John Gossage

Looking Up Ben James – A Fable

Book review by Gerry Badger

This is John Gossage’s ‘English’ book, although some of it was shot in Wales, and the title has Welsh connotations. Ben James was a Welsh miner photographed by Robert Frank when he came to Britain in the 1950s. Those British images prefigured the style of The Americans, and as an aside, I remember looking with Gossage for the location of another famous Frank picture, the London hearse, which was taken not in Belsize Crescent – as is sometimes alleged – but in Kentish Town, where I live. Alas, it had vanished during the rebuilding of a goodly portion of the area in the 1970s. What became of Ben James is also unknown, although in the book’s short text, Martin Parr imagines he and Gossage running into the miner’s descendants and being offered some Frank prints for £25 each.

Gossage made the book when he visited Parr in Bristol in 2008 and the pair made a trip around the country, getting as far as Cumbria, where he made a splendid double portrait of photographer Graham Smith and his wife Joyce. This is a very personal trip, a visual travel diary. There are pictures of Martin, and Martin’s mother, and of his sadly departed dog, Ruby, familiar to the many visitors to his Bristol home. So this is firmly in the diaristic mode, an extremely popular, almost ubiquitous trope in contemporary photography. Some would say it is too popular, often coming into the ‘who gives a fuck’ category of so much social media culture. And it can frequently seem a little arch, a bit too knowing, especially when famous photographers photograph each other. There are odd references, for instance, to Martin’s well-known collecting habit, which might be regarded as an ‘in joke’, but Gossage always knows when not to push it. This is an exceptional photobook, for two reasons.

Firstly, the design and production. It is the finest that Steidl is capable of, with the master printer Gerhard Steidl challenged to produce sensuous black and white printing that equates to that silky gravure that was such a feature of photobooks in the 1950s and 60s. And the book is large, with a number of inserts in overlaid colour monochrome. The size, one might say, is antithetical to the intimate subject matter, but in this case it works.

Second is the sheer quality of the images. Gossage has long said that the first criterion for a great photo book is great photographs. Too many, I believe, ignore this basic principle and imagine that complicated design and cute production results in a great photo book. More often than not it simply results in complicated design and cute production trying to inflate empty photographs. Not that design is ignored here, but it is not privileged at the expense of the photographs. Indeed, Gossage is also a qualified designer, and not adverse to pushing the envelope in both design and production terms. He likes the odd design twist – a small red point on an overlay picks out a flare spot in the picture beneath – but again, he has an innate sense of when to stop.

This is a book of photographs first and foremost, by an endlessly experimental photographer. He is essentially a street photographer, a flâneur with an emphasis upon the urban landscape, although that does not begin to describe the range or depth of his practice.

Gossage has developed into one of the most recognisable photographic voices over the years, and that can mean resorting – quite naturally, all artists do it – to a repertory of stylistic and contextual devices, that go to make up his distinctive voice. I know his work intimately, so I am very aware of his little strategies and visual foibles, but I can also say that, like a good jazz improviser, he is always trying to surprise himself, and come up with a picture that one has never quite seen before.

Here, as Parr says in his text, Gossage never courts the obvious but works around the edges, or around the back, sniffing out pictures like a dog sniffs out smells. In this trip, he was nearly always looking for the oblique angle, entirely appropriate for a society which so frequently presents a facade, or even a series of facades. His Britain is a land of walls and doorways, both of which define boundaries yet lead to places. In Gossage’s hands, the outcome seems ambiguous, although this is an affectionate rather than a critical look at our island.

Gossage, like all great photographers, is a master at making the familiar seem newly minted. A few pages in, we come across some milk bottles on a front doorstep, an ultra-ordinary scene which yields a great picture. A mill and mill chimney are presented out of focus, so it is a mill as you’ve never quite seen it before. We then come to a Gossage – and British – speciality, the garden, in six pages of fecund, exuberant plots. We move on to more steps, garden sheds, doors, gates, and gate posts. There is a startling view of a fox walking down a path, and a glimpse of ‘historical’ Britain, in a framed picture of an ocean liner from when Britannia ruled the waves (and rammed icebergs). And there are stains. Only Gossage, I think, can make interesting pictures from stains on the pavement.

This book is not, primarily, about Britain, or even a travel diary, although of course, it encompasses these objectives. First and foremost, it is about what photographers do. That is, make pictures about touching the world. When Gossage was a teenager, his teacher, Lisette Model, advised him to go and look at the work of an old, half-forgotten French photographer called Atget if he wanted to learn how to put a photograph together. I would say to today’s teenage photographers, if you want to learn how to put a picture together, you couldn’t do much better than study John Gossage.

Looking Up Ben James – A Fable is a sheer pleasure, a beautifully crafted and well put together book that above all, contains photographs of the very highest quality.

All images courtesy of the artist and Steidl. © John Gossage

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Paddy Summerfield

Empty Days

Book review by Gerry Badger

Empty Days is Paddy Summerfield’s third book for Dewi Lewis, but the first I can review, because I wrote texts in the other two. So this is hardly an impartial view, I have known Paddy and admired his work for decades. I am pleased, however, that the books have begun to bring him the wider recognition he deserves after being one of British photography’s hidden gems for so many years.

One reason I think, why his light has been hidden under a bushel apart from a natural disinclination to push himself outside Oxford is because his work is difficult to classify. He is neither an obvious documentary photographer nor an art photographer; neither surrealist nor diarist, but a combination of all these things. In three pages of notes he once sent to me, he refers to himself a documentary photographer, but one who, in Empty Days, ‘weaves the images into a personal document, a subjective story where everything is tragic, but there is also hope.’

He is no doubt a singular photographer. Each of his books is different, yet linked by an absolutely distinct voice. One might say that it’s an odd voice, and it certainly is, although I do not mean that in any pejorative sense – quite the opposite. I have often thought that Paddy Summerfield was a kind of British Ralph Gibson, but much less calculating or mannered. His ‘oddness’ is the real deal.

This is clear, I think, in Empty Days, which by Summerfield’s own admission explores the darker side of his psyche, encompassing religion, depression, sex, alienation, and Rock n’ Roll (in the shape of his beloved Beatles) but you hardly need to know him to get a clear sense of this. The book explores aspects of the human condition, of a troubled soul, in a beautiful series of always surprising and quirky images, chosen from fifty years of work. It can be regarded therefore as an autobiography, or a fragment of an autobiography, because all Summerfield’s work is essentially biographical – as, essentially, is most photography – and the other two books, Mother and Father (2014) and The Oxford Pictures (2016), which are quite different from this new work, show other sides of his personality.

As I have intimated, his aim in Empty Days is quite clear: ‘I show the sadness in the world – I don’t know if I show it to push it away or hold on to it.’ If that sounds excessively gloomy, remember that this is a work of photo-literature, not a stream-of consciousness confession to a therapist. These are photographs, woven into a loose, suggestive narrative, and both their formal and symbolic qualities are there to be enjoyed. The imagery covers a number of photographic genres, from landscape to portrait to nudes to still-lives to Paddy’s inimitable ‘street photography’, which is usually done on a beach, and unlike the work in the recent show of British beach photography at the National Maritime Museum, London, which he would have graced, generally features single figures, which only shows he doesn’t go to the beach on Bank Holidays. The single figure shot is a striking feature of the book. Frequently, although he gets close, their facial features are indistinct, turned away from the camera or photographer’s gaze, so the sense of sadness and alienation is underscored. Indeed, Summerfield may well be one of the best photographers of loneliness around.

Summerfield also tackles religion, though whether he sees this as solace or a cause of our modern ills, is, like much in his work, left tantalisingly open to question. ‘In the book,’ he writes, ‘beneath the surface there’s a strand of spirituality implied, a layer of religious symbolism.’ It’s hardly beneath the surface. We begin with a cross tattooed on an arm, and progress through a stature of Christ, a child lying in a crucified position to another cross in a cemetery. His attitude to sex is also far from clear. There are a number of sexualised images, nudes or semi-nudes, but again, it would seem that, in a manner similar to religion, sex leads only to melancholy and disappointment rather than ecstasy or fulfilment. These figures seem to find little sense of connection in what should be the most connective act of all.

This all sounds like an incessant catalogue of gloom, but there are many consolations in Empty Days. Firstly, many photographers make diaristic books, but much of them are superficial, narcissistic views showing little self-awareness or questioning – neither exploring an inner life nor the potentialities of the camera. If Empty Days is diaristic or biographical, it is not in a me, me, me onanism, and one gets the impression that, although the story is important, so too was the making of the images. Summerfield gets his own joy and consolation from making striking and distinct photographs, and so can we. It is so good to see a photographer concerned with photographic picture-making in the basic sense. Engaging his eyes with the world, and making elegant, simple photographs that, when put together using a keen brain, are not as simple as they look. Empty Days is not so much documentary or diaristic or whatever but a visual poem of great beauty and useful meaning.

I end with a musical analogy (not the Beatles I’m afraid). Ludwig Van Beethoven had an extremely difficult life, his renowned deafness being only one aspect. He was in constant pain and was increasingly isolated towards the end of his life when – completely deaf – he composed his late string quartets. In these searching, elegiac works, there is every emotion, from bubbling joy to profound sadness, except one – there is never despair. While hardly seeking to equate him with Beethoven – John Lennon is enough – the same could be said about Paddy Summerfield. He makes sure to end Empty Days with two images of hope – a bird wheeling and dancing in the sky. As I have said, this is not a wholly impartial review, but this has to be a strong contender already for one of the best photographic books of the year.

All images courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing. © Paddy Summerfield

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Bryan Schutmaat

Good Goddamn

Book review by Gerry Badger

I think I am beginning to see a trend amongst a certain group of American photographers, not exactly a runaway trend but at least a tendency. I thought this when I saw Tim Carpenter’s book, Local Objects, which was deservedly praised by John Gossage and also Ron Jude, who is himself part of this tendency, while Gossage is one of its big inspirations. Carpenter’s book was small, shot in black-and-white, restrained in design, and concentrated upon the photography. And crucially, it dealt with non-metropolitan America, the huge heartlands of the country that are so different, and almost diametrically opposed to the coastal conurbations.

Photographers like Ron Jude, Christian Patterson, Gregory Halpern, Raymond Meeks and others, most of them originally from the heartlands themselves, have been examining America’s interior myths and realities for a number of years, and can be said to constitute the latest generation of photographers, beginning with of course Walker Evans, who have gone in search of – as the French might put it – America profond.

Bryan Schutmaat first came to the photo-world’s attention with a classic of the genre. His Grays the Mountain Sends (2014) was a superb book, a series of portraits and landscapes of small, almost forgotten communities in the Rocky Mountains. It was a lavish, superbly produced book, shot in sumptuous colour, which demonstrated that Schutmaat was not simply a photographer of rare ability – especially in his haunting portraits – but someone who could use photography effectively to build a narrative.

That is the point about Schutmmat and what someone has called – whether kindly or unkindly I’m not sure – the ‘lumberjack’ school of photography. John Gossage recently said that he took up photography because it “allowed me to understand things that were not spoken.” Looking around a lot of today’s photography, it would seem that its makers are suspicious of this dictum, and are distrustful of photography without the crutch of words – or overelaborate design, which can amount to the same thing.

Not so Ron Jude, or Tim Carpenter, or Bryan Schutmaat. Grays the Mountain Sends did not suffer from a surfeit of words, and neither does Good Goddamn, which is modest in size but displays both an assuredness and a quiet ambition. Interestingly, Schutmaat has switched to black and white for this project, which seems to be making a claim for the work’s seriousness. Similarly, the restrained, classical design, like that of many American photobooks, states a certain respect for the integrity of the photographs themselves.

Good Goddamn, published by Trespassertells a nominally simple story. Shot over a period of a few days in February 2017, in Leon County, Texas, Good Goddamn documents, in only twenty-seven photographs, the last few days of freedom of Schutmaat’s friend Kris before he went into prison. As this is a book of hints and half-lights, the spaces between the pictures being as important, so to speak, as the pictures themselves, we are not informed of the crime that led to Kris’s incarceration, nor the duration of the sentence. But the fact he was not in custody possibly suggests that the misdemeanour was not serious, although the psychological weight of the book perhaps points to the opposite.

The cast of characters, besides Kris himself and the bleak mid-winter Texan landscape, are an old pickup truck and a hunting rifle with a very business-like telescopic sight. And there is an enigmatic blurred figure in two images at the end who might be Bryan Schutmaat, or a deputy sheriff come to escort Kris to his fate. Kris’ final days of freedom seem to be spent drinking Coors Lite or shooting his gun. So far this is a typically male Texan as we imagine them, tough guys who never cry, but the macho surface image is thoroughly undercut by the book’s elegiac tone and complex emotional mood. There is a general aura of wistfulness, not to say sadness, but also encompassing moments of reflection, uncertainty, loneliness, and bitter reflection, making for a concerto of shifting emotions in which the bare, gloomy landscape pulls the strings. The constant background is the expectation that what will follow will be a life changing experience for Kris, and not, at least in the short term, a good one.

All this is suggested by Schutmaat’s exceedingly well judged photographs – the somewhat indeterminate portraits of Kris drinking, smoking, or cradling his rifle, in nagging juxtaposition with the bleak but beautiful February landscape. One can almost feel the damp. Yet even a bleak, damp landscape will be a great loss when you are behind bars. I call the portraits indeterminate, not because they are soft in focus, but because they have an unsettling quality, which may come from nothing more than the sight of Kris in a short-sleeved tee shirt in a winter landscape – even though we are told that the weather was unseasonably warm during the shoot. Of course, it is more than that, Schutmaat has conveyed the psychology of this moment in Kris’ life unerringly, and makes us feel it too. Little wonder we are disturbed and unsettled.

In the end, Good Goddamn is about the photographs, which is not always the case with photobooks. As he demonstrated in Grays the Mountain Sends, Bryan Schutammt is a photographer with a rare sensibility, the pictures in Good Goddamn are so finely calculated and balanced. I can only compare his talent to that of a superior musician. There are many calling themselves ‘musicians’, but the difference between an ordinary musician and a great one is vast, and yet tiny – a matter of subtlety, the right emphasis, and nuance. It is like this with Schutmaat’s photographs. His images sing, like a well-played piece of music. They are a pleasure to contemplate, and contemplate over and over again for their felicities. They lend the book its visual delights, but also its emotional depths and bitter-sweet tone.

As always in photography, they are pictures of things we have seen before, many times. Ordinary but important things. Yet in themselves they are new, pictures we have not seen before.

All images courtesy of the artist and Trespasser. © Bryan Schutmaat

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

STOP + FIX Publishing

The Shackleton Collector’s Edition Box Set

Book review by Gerry Badger

It’s not often I begin a book review with a physical description of it, but this is a package rather than a single volume. The Shackleton Collector’s Edition Box Set must be the most complex book object since the Chinese photographer Peng Yangjun and Chen Jiaojiao’s Box – Pass It On (2012). Like that memorable achievement, it’s another ‘book in a box’, or rather two books in a box. The first publication of STOP + FIX, led by photographer and Mumford & Sons bassist Ted Dwane, graphic designer and artist Ross Stirling, and photographer and director Marcus Haney, is a collaboration between Dwane, Stirling, and musician and composer Paul Frith.

As the subject is Sir Ernest Shackleton’s fabled Antarctic expedition of 1914-17, this box is a replica of a Venessa case, a reinforced plywood box that served as the original cargo boxes packed aboard Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance. Inside are the two volumes comprising the book, and a folding gramophone sleeve containing four 10 inch vinyl records plus an MP3 download. This is a photobook with attitude, combined with a newly composed symphony by Paul Frith, written to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Endurance expedition, a powerful piece by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Then, just as a piece of icing on the cake, the first two hundred and fifty copies of the publication include a replica glass positive plate similar to those used on the expedition.

There are two principle names in this story. Firstly, there is Shackleton himself, Britain’s greatest Antarctic explorer, and the photographer who took these excellent photographs, including many in colour, under the most adverse circumstances. The photographer was an Australian, Frank Hurley, but he has an important place in British photographic history, as following his exploits on Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914 to 1917, he served as an army photographer at the end of the First World War and made some memorable images of the conflict.

The story of Shackleton’s great trip of 1914-17 is one of the great tales of heroism, pluck, and endurance and being typically British is one of triumph snatched from the jaws of disaster. After the race to reach the South Pole – a race Britain was desperate to win – ended in December 1911 with the Norwegian Ronald Amundsen gaining the prize, Shackleton, who had come within 97 geographical miles from the Pole in 1909, turned his attention to crossing Antarctica from sea to sea, via the Pole. But the expedition ran into early problems when the Endurance became trapped in pack ice, and was slowly crushed before the shore parties could be properly landed. The expedition escaped by camping on the sea ice until it broke up, and Shackleton ordered everyone to the lifeboats in a bid to reach Elephant Island and ultimately the inhabited island of South Georgia. This involved a hazardous ocean voyage of 720 nautical miles, accomplished successfully and regarded as one of the most notable exploits in Antarctic exploration.

The two part photobook features never-seen-before images from Hurley’s archive, and follows the chronology of the expedition and Frith’s original symphony. It’s worth considering for a moment the effort required to get these great images. Hurley was using large wooden view cameras taking glass plates and lugging these around in sub-zero temperatures, up to the top of Endurance’s masts or the tops of mountain peaks on South Georgia. If photography is about persistence, the Australian exemplifies this to perfection. If that weren’t enough, he also shot cine film and made a renowned movie of the expedition.

In all, Hurley shot over 550 plates. When the Endurance was lost and the expedition was camping on the ice prior to taking to the lifeboats, a episode that produced some of the most iconic images, the photographer sat with Shackleton on the ice and they decided between them which plates should be taken and which should be left in order to preserve weight. Apparently the rejected plates were immediately broken to avoid any prevarication. Hurley had rescued many of them by returning to the half submerged wreck, diving bare chested into three feet of icy water to retrieve lead-lined cases of negatives. In all, 150 of the best plates were saved and form the basis for the two books while some 400 were lost or destroyed.

Of course that the photographs took a lot of effort to make is irrelevant, it’s the quality that counts. Fortunately, Hurley was an above average photographer, that is, he had an eye. Stylistically, he hovered between an art photographer and a reportage photographer – albeit at a time when such distinctions were largely meaningless – but the whole body of work is much more than a basic record of the expedition. There are stunning landscapes, moving portraits of the expedition members, and fascinating glimpses of daily life on the pack ice. But the most iconic and best-known images are of the Endurance stuck in the ice and gradually breaking apart, including one extraordinary nocturnal shot of a spectral boat in the Antarctic dark. As a footnote, it is worth noting that the odd image from the First World War is included, just to remind us what was happening thousands of miles away at the time.

In all this is a splendid and complex package. I have been critical of late about overly complicated photobooks, but here it is fully justified. It seems only appropriate to end with the inspirational words of Sir Ernest Shackleton himself, which apply to bookmaking as well as Antarctic exploration: ‘I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown, the only true failure would be not to explore at all.’

All images courtesy of Ted Dwane. © Frank Hurley Archive/STOP + FIX

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Arwed Messmer


Book review by Gerry Badger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Mimi Mollica

Terra Nostra

Book review by Gerry Badger

In what might be one of the most heartfelt moments on British television, in the middle of a feelgood programme about art and food in Sicily, star Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli took art-critic Andrew Graham-Dixon to a hillside outside Palermo, overlooking a motorway. He proceeded to talk about how the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, murdered the anti-mafia judge, Giovanni Falcone, in 1992. This is “the hole in the heart of Italy,” he said with great feeling.

This is the subject of Mimi Mollica’s book Terra Nostra, published by Dewi Lewis. The hidden subject, because although the mafia is everywhere, its impact is felt rather then seen. It is woven into Italian society. In September 1987, the then Prime Minister, Giulio Andreotti, head of the Christian Democrat party that ruled Italy for decades, was alleged to have had a secret meeting with the ‘capo dei capi’ of the Cosa Nostra, Salvatore Riina. The fact that Andreotti was later absolved of any mafia association does not alter the fact that, as Peter Robb has written, the mafia was (or is) a state within a state, a “state that maintained relations with professional, political and judicial representatives of that other state, the Italian republic.”

The most notable body of work about the Sicilian mafia previously has been the photojournalism of Letizia Battaglia, who worked for the anti-fascist newspaper L’Ora, and photographed the results of the high years of mafia violence from the 1970s to the 90s. Firstly, she photographed the bloodied corpses on the streets, and then the mafiosi themselves, kicking and spitting at the photographer as they were taken to trial. A photograph in her files of the aforementioned Andreotti meeting mafia boss Antonio Nino Salvo, helped frame the indictment though it did not secure the conviction. And of course, though it is not Sicily, but most definitely related, Milanese photographer Valerio Spada photographed the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, making portraits of young mafiosi in the notorious suburb of Scampia.

But that is not Mimi Mollica’s way. Terra Nostra is much more indirect. There is not a young thug or a bloodied corpse to be seen. In a series of landscapes and street portraits, we see Sicily as one might see it as a visitor – an attentive and knowing visitor at least – or as a resident sees it every day. In short, Mollica is photographing the surface, that which you can see, which is all any photographer can do, but like any good photographer, is suggesting this recent history with metaphor and symbol. So there are images that suggest violence, others that suggest suspicion and secrecy, some that suggest great beauty, some that suggest ugliness and environmental degradation.

This book tells its tale in an oblique way. But one thing is clear. Sicily is an island apart from Italy, part of the country and yet not part of it. And there are different parts of Sicily. Mollica is dealing with the western part, from Palermo in the north, round the west coast to Agrigento in the south. The eastern part of the island, and cities like Catania and Syracuse, are somewhat different.

In a way the book begins at the end. Two signs on a wall read ‘uscita’ (exit) though the way out is not clear. The first metaphor. Then the final image is a barred gate, as if to say once Sicily takes hold of you it will not let go. Or is this a circular narrative? Are both images asking whether there is a way out for Sicily. As Mollica says, Sicily seems caught between “paradise and hell.”

The book’s portraits are also very strong. As Sean O’Hagan remarks in his text, they have this insidious sideways glance quality. And far from displaying Mediterranean exuberance, which is something of a myth anyway, many exude an air of self-containment that amounts to suspicion – and this in photographs that were taken more or less on the fly. The cover picture, of a scarred, gaunt old man standing at a vandalised bus-stop, clutching his briefcase like grim death, says it all. John Szarkowski once said of a Brassai portrait that it was “full of wormwood.” Of course he never saw this one. ‘If looks could kill’ was never more appropriate.

There is something terrible implied in this image. Elsewhere, the symbols of violence and machiavellian plotting are more overt. A wreath lies in a road. A group of politicians huddle together in a conspiratorial group. A price tag skewers the eye of a tuna on a market stall. And a man who seems to taking a picture on a mobile phone is crouched in the position they teach at gun school.

But the most obvious damage is perpetrated upon the landscape. The legacy of the mafia in the 1970s and 80s was a rampant boom in unbridled real estate development, much of it unchecked and yet funded by development grants. Little was finished, so Sicily, especially in the west of the island, is littered with abandoned, half-built construction sites. One particularly memorable image in Terra Nostra, of unfinished villas littering a hillside, looks like an aerial shot of the ruins of Hiroshima. And the jewel in Sicily’s tourist crown, the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, is not quite what it seems in tourist posters as a result of encroaching development.

This construction, so wasteful and unsightly, scars the landscape, the last invader to make its mark upon this much conquered island. It is so unnecessary, as so much Sicilian real estate has the ‘vendisi’ (for sale) attached. For instance, last year I saw three beautiful Baroque palazzi side by side, requiring attention on a grand scale, awaiting offers in the beautiful historic city of Noto, as well as many other time-worn properties both large and small.

There is a lot of explanatory text in Terra Nostra, essays by Roberto Scarpinato and Sean O’Hagan as well as captions to the pictures. This is necessary to fill in a complex political and social background. Nevertheless, Mimi Mollica’s photographs certainly stand by themselves. They are eloquent and poetic, and in an era where so much photography is trite and shallow, dense enough to feed both mind and eye.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Mimi Mollica

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.

Francesca Catastini

The Modern Spirit is Vivisective

Book review by Gerry Badger

The first question one has of this book by the Italian photographer Francesca Catastini, which won the ‘Dummy’ prize at this year’s Vienna Photobook Festival, centres upon its title. The book is a meditation in images and text upon the process of studying human anatomy, which is essentially the same today as it was in say the famous Anatomical Theatre in Bologna University, constructed in 1637. Except perhaps for that fact that a paying public no longer attends these events, although there was of course the highly public dissection on Channel 4 in 2002 by Gunther von Hagens.

But here the operative word is dissection. The study of anatomy is based primarily upon empirical observation of the body’s inner parts, obtained by dissecting corpses. Catastini’s title however, The Modern Spirit is Vivisective, refers to vivisection, the cutting up of living bodies and a practice confined mercifully to the experiments upon live animals that so many of us find appalling.

Catastini’s title in fact derives from the modernist manifesto of the young James Joyce, a former medical student. In his posthumously published novel, Stephen Hero, Joyce lauds vivisection as the most modern strategy an analytical artist can deploy. The novel was published in 1944, although Joyce could hardly know that at the time the Nazis were using vivisection in diabolical experiments upon human beings in the camps.

Hopefully, Francesca Catastini is using the term in a metaphorical sense, in which she as a living artist is creatively dissecting the practice of dismembering and analysing corpses, musing upon a discipline which, in the early days, was linked more to natural philosophy than to medicine per se. And of course was a prerequisite for study by artists, such as Leonardo or Michaelangelo.

But already, we can see that this is a most unusual photobook. Beginning with the title itself, we are drawn into an intriguing web woven by Catastini, a web of image and word, metaphor and oxymoron, as she combines found vernacular photographs of old anatomy lessons with illustrations from Renaissance anatomy manuals, and sprinkles these with scientific, literary, and philosophical quotations. And of course, she adds her own photographs, scrupulously neutral large format images of some of the those famous Italian anatomical theatres, as well as some subtle photocollages.

The book, edited by Federica Chiocchetti, is divided into five sections, each corresponding to the five stages involved in dissection as detailed in the old treatises, each ‘chapter’ being framed by Catatsini’s interiors. The five are entitled respectively On Looking, On Canon Lust, On Touching, On Cutting, and On Discovery. But the narrative, while not exactly freewheeling, is, shall we say, a little whimsical, and some of the images have little interventions by Catatstini that one could easily miss. The Looking chapter, for instance, contains the expected diagrams of optical instruments, microscopic slides and so on, but also emphasises the theatrical aspect of the business. There are a couple of found photographs from the John Hopkins Medical School dating from 1943, one showing a group of rather serious anatomy lab students. A rip in the photographic emulsion ‘makes a mess’ of one girl’s face, which may or may not be relevant to the subject, yet nothing Catastani does is without thought, so I take it that it is. In the other picture from John Hopkins, a cheerful young lady holds a severed limb like a guitar. Anatomy students are a different breed.

On Canon Lust
is not quite what one might think. Sex crops up frequently in both anatomical studies and in Catastini’s imagination, but this section is in effect about anatomy’s relationship to art, and the obsession that both art and medicine have had with the perfect body, although paradoxically medicine is most often about the imperfect body. The section begins with a photograph of the young Ronald Regan (1940) – regarded as having a perfect physique when young – modelling in a life class. There is also an amusing passage quoted about never pointing out to students that you have a corpse with six fingers on a hand. Hide it – or maybe cut off the offending finger.

Catastini’s narrative is laced with such humour. On Touching has two images of blind people learning anatomy, by touching a skeleton. I don’t know if they go on to handle a corpse on the dissecting table, but that thought, and even handling a skeleton, somehow makes me squirm, although of course it shouldn’t.

In this section, there is also a French illustration of a kneeling man (hopefully a doctor) with his hand up the skirt of a remarkably insouciant woman. This illustration amused me because it reminded me of the only seaside postcard I know to feature a photographic joke. A young man on his knees has his hand up a woman’s black skirt. She is saying, ‘that’s the last time I let you change your film.’ The postcard is dated not only by its sexism but the idea of the film changing bag (no double entendre intended).

I could go on about this intriguing and engaging book, but one of it delights is that it is a cabinet of curiosities, and therefore surprises, so I may have given too much away already. I am impressed, for example, that Francesca Catastini didn’t opt for the obvious, with images of an échorché – the flayed corpse – or, even closer to home, something from the famous anatomical wax sculptures of Florence or Bologna.

Some felt in Vienna, that with such a plethora of drawn and engraved illustrations, whether this was actually a photobook, but does it matter? It pushes the boundaries of the photobook, not by containing the fewest ‘photographs’ (there are more than one might think at first glance) but by being so intelligent. In an era when the photobook seems all about flashy form and empty content, and drearily focused upon the self and little else, it is a pleasure to see a photobook, contentedly sober in design, looking outside itself, and engaging the brain as well as the eyes.

All images courtesy of the artist © Francesca Catastani

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.

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.

Regina Anzenberger

Roots & Bonds

Book review by Gerry Badger

One subject that seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years – with professional photographers at least – is the natural landscape in the traditional sense, the Ansel Adams sense one might say. There seem to be two reasons for this. One is that it has become increasingly apparent that there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ landscape at all. As everything in the world, from the biosphere down to the tiniest microbe, has been affected by the hand – often the destructive hand – of man. As a result, much landscape photography today is ‘documentary’ in style – think of Edward Burtynsky, for instance – recording the devastation and framing an indictment. Being ultra positive and celebrating the landscape for its beauty – think of Sebastião Salgado – seems too operatic and redundant, almost hypocritical.

There is a formal redundancy at work, too. How do you photograph a rock or a tree or a sunset for the millionth time and find something fresh to say about it? But of course, there are exceptions, like the great Thomas Joshua Cooper, who has, almost single-handedly, preserved the tradition of the transcendental landscape photograph. He has done it in a postmodern way, but without neglecting the modernist approach, either. Cooper has added a conceptual approach, allied with contemporary cultural references, to make a landscape photography that extends the ‘grand’ tradition into the new millennium.

Now, Regina Anzenberger has done something different but equally interesting in her book Roots & Bonds. Anzenberger is the founder and director of the well-known Anzenberger Gallery and the force behind the Vienna Photobook Festival, which has rapidly become one of the better photo-festivals around. She is also a photographer in her own right as well as a painter, and Roots & Bonds combines photographs, paintings on photographs, and mixed media works – which, as those of you who know me know, I usually consider the first refuge of a scoundrel.

In her paintings-on-photographs and collages, however, Anzenbrger has found a language that is both true to, and compatible with the straight photographs in the book. The subject, or rather the subject-matter of her work is the woods near Vienna, not the Vienna Woods of Johann Strauss fame, which are a specific location, but woodland areas around the city. Most of the pictures were taken when she was out walking with her dog, Shakeera, near where she plays golf at Himberg.

Although Vienna is quite far south, forests, as they do in the culture of all German-speaking countries, hold a particular significance. In ancient times, much of northern Europe was covered in vast forests, home to the Teutonic tribes. It was in the Teutoburg forest, in AD 9, where the Romans suffered the most inglorious defeat in their history, when three whole legions, under the command of the Legate Varus, were annihilated, and, traumatically and symbolically, their eagle standards were taken. The Romans became entangled in the endless forests, and the German tribes were never conquered. So woodland represents a fortress and refuge for German speakers, a symbol of the Heimat (homeland). Anzenberger recounts that she began her project when she noticed a particular tree on one of her walks, a walk to which she returned again and again. “What especially fascinated me were the vines which elegantly wound themselves down to the ground from a branch, creating an image of endless bonds.”

Some fifteen or so pages into the book, this tree features in two single-image, double-page spreads. The first picture is a straight print in a sepia tone. In the second, featuring the same image, Anzenberger has delicately coloured the vines in reds and yellows, the whole tangle having the effect of a Jackson Pollock. This is the volume’s most overtly painted photograph. In others, the colouring or toning is much more subtle, sometimes even difficult to detect. And then there is a group of mixed media images where Anzenberger pastes a photograph on a page and extends the lines of the branches out with spidery drawn lines, often combined with collaged elements and handwritten texts.

If, in her mind, these bonds represent a comforting embrace, a sense of home, this is nevertheless not a cosy or comforting book. The vines are strangling the trees, and the forests, of course, are also the setting for all kinds of bad things, ranging from Grimm’s fairy tales to the lair of Fafner, the dragon in Wagner’s Ring. In Anzenberger’s distinctly spiky vision, there is a distinct air of nasty things lurking in the undergrowth. If she knocked her ball off the fairway into that, one suspects it would not be just the simple matter of a lost ball.

Her title, too, catches the distinctly double-edged feel of the work. Roots represent solidity, belonging, and continuity, the comforting sense of knowing where you have come from and where you are. Bonds – the ties that bind – potentially reflect the same idea, but can also mean constraint, suffocation, and restriction. As Robert Adams famously noted, landscape photography can reflect a number of things – place, the artist’s life, metaphor and symbol. In Roots & Bonds, Regina Anzenberger has given us what might be termed the psychological landscape – comfortingly familiar yet also edgy, distinctly uncomfortable but distinctly interesting.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Regina Anzenberger

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.

Brian Griffin


Book review by Gerry Badger

Brian Griffin making a conceptual photobook? What’s more, Himmelstrasse is an instant candidate for the year’s ‘top ten’ listings. It is a ‘conceptual’ book, I suppose, in that its overall conceit, or the idea behind it, might be considered to be more important than the photographs themselves. But in Griffin’s case, this is not to say that the images themselves are negligible – far from it. This, after all, is a photobook, so its meaning is carried by the pictures. Nevertheless, they are ‘simple’ photographs, without much sign of a stylistic signature or much rhetorical flourish by the photographer. Indeed, this is a one-picture book, a series of images in the Bechers’ mode, in each case looking down a railway track into the far distance from the same central viewpoint.

An important part of the book’s meaning is also embedded in its title, Himmelstrasse. This is a not uncommon street name in German-speaking countries – I know of a Himmelstrasse in Vienna for instance. It means ‘Heaven Street’, and “Gott in Himmel!” (God in Heaven!) was an expletive that occurred in the more jingoistic British war films – along of course, with “Achtung Spitfeuer!”

Put the railway tracks and Himmelstrasse together, and we come to the narrative and poetic core of the book. The tracks, shot by Griffin in Poland, represent the terrible realities of railway journeys during the Second World War, journeys that, in the Nazi occupied territories, frequently led to death: the ironic ‘heaven’ of the title. In particular, Brian Griffin is referring to the journeys so many innocent civilians made to the concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere – civilians selected to be transported to a far off camp to be worked to death, or sent straight to the gas chambers, just because they were Jewish, or Polish, or Romany, or gay.

Now the death trains, mercifully, have long ceased to run, but the tracks remain, some of them disused and overgrown, others put to use for different, more benign purposes. As remnants of a dark history, they exude a palpable sense of loss and poignancy, and yet Griffin’s imagery is also rooted in the present, thanks to recent events.

If the book memorialises, perhaps it also warns. Perhaps, as we look at a photograph of some disused track, Griffin is saying that it would not take much for it to be refurbished and pressed into service to take people to Himmelstrasse once again. Indeed, Griffin’s book seems incredibly timely, as we are currently seeing scenes on our television screens of a mass exodus across Europe, the likes of which has not been seen since the end of the war. An exodus accompanied by warnings from certain quarters that it could lead to future social, ethnic, and religious strife, with a recurrence of the kind of intolerance that led to the previous attempt to impose a ‘final solution’ upon Europe. Simple photographs then, but with a complex meaning, and possibly getting more complex by the minute.

In terms of the photographs, Brian Griffin is too much of an old-time photographer to completely narrow this project down. One can imagine how the Bechers would treat this subject. It really would be a one-picture book. But Griffin allows a certain variety within the tight framework, although he is rigorous enough. Some of the images are black-and-white, but others are colour. Some of the tracks are clearly out of use, while others are still in operation.

There are two near constants, and both are important. Firstly, this is a rural landscape book. There is an image where the tracks run through an industrial complex, an oil refinery maybe, and a couple of abandoned platforms, but no sign of cities, stations, or even villages. Of course, much of the transportation to the camps passed through major conurbations at night, for even the Nazis did not want their people to know what was really happening.

If the settings are rural, they mostly feature woods and forests, the great forest that once covered Germany and this part of Europe, and for instance, defeated the mighty Romans. And the most notorious camp of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was situated in the middle of a forest. Birkenau means ‘the place of the birches.’ The most enduring image of the Holocaust is probably the single railway track ending at the gatehouse to Aushwitz, a picture that is surely the conceptual template for Himmelstrasse.

And finally, there is the most important constant of all. There is no sign of summer in the book. This is a bleak, cold, midwinter book, as befits its sombre subject. It was the winter, ironically, that ultimately beat the Nazis, although it was also the winter that killed so many in the camps. At the very end, the railway stops, and we are faced with a narrow, track-free path through the woods in the penultimate image. The final picture is the only one where we cannot see the way ahead. A large concrete block literally bars our progress. It may have had railway buffers attached to it; it may have had some other purpose. Whatever it is, it exudes an ominous feeling of finality – it tells us discretely but firmly that this definitely is the end.

All images courtesy of the artist and Browns Editions. © Brian Griffin

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.