hung out you went home and wrote a children’s story about a fictional me? Is it just the endless fantasy of children’s narratives that appeals to you, for almost the same reason that fashion photography does?

SB: I did indeed write a children’s story inspired by you. It has become the first in a trilogy. They are all about two characters who have rich friendships. I think I am immensely interested in the concept of fantasy – exacerbated by living in Paris which I do believe has a collective one. The tourists that come here are also living a fantasy out. One based on art and literature and architecture which has very little to do with the realities of the city. I’ve been working on a commission with Alessandra Sanguinetti for the Aperture Foundation and The Fondation d’entreprise Hermès. She has managed to see this and capture it perfectly of course. This collective fantasy is also something I see in your work.

SM: I think I’m supposed to comment yes or no, enthusiastically. I have to ask you what you mean more precisely by collective fantasy though. Do you mean magical realism?

SB: No, I mean more along the lines of ‘invented tradition’, which was coined by Erik Hobsbawm in 1983. The authors in the edited book of the same name argue that traditions, which seem to be essential to a nation or attitudes of nationhood are often relatively new and invented. These seem to legitimise cultural practices and are often based in fantasy. I think your personal work in Iceland and Armenia does this – and also considers the role of myth in national identities. I think Alessandra’s work has elements of magic realism and she has wonderfully managed to capture that spirit in her work in France too.

SM: In that case I will nod enthusiastically and add that I look forward to seeing Alessandra’s new work and that I feel flattered to be mentioned in the same breath. She was my very first interview while I was still in graduate school. You are my twenty-fourth, which I can hardly believe. Speaking of school, that leads me to another question. What is a common mistake you see emerging photographers making as they start to make their way?

SB: I think its often a case of wanting too much too soon when the work is not strong enough or fully developed. Getting work out there before it’s ready does young artists no favours. And more generally there are other ways to conduct yourself that are important. Firstly, I would say when you have a meeting with somebody make sure you are prepared and have good work to show. You can easily meet somebody once, twice is harder, so don’t blow it. Don’t be drunk, stoned and have a bath. I have encountered all these scenarios and it’s not very impressive (although quite memorable!)

Also when you email people you don’t know don’t ask for feedback just send an email highlighting the new work. Curators, editors and other people who work in photography receive a lot of emails from people they have never met asking for feedback. On the whole everyone I know looks at work if they are sent an email, but they do not have time to respond and feedback to everyone, so do not get defensive and angry when you do not get feedback – that is really unimpressive. I am finding I am getting more and more newsletters now and I am unsubscribing. This used to be a good way to communicate, but I am not so sure now. The overload can be too much. But really it’s often-basic common sense – be nice, have good work, listen and keep in touch but not oppressively so.

Image courtesy of Susan Bright. © Sabine Mirlesse

Edmund Clark and Crofton Black

Negative Publicity

Book review by Gerry Badger

British artist Edmund Clark is known for his work which draws aside the veil of secrecy that deliberately obfuscates the West’s ‘War on Terror’, the programme of both open and covert warfare initiated by President George W. Bush following 9/11. It might be argued that Clark is a sociologist and political activist rather than a photographic artist, but the question is moot. He certainly uses the photographic image – both taken and found – with great effect, to investigate what is being done in our name to safeguard our ‘freedom and security’, but which is kept hidden from us, the citizens of the ‘democracies’, to ensure that, to give the official explanation, the operation’s own security is not ‘compromised.’

The question is, not that such covert operations are ether necessary or unnecessary, but that, in the course of and as a result of the West’s recent adventures in the Middle East, some of those activities – carried out, as I said in our name and beyond the ordinary, due process of law – are in fact illegal.

The governmental riposte to such a question is, of course, that they are not illegal, and have the imprimatur of certain extraordinary processes of law – an extraordinary situation requiring extraordinary measures. To which one might respond that such activities certainly stretch the bounds of legality, always elastic, at the very least, and that we are morally stooping to the level of the so-called enemy while our politicians take the moral high ground in this vicious war. And the problem is that this is not quite a war per se, where different ‘rules’ apply, but a de facto war, a war which has not been declared as such and has not been fully defined in internationally recognised legal terms.

This virtual rather than real war, often carried out ‘virtually’ on a computer screen, has given rise to a number of contemporary phrases, most of them innocuous sounding euphemisms for violence and mayhem. ‘Boots on the ground’, and the despicable ‘collateral damage’, have become depressingly familiar, as has the topic that concerns much of Edmund Clark’s work – ‘rendition.’ It was the subject of such earlier books as Guantanamo: If the Light Goes Out (2010), and Control Order House (2012), and now actually features in the new volume’s title, Negative Publicity: Artefacts of Extraordinary Rendition, published by Aperture/the Magnum Foundation on the occasion of his forthcoming exhibition, War of Terror at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Essentially, ‘rendition’ means the secret detention of persons deemed to be involved in inciting, plotting, or perpetrating terrorist acts against the United States and the West. These individuals are snatched from their homes or hideouts in Afghanistan, Iraq, or wherever and ‘rendered’, that is, secretly transported – and the watchword is ‘secretly’ – all over the globe, eventually disappearing into a network of prisons in America organised by the CIA, the best-known of which is the facility at Guantanamo Bay, the US navy base in Cuba. Since George W. Bush’s declaration of the ‘War on Terror’, an unknown number of people have been subject to rendition, without due legal process. Some have been released, some have been tried by a military commission and convicted, while the fate of others remains in the balance.

Negative Publicity, by Edmund Clark and Crofton Black – a journalist who works for, among others, the human rights group, Reprieve, and The Bureau of investigative Journalism – tells the story of this activity with photographs and documents. For four years, Clark photographed the nondescript buildings that always figure in a story of this kind, while Black researched and tracked down the relevant documents.

The book begins with one of Clark’s photographs, of a forest just north of Vilnius, in Lithuania, where the CIA built a detention centre in a quiet hamlet. This is followed by a key document, a CIA Special Review, which details the quasi-legal procedures involved in the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – or torture albeit perhaps not on a Gestapo level, but torture nevertheless. Extraordinary rendition, rather than common or garden ordinary rendition involves enhanced interrogation techniques. Amazingly, although it has been ‘redacted’ (another of those words), the document is in the public realm, and enough of it remains to prove that enhanced interrogation techniques were normal policy in this sector of the terror war, which, for the most part was against civilians in other countries, not combatants in the strict sense.

Thereafter, Clark’s unrhetorical, large-format photographs of the ‘landscape of rendition’ and Black’s compilation of documents, tell the story of this shadowy operation. It should be pointed out that this material did not come from the Edward Snowden leak, which was somewhat different in content. The human rights and intelligence agency reports, letters, invoices, airline manifests, and other documents dug up by Clark and Black are all declassified.

There are two things of note in this story. Firstly, the houses and buildings photographed by Clark are irredeemably ordinary and inconspicuous. Of course that is the point, inconspicuous is the watchword. And that applies also to the ‘contractors’ who aid the rendition process, small businesses from Middle America, like the aircraft charter firms who are in it to do their patriotic bit, but chiefly to make a buck. Of course, they would claim they are devout patriots, but the invoices and lists tell a tale of small-time capitalism, where only the bottom line matters.

The other main point made by the book is that, like the Nazi’s ‘final solution’, there has to be a paper trail, or probably a encrypted file trail. America, it should not be forgotten, has a Freedom of Information Act, and while ‘redacting’ can hinder that – sometimes ludicrously – that act reminds us, despite our misgivings, what we are fighting for. It also enabled Clark and Black to tell their story with vivid immediacy.

This is an important book, beautifully designed in presented in the ‘collage’ style of so many contemporary photobooks. Aperture must be congratulated for taking on such a potentially sensitive subject. Is it a protest book? I suppose so, at one level, although Edmund Clark calls them “archaeological” and “forensic” rather then a file for the prosecution. He has stated that he hopes this work “may form part of a future discourse and future history.” As so much of the story is carried by the documents, some may argue this is not quite a photobook, but does that matter? As a sober photo-text piece, with wide and serious implications, that seems good enough for me.

All images courtesy of Flowers Gallery © Edmund Clark

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

Lesley A. Martin

Publisher at Aperture Foundation

New York

In the latest instalment of our Interviews series, Jeffrey Ladd speaks with the publisher of Aperture Foundation’s book programme, Lesley A. Martin. Their conversation reflects on the current state of photobook publishing, the idea of misperceiving books as the most viable vehicles to launch careers, as well as her thoughts on the seldom-discussed phenomenon of publishers taking on projects by photographers who pay a premium of the entire book production.

Jeffrey Ladd: How long have you personally been interested in photography and photobooks?

Lesley A. Martin: My interest in photography is probably fairly typical – an early introduction to the magic of the darkroom by a family member, hanging out with photo geeks in high school. I knew I was interested in it enough to pick it up as a minor in college. But the realisation that photographs had power and could become vital to a public conversation comes from having lived an hour away from Cincinnati, Ohio at the time of the Robert Mapplethorpe Perfect Moment exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center, and realizing that the culture wars of the 1980s and 90s were perfectly and terribly crystallised in this battle over which images would be considered true, beautiful, and permissible.

I don’t have a story about a particular book that changed my life as my interest in photobooks came somewhat obliquely – yes, I was always the kid with glasses that “loved books”. Yes, I worked my way through college at the Art and Architecture library and decorated my dorm walls with jackets of books that had been discarded before they were allowed to be shelved. And yes, I lived in Japan and spent a lot of time looking – sadly, not buying – books by and about Japanese photographers, but it wasn’t until I did an internship at Aperture that it dawned on me that there were people behind the making of those books… and that this was something that I could do, too.

JL: How long have you been at Aperture?

LAM: The best way to put it is that I’ve been at Aperture for roughly sixteen of the last twenty-one years, but not continuously. It’s a little scary to think about.

JL: How have your thoughts on photobooks changed over the course of your involvement with Aperture?

LAM: The ecosystem as a whole has changed pretty radically over the last twenty years. There were a particular set of formulas that Michael Hoffman, longtime publisher and director of Aperture, believed in. I’m really not sure what he would have made of the photobook world now. I left Aperture for a few years in 2000 when we began to disagree over the type of books that could – and should – be published. I sometimes use Eikoh Hosoe’s Kamaitachi as an example of just how much things have changed. Michael loved the 1971 edition of the book with its baroque use of gatefolds and wanted very much to find a means of reissuing it as a facsimile. The costs were daunting, and in 1997, when we first started discussing it, the idea of printing the book in a very small number and charging a higher price was not part of the Aperture model – he felt there wasn’t enough of a collector’s market to make that work. Now, of course, that’s a model most publishers incorporate into their arsenal of publishing strategies. When I returned to work at Aperture in late 2003, one of the first things I did was to put in motion a facsimile of the book. We commissioned a new slipcase by Tadanori Yokoo, and released it in an edition of 500 English-language copies and, working together with a Japanese publisher, 500 Japanese-language copies. The book sold out almost immediately. It had become evident by then that not only was there an audience but that this audience of collectors and dealers were building a new body of scholarship and connoisseurship of the photobook. This knowledge base, coupled with the shift in how accessible printing technologies have become and how much creativity is coming out of the self-published and independently published worlds, have increased the interest and appreciation of the book form. The idea of strict, old school publishing formulas of any kind, has been turned on its head, which is good for everyone.

JL: How do you think your direction as editor has been different from others? (past Aperture editors? Or other publishers?)

LAM: As a not-for-profit organisation, Aperture needs to be willing and able to explore a fairly broad interpretation of photography – but of course, it’s also an amalgam of individual tastes and interests. Over the course of almost sixty-five years, there have been so many book editors, each of whom left one imprint or another – from Nancy Newhall, one of the founders, onward. (Keeping in mind, too, that the book editors and the magazine editors used to be one and the same – now the book and magazine programs operate synergistically but autonomously). There are lots of odd little pockets in the Aperture backlist –Newhall worked closely with Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. She was focused on the interchange of text and images and on the struggle for the recognition of photography as a ‘fine art’. Mark Holborn introduced Japanese photographers like Eikoh Hosoe and Shomei Tomatsu to Aperture, alongside British photographers like Bill Brandt. Carole Kismaric made a critical contribution, bringing in Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, John Gossage, and moved Aperture’s book program away from a certain beaten path – more ‘windows’ than ‘mirrors’. Michael Hoffman’s obsession with India can be read in vein of books by Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh, Mitch Epstein’s first book: In Pursuit of India, while also championing the publication of the Arbus monograph.

Current senior editor, Denise Wolf, has introduced a line of books about photography for children. Aside from my interest in Japanese and Dutch photography, which happen to be great photobook making cultures, I feel that my task over the past decade has been to ensure that the book programme felt relevant overall. I didn’t want Aperture to just do one kind of book, but to be able to publish across a range of types of book – to be more varied, flexible, and contemporary in our book making. I also made it a goal to engage with and help support the growing conversation about the photobook.

JL: Can you point out four or five books that have become your favourites of the last year?

LAM: I’m still looking back on the prior year’s books and won’t get to properly digest this year’s harvest fully until the end of the summer and The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Prize. Every Autumn I’m inundated by the 1,000+ titles that get submitted. I see A LOT. But there are inevitably, a few that stand out, or that I return to repeatedly over time.

In the past year, those include Taking Off. Henry My Neighbor by Mariken Wessels, which is a very strange set of images collected by Wessels of one man’s obsessive photographing of his wife. Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts, a document of one Los Angeles-neighbourhood over the course of twenty years also just gets better with repeat viewing. Both of these books – each very different in subject and approach but similarly predicated on a photographer’s long-term engagement with their subject – take pains to also be really remarkable physical objects, with particular care to with the printing, design, and structure of the material. Out of Order: Bad Display by Penelope Umbrico, is one of the artist’s iterative projects that returns to a prior book she created with RVB Books in 2014. Umbrico has become a really thoughtful about her books, folding the process of making them into her larger practice of making work, the unusual forms they take and the methods of their making are always directly tied-into the concepts within.

I also can’t help but be stupefied by the gorgeously printed re-issue and expansion (or, explosion) of William Eggleston’s Democratic Forest. As with the rest of Steidl’s insatiable drive to gobble up and put forth the archives of photographers living and dead, I’m a little ambivalent about whether or not to best categorise these as books or as furniture – it certainly is an excellent example of the collector-supported publication model. It’s quite an investment, at $600 per set. So while this skews the concept of a democratic anything, in terms of a flattening out the hierarchy of image-making, this material, of any, is best suited to the multi-volume, anti-edit approach. (I have to also confess that I may, in part, be conflating my appreciation for this book with my appreciation and enjoyment Prudence Ffeifer’s excellent review of the book in the May issue of Bookforum – the power of a great book review!)

JL: How much of the current state of photobook publishing do you perceive as artists believing books are the most viable vehicles to launch careers?

LAM: I often I see books made by artists that feel way too transparent in this regard – it’s as if every decision made in constructing the book was weighed against some external checklist of what’s worked for other people, rather than what’s right for the material itself. The use of different types of paper: check. Tipped-in facsimiles of vernacular material: check. Centred, sans-serif type that is underscored instead of italicised: check. There are certain design and format tics that seem to be contagious from year to year. Increasingly, people get hung up on creating over-the-top, bleeding edge design packages when something simple or pared down would be equally if not more suitable and successful. That said, there is so much room now for different ways of putting a body of work onto the printed page, it has led to some really stand-out books – both wildly innovative and more traditional books that have been able to launch careers or solidify reputations.

We’re seeing a dramatic shift in the gallery world, in which the smaller galleries are having a hard time of it – there is less space for showing and selling work, certainly less space for really being able to present an entire body of work, properly contextualised, which is what a book can do so well, and of course, a book can end up in anyone’s hands. A book of interesting work that has been done thoughtfully can certainly bring an artist to another level of attention. There are also a lot more books that I have a hard time wrapping my head around in terms of WHY. Why does this body of work exist in this form and what was the photographer or publishing thinking when they made those decisions? I’m all for borrowing, and great ideas often beget other good ideas, but not if they’re simply adapted without cause and clear intention. Really – more people asking WHY – why am I making this book? Does it need to be a book? And then figuring out the best way to take that forward would be really helpful. If you just want to make a book because it’s expected of you and you think it will help your career, you haven’t thought about it hard enough.

JL: Do you believe that even though there are more books published each year, the amount that are really noteworthy has remained perhaps the same as twenty to thirty years ago?

LAM: It’s tempting to think along these lines, and I’ve heard that line before. But when you think about it, the categories and types of books have opened up and changed so dramatically that surely that’s not the case. I mean, how do you evaluate a really great self-published item printed on newsprint against something like the aforementioned Democratic Forest. There are so many more points across a much wider map, there has to be both more and better, don’t you think? They won’t all operate the same way in terms of pushing an artist or a set of ideas forward, and lots will get missed. But I’d like to think optimistically and to believe that there are more, better publications being made across a wider range of possibilities. Of course, there are going to be equivalent larger numbers of worse books getting made as well – and that can be depressing and a little brain-numbing. This is why I’m all for a network of signposts that can help navigate the overload of books – blog posts on sites like itsnicethat.com, selfpublishbehappy.com, the fantastic vimeo feed from photobookstore.co.uk, Instagram feeds like @10 x10; and tags like #photobookjousting – that’s just a few.

JL: What appeals to you as an editor, when an artist approaches with a ‘finished’ dummy or would you prefer to see the raw material? I am assuming you are open to both ways. Can you estimate a percentage of each?

LAM: It’s so case-by-case and changes season by season. In an upcoming season of six monographs for Spring 2017, none of them came as already formulated dummies. The Autumn 2016 season, three of five books came as dummies. I think it’s helpful for an artist to wrestle with the problem of how to make something into a book, but not helpful for them to get hung up on wanting to control every detail, but to allow room for collaboration and input.

JL: Do you have opinions about publishers who are essentially shifting their role to becoming mainly distributors – taking on projects by photographers who pay a premium of the entire book production and beyond to publish their book.

LAM: There are several sides to this – first, I have to state Aperture’s position on the matter. We do not ask artists to write cheques to fund their books. However, we do have to raise the money for each and every title that we don’t see succeeding exclusively on sales in the mainstream book trade. That usually means a there is a collaborative effort that goes into figuring this out – whether it’s jointly mounting a Kickstarter campaign, to applying for grants, appealing to collectors and our patrons, or selling prints. And it is often a combination of the above.

But I also want to point out that this trend has to be seen, in part, in relation to how the roles have been redistributed across the board. Photographers are increasingly casting themselves as designers and editors so books are coming to a publisher already digested and the decisions that a publisher would usually help guide – what the book looks like and how it needs to be printed and bound, and thereby, what the budget and corresponding price point can or should be, are increasingly claimed by photographers. Along with those decisions come risks and repercussions. Essentially, photographers are becoming co-publishers as much as the simply authors. I’m not saying this makes it all come out fine in the wash, but I don’t think you can ignore that all of these roles function in relation to one another. You push one piece of the puzzle and something else gives way. It’s a reminder that very few of the traditional roles or rules about how publishing worked remain hard and fast anymore and we have to keep moving and evolving.

JL: Have you felt any photobook oversaturation or ‘burn-out’ in these last years either with publishing or photobook festivals?

LAM: I am very aware that the photobook community can easily find itself in conversations that are too much of a closed system, that are less about the work and the world and more about the book (and often arcane details of a particular book) as one tool for exploring and experiencing photography. It can be a little limiting and insular, absolutely. But I also love the obsessiveness and attention to detail and craft that the book community currently hosts, and I believe that a language and body of knowledge around the photobook is in the process of being built – one that has become an important, accepted part of the larger dialogue of photography. The idea that the circulation of an image or a body of work – and in particular it’s circulation on the printed page – is an important part of its history and our understanding of it. And this seems solidly established for the time being. But we have to keep looking forward and as photography continues to change, we know that forms of storytelling and experiencing images – habits of literacy of all kinds – are in the process of changing as well. So, I don’t feel that the level of activity we’re currently at will be sustainable if photobook making and photobook festivals do not continue to evolve. For now, though, this network of fairs is an important means of exchange and commerce – how long it can last is certainly a question I ask myself all the time.

And as for me, I personally reach a certain point of hyper saturation in late November, once the New York Art Book Fair is over, once The Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Prize has been awarded, Paris Photo and Offprint are over and all the “Best of” blogs have been read – when I don’t think that I could possibly look at one more book. But somehow, by January, I find myself picking books up again, drawn by a particular cover or wanting to see what a certain binding material feels like, wondering what’s inside, and what else is out there. Hopefully those impulses – in myself and in others – will continue to be refreshed and rewarded by new, exciting creations and developments in this still-evolving field.

Image courtesy of Lesley A. Martin © Carlo Van de Roer