Laura El-Tantawy

In the Shadow of the Pyramids

Special book review by Gerry Badger

Of the various outbursts of popular protest and revolution around the Middle East in recent years, dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’, few have produced photobooks of any great significance, probably because it is perhaps too soon. To be sure, there has been much photographing and filming – the iPhone is a vital tool for any would be revolutionary these days – but most of it, along with the verbal expressions of dissent, has been disseminated upon the so-called social media, given its advantage of absolute immediacy. If this had been Japan in the 1960s, or Italy in the 1970s, there would have been a plethora of books documenting the various struggles, but in those days publication was the main communications platform for the dissident groups, apart from demonstrations themselves.

However, now one of the most important manifestations of dissent within the Arab world, the ‘Tahir Square’ revolution, finally has a photobook to do it justice, in the shape of Laura El-Tantawy’s In the Shadow of the Pyramids. She has, I suppose the ideal qualifications for this tricky job, having been born in England, then partly brought up there as well in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, then educated in America. Thus she combines the passion of direct involvement as an insider with the necessary distance of the reporter.

Not that there is anything cool or dispassionate about this book, which displays predominantly hot colour throughout; yellows, oranges, and above all, reds – red for passion, red for revolution, and red for the spilling of blood. As it should be, the Egyptian side of her cosmopolitan personality is to the fore in the project, and the work is both passionate and indeterminate, like the outcome of the revolution itself.

And yet, this is not every Egyptian’s experience of Tahir, or ‘Revolution Square.’ Rather, it is the collective experience of those eighteen tumultuous days between January and February 2011 filtered through a singular sensibility. There is a dual narrative running through the book, Egypt’s story and Laura El-Tantawy’s story, and it is uncertain which wins. That is not a criticism. The heart of the work is focused upon Tahir Square, enough for it to be considered a viable reflection of the struggle, albeit one with a very particular point of view.

The opening part of the book describes El-Tantawy’s pre-revolutionary life, in snapshots and glimpses of what she describes as a very traditional upbringing – until this period of her life ended with her going to America in 1998 to study and then adopt the peripatetic life of a photographer. The main narrative begins in 2005, when she returned to Egypt and began a project to explore the Egyptian identity which she felt had been ‘interrupted’ by her sojourn away from the country. She does this in a series of impressionistic street photographs that are typical of her style and set the stage for her Tahir Square images.

When she heard about Tahir Square, she rushed there. The imagistic tone was already set – impressionistic, indeterminate – and it becomes more and like the natural photographic aesthetic of protest, especially nocturnal protest – grainy, blurry, elliptical, confusing.

But that’s what it’s like. I have been at demonstrations, from Grosvenor Square in 1968 to the first big anti-Iraq War rally in London in 2003, and can attest that Laura El-Tantawy captures perfectly the exhilarating, sometimes dispiriting confusion of it all. I followed the Tahir Square media coverage avidly. In one part of the Square, people were singing songs and chanting slogans, or just hanging out and having picnics. At the same time, on the fringes and down the side streets, people were fighting and being killed. A rock festival atmosphere mixed with that of a war zone. The impression of people down there must have been absolutely confusing, with true and false rumours abounding of what was transpiring. And it should not be forgotten that 846 people were killed and some 6,000 injured.

The El-Tantawy narrative begins with hope, pride, and solidarity. It ends, as they often do, in disappointment and conflict. In the sense that it eschews a definite ideological stance, the book could be said to be apolitical, and yet it is in complete sympathy with the dissenting masses, who came from many ideological backgrounds. In that place, at least doing those heady eighteen days, there was a common purpose – Islamists with secularists, liberals with conservatives, nationalists with feminists – and that was to oust Mubarak. That is of vital importance for El-Tantawy, and while hoping against hope, she was aware of its fragility, which makes the shadowy, elusive, almost illusory tone of the book so much more credible, and the disillusion at the end so much more painful.

I have heard people criticise the book for ‘aestheticising’ the event too much, but I reject this. If the pictures were not in colour, it would be quite downbeat. And if you look closely and think about the narrative, rather than skip through it, this is no fairy story tale. The last section begins with an image of the security forces massed behind a road streaked with bloodstains.

I am not sure, however, whether the pictures would work so well on the wall. Isolated in frames, they might well appear too pretty. But I think they work superbly well in the book context, between pages and as part of a sequence that is more complex than might appear at first sight.

Like so much contemporary photography, Laura El-Tantawy mixes the acutely personal into the documentary mix, which in no way invalidates it as a document of Tahir. After all, Henri Cartier-Bresson described his great coverage of the 1948-49 communist takeover of China as his ‘photo-diary’ of the time. This is one view of Tahir Square. Hopefully, there will be others, with very different viewpoints. This, however, is a most persuasive and beguiling one.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Laura El-Tantawy

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.

Doug Rickard


Special book review by Gerry Badger

It is wild, this ability for me to get in there and navigate other people’s camera’s and hijack what I want. It is very dark and enigmatic. It is in this low light and darkness that I found ‘my’ aesthetic and my beauty… the breakdown of the digital resolution then became something gorgeous and powerful – and it allowed me to take away the identity of the subjects and let them speak for American machinations rather than individual stories.”

Probably the hardest trick for any photographer to pull off following the publication of a successful first book is the second. The ‘second album syndrome’, as they call it in the music business. Doug Rickard’s first book, A New American Picture from 2011, was not only one of the best photobooks of the last few years, it established him as a significant new voice in American photography. It wasn’t the only volume recently to feature images made from photographing off Google Streetview, but it is surely the most important, partly because Rickard’s pictures were so damn good, referencing (but not slavishly) most of the best American street photography from the past forty years, but also because Rickard did not forget the basic premise of photography – which is to comment upon contemporary life.

The book simply did not explore some of the issues centring around photography on the Internet in general – and Google’s ‘Big Brother is watching us’ in particular. It was also, as its title suggests, about a vision of America. Like the best photobooks, it pushed the medium’s boundaries, while at the same time gave us salient facts about today’s America. By means of Streetview, Rickard was able to ‘travel’ to places where it might have been difficult for him to take photographs in person. ‘The other side of the tracks’ it is called, dating from a time when America was much more segregated than today, and, especially in the South, the railway tracks often defined the boundary between racial neighbourhoods.

Although one would not stress the sociopolitical aspect of A New American Picture too much, it was definitely there, and although the book can be (and was) viewed in formalist and media terms, the documentary aspect was also important to Rickard, who has a particular interest in the Civil Rights period of American history.

What is clear is that Rickard is part of a generation of American photographers who, without particularly shouting about it, have been documenting the state of the Union during the recent recession, and when American society, for various reasons – including implicit racism against a black president and the rise of China, as well as economic downturn – is suffering something of an identity crisis. The sense that there are two Americas, one definitely on the wrong side of the tracks, continues in Rickard’s new book N.A (the title stands for National Anthem), which continues the current tradition of American documentary photography, essentially telling stories about the country. And Rickard’s story is bleaker, and angrier than most. But ‘documentary’ – is this quite the way to describe a book largely compiled from blurred screen grabs from You Tube videos?

It’s always been a difficult genre to define. Walker Evans was always careful to talk about photography in the ‘documentary mode’, and the term ‘telling stories’ seems apt, in regard to Rickard’s work in general and this book in particular. In N.A, Rickard takes his imagery, from various Internet sources – mainly non-commercial, personal videos posted on You Tube. It might be described as ‘constructed documentary’, but then much more documentary is constructed than we might care to admit. As John Gossage has remarked of photography in general, “It’s all fiction anyway.”

Keeping that tricky word ‘fiction’ in focus, in N.A Rickard seems to have reinvented the ‘photo-romain’ – the photo-novel. And just as that 1950s European genre influenced Japanese photography and the Provoke movement, N.A has more than a whiff of Provoke about it, especially in terms of its wildness and indeterminacy. N.A is a mood piece, but a very superior mood piece, all sideways glances and half lights. N.A is street photography, but not as we know it. It is street photography as might be practiced from an unmarked surveillance car, or someone being sneaky with a phone camera – and God help you if you’re caught.

Here, we are in the territory of such gritty American crime TV series like The Wire, a world of flop houses, seedy bars, and crack dens – and of course street ‘characters’, some with guns, some hooded, most desperate. One hooded figure with a beard in particular looks as if he had strayed in from Paul Graham’s a shimmer of possibility. This is similar territory, but whereas Graham was contemplative, Rickard crackles with menace.

Some might feel that there is too much menace, whether mock or real, and that these images are a series of stills from a Hollywood movie rather than a photobook. That is to say, it is perhaps too melodramatic, too posturing, in the way of the videos he draws from. And yet, the very people he depicts take many of their attitudes to life and body language from fictional depictions, whether from film, You Tube, or gangsta rap.

Art imitates life which then imitates art, in not just an endless loop, but these days an almost instantaneous loop, so the question of what came first, life or art, becomes completely blurred and confused. And certainly one thing that N.A demonstrates is the confusion of life, the confusion between hope and despair, between freedom and servitude, cause and effect – and the fact that in the ‘land of the free’ many people lead lives constricted by politics and economics.

We rightly should be wary of too much fiction in photography, but if it is put firmly at the service of truth, the constructed documentary can be a powerful tool. N.A is an interesting new departure for Rickard, except it seems that it was in the pipeline all the way.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Doug Rickard

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.

Lieko Shiga


Special book review by Gerry Badger

I begin with an admission. One of the most interesting essays ever written by John Szarkowski was his introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide. I find it so fascinating because, although Szarkowki could intuitively see the merit in Eggleston’s work, I think he also found it baffling and difficult to pin down in writing. And his essay explores this sense of puzzlement, his search for understanding. I feel the same about Lieko Shiga’s new book, SPIRAL COAST/album, which I think is quite special – and yet I’m not absolutely certain why.

Lieko Shiga has become the rising star of Japanese photography by employing a completely different style to everybody’s favourite Japanese photographer, Rinko Kawauchi. Whereas Kawauchi is serene and understated in her approach, Shiga is flamboyant and expressionist, unafraid to deploy every technical trick in the book, using both the documentary and the staged photograph approaches. Her imagery does not so much display a style as flaunt a sensibility. And that sensibility is poetic, ebullient, and endlessly inventive, certainly not that of a shrinking violet. She first came to attention with her book Lagoon in 2008, and now looks set to cement her reputation with her new, ambitious project, Spiral Coast.

The Spiral Coast project (which currently stands at three books) derives from the period, beginning in 2008, when Shiga went to live in the small community of Kitakama, in Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture. She was invited to become the village photographer, which meant recording the religious festivals and other community events marking the year’s passage. Kitakama lies in an area of sand dunes and pine trees, designated by Shiga as the ‘Spiral Coast’, and these became a great inspiration for her work, although nature was to prove problematic. The area was badly hit by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Shiga lost her studio and many images she had made of the community. Far worse, Kitakama lost some sixty souls out of the 107 families residing there, and the village was flattened.

SPIRAL COAST/album might therefore be said to perform a memorialising function, although that is to simplify what is an extremely complex work. Frequently, photography is an act of claiming and holding on to something – memories, evidence, relationships, the world. Here, the medium certainly does seem to fulfil that brief, although in this case it is an act of reclamation – an act of remembrance and reflection before life inevitably carries on.

Shiga does this in an extremely proactive way; this is no passive process. She does not so much record the world as remake it. She does not so much fabricate photographs as inhabit them. From this one might gather that Shiga is no realist photographer. The other two books that comprise the Spiral Coast project deal more directly with the community of Kitakam, but the ‘trippy’ album (to use the Sixties vernacular) is the most personal, the poetic flight of fancy.

And it certainly is a dark poetry. Shiga’s images seem to be taken mainly in the gloaming, and the whole ambient feeling is one of darkness and uncertainty. Nothing is what it seems. Many of the pictures are dark, murky even. Shiga likes to shoot at night with a flash that doesn’t quite cover the frame, producing an unsettling vignetting effect. So in many of the pictures the image seems only half there – fugitive, tantalisingly ineffable – like a vague memory.

The book is full of phantasms and shadows, from the flickering, poignant images of damaged snapshots rescued from the flood to the references – in flowers and funerals to the uncertainty of life – exemplified in a repeated image of a washed-up corpse on the beach. Yet, amidst this gloom, there is also a strangely ecstatic element. Shiga is almost as much land artist or sculptor as photographer, and one of the book’s central metaphors is where she takes a pine branch and by sweeping makes spiral and other patterns in the sand, which may echo the meditative function, and the daily sweeping of the famous Zen garden of Ryan-ji in Kyoto.

Like many significant photobooks, SPIRAL COAST/album seems as much about the photographer’s relationship with photography as her relationship with the world. It seems that Shiga is not so much utilising photography to examine her relationship with the world, but rather using the world to explore her relationship with photography. Although of course she cares for the world and in particular the community of Kitakama. Yet her imagery’s singularity and flamboyance makes her one of the most expressionist photographers I have seen, and that makes me uncomfortable with them (in a good way), as I am not normally well disposed towards pictorialism, and Shiga’s work at root is a kind of contemporary pictorialism.

One of photography’s challenges is that it deals with the literal, the material. If you want to use the medium to talk about things you cannot see in the world, like feelings, relationships, or memories, you have to find a way of bending it – usually by employing, to paraphrase Walker Evans, “not only metaphor and symbol, but paradox and play and oxymoron.”

Shiga does this by constructing not only a dense and elliptical narrative, full of blind alleys, repetition, and doubling back, but also a panoply of formal photographic strategies – ranging from the semi-abstraction of the distressed snapshots, painted and drawn over photographs, double exposures, and cross processing to create strange colour distortions. Hardly one photograph is like another, but this remarkable book is held together by Shiga’s singular sensibility – elegiac, meditative, gloomy, playful, and ecstatic by turns. The result is a gigantic, ambitious, mood piece, but a very superior if somewhat baffling one.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Lieko Shiga

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 publishedThe 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.

Paul Graham

The Present

Special book review by Gerry Badger

How do you follow a shimmer of possibility, rightly voted the best photobook of the last twenty-five years at Paris Photo 2011. The truth is, you cannot, but Paul Graham is obliged to, or give up making books. It is unfair to bring the question up, but life is unfair. However, I shall try not to compare The Present with shimmer. I shall try to review the new book as if the last one never happened, although the odd reference might be necessary, particularly as they form part of Graham’s American book ‘trilogy.’

What have you got with The Present, a much anticipated volume? We have an exploration of certain questions that have occupied Paul Graham before, both photography’s relationship with time, that is, the ‘present’, and the nature of photographic narrative, or in this case, with non-narrative, as Graham would have it.

The premise behind The Present is nominally simple enough. The book consists of pairs, sometimes trios of pictures taken on the streets of New York, the images in each group taken more or less simultaneously, one a few seconds after another. None of the photographs could be described as ‘decisive moments’ in the street photography sense, where every element of the image is in perfect synchronisation, thereby creating a formal, if not an actual drama. Of course, his pictures are moments, and certainly decisive because the photographer has captured them, and more importantly selected them, but in imagistic terms Graham is aiming at a kind of divine ordinariness.

And in so doing, he is implicitly critiquing the decisive moment mode. Not for him the fake theatricality of the perfect street shot, which, as Lincoln Kirstein (back in 1938) believed “sensationalises movement, distorts gesture, and caricatures emotion.”

The Present is not about how traditional street photography freezes life and creates drama where in essence there is none, but is about the experience of the street, in particular how the process of seeing and comprehending things on the street can be represented more faithfully in photographs.

For example, take the book’s opening diptych. We are about to cross Delancy Street, in downtown Manhattan. We cannot see the other side of the street because a large truck delivering Heineken beer has paused, straddling the pedestrian crossing and obscuring the view. A moment later, the truck has cleared, but smaller vehicles have taken its place. The crossing is still physically blocked, but the view uptown to a distant Empire State Building has been opened up.

That is the picture’s substance – a view uptown is blocked and then cleared. Actually this is probably the most ‘dramatic’ image pair in the book. Most feature one or two figures who come into focus or disappear in the next picture, to be replaced by another – or not as the case may be. The groups are taken at the same location, but each time the viewpoint shifts subtly, as if we are walking along, and the various figures move in and out of our notice, just as they do as we encounter them in actuality.

But why not make a short movie sequence to recreate this kind of city experience? Asked this by Liz Jobey in The Financial Times, Graham replied that “a lot of film, I find, is neutered by the tyranny of narrative”, the necessity to have ‘a storyline.’

Here, Graham is perhaps being a little disingenuous. I know what he means, but if you put two photographs together, you inevitably create, or at least hint at a narrative. I have written above that we were about to cross Delancy Street in Graham’s diptych. We weren’t. There is nothing, beyond the hint of the pedestrian crossing, to suggest that. I have projected my own narrative on to the two pictures.

A photographer cannot stop that, nor should he. But what Paul Graham is exploring here, is a fragmentary, illusory, highly elliptical kind of narrative, almost a non-narrative. He always has. His photobooks, from New Europe onwards, could be said to be about the poetics of narrative rather than narrative itself. He certainly is no straightforward ‘story-teller.’

The overwhelming intent in The Present is to describe experience and its photographic description in a fresh way – undramatic, but true to how we comprehend the street. I am actually standing at a London bus-stop as I write this. People are walking past me. I look up briefly from my notebook and I catch a glimpse of them, or I look down again and they pass by in a blur of peripheral vision. Graham has caught that feeling. It might not be spectacular, or even pretty, but it is true.

However, I suspect that in a gallery, it is a different matter. In an interview posted on his website, Graham talked about the nature of photography versus photographic ‘art.’ And, whilst not denying the “big bang for your bucks” impact of the large single picture – the Gursky syndrome – he pleaded for the more modest art of Robert Adams, the sequence, and the photobook.

But Graham has done both – the book and the wall, so to speak. And this, I feel, is the real difference between shimmer and The Present. I have seen shimmer in both its manifestations, and while those sequences work on a wall, for me shimmer is first and foremost a bookwork. I did not see The Present exhibition, but my New York spies tell me that the prints were large and spectacular, confirming what I suspected from the book. With large printed diptychs, one would have a better chance to get ‘inside’ these pictures and ‘inhabit’ their spaces, thereby obtaining a fuller sense of the visual and psychological experiences they are conveying.

That conjuring up of lived experience is what the best photography aspires to do, to be about both how we exist in the world and about picture making. The second is as important as the first. When asked once why he took photographs, Garry Winogrand replied, “to get my rocks off.” Paul Graham tries to do this in every project he tackles, the ratio of the first impulse to the second differing each time.

Ok – to come back to being unfair. The Present might not be another shimmer of possibility, but it is still better than at least 95% of the photobooks published this year.

Paul Graham, born in 1956, was among the first photographers to unite contemporary colour photography with the documentary genre in the 1980’s. His early works, including A1 – The Great North Road, Beyond Caring, and Troubled Land were pivotal in reinvigorating and expanding this area of photographic practice, by both broadening it’s visual language, and questioning how such photography might operate.

In 2002 Graham completed a shimmer of possibility, which went on to be voted the best photobook of the last 25 years at Paris Photo 2011, and is the second instalment of Graham’s American trilogy which also includes American Night and The Present.

Graham’s work has been published, exhibited and collected internationally and he has received numerous awards including the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize in 2009 and the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography in 2012. He is represented by Pace MacGill (USA), Anthony Reynolds Gallery (UK), Les Filles du Calvaire (France), Carlier | Gebauer (Germany) and La Fábrica Galería (Spain). Graham lives and works in New York City.

All images courtesy of MACK. © Paul Graham