Carmen Winant

The Last Safe Abortion

Book review by Gem Fletcher

Carmen Winant works to counter the ways anti-abortion movements and the far right have made punishing attempts to control and dominate women’s bodies and reproductive rights. The Last Safe Abortion, published by SPBH Editions and MACK, focuses on the near 50-year period in which abortion was legal in the US (1973–2022), and presents a selection of photographs that employ Winant’s signature strategies of proximity and volume with radical effect, Gem Fletcher writes.


Gem Fletcher | Book review | 6 June 2024

On 30 April 1965, Lennart Nilsson’s portrait of an 18-week-old human foetus appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in a story called “Drama of Life Before Birth”. Over 18 pages, the Swedish photographer, often credited as the first person to photograph embryos, presented a sequence of foetuses at various stages of development, floating in a constellation of amniotic fluid. The actual drama of this ‘unprecedented feat’ in photography was that Nilsson’s images were operating under the pretence that the foetuses were alive when, in fact, they were not. His foetal pictures, posed and backlit, were only made possible because the pregnancies had been terminated to save women’s lives. 

This irony is lost on the anti-abortion movement who, since the 1980s, has weaponised Nilsson’s photographs in our cultural imagination – not as feats of science as he intended, but as visual propaganda – pushing a fiction that embryos are autonomous entities, independent from the birthing bodies that made them. What is missing from both Nilsson’s images – the mothers likely never gave their permission for their lost children to be imaged or reproduced – and the visual tactics of the far right is care. In their punishing attempts to control and dominate, there is no care for ethics, no care for the truth, and most pertinently, no care for women.

It’s this visually inculcated misinformation campaign that Carmen Winant sought to interrogate in her new title, The Last Safe Abortion, published by SPBH Editions and MACK. Focusing on the near 50-year period in which abortion was legal in the US (1973–2022), the book presents care as an agent of change, told through the advocacy and community building of abortion providers across the American Midwest. Building upon similar strategies in her previous books, My Birth (2018), Notes on Fundamental Joy (2019) and A Brand New End: Survival and Its Pictures (2022), Winant intends to fill a void in our visual lexicon whilst inviting the viewer to think about how pictures can function, not as documents, but as tools for social change.

Winant is an artist who has had a stake in the fight for reproductive justice long before the overturning of Roe. As a teenager, she volunteered as a clinic escort, started a pro-choice club in high school and was an active agent in advocacy work in Philadelphia. Returning to the subject in her practice, the challenge was if and how she could transmute these political commitments into art-making. What did the intersection of photography and abortion care look like? And what potential could looking yield?

The project started slowly in Cleveland after Winant made the two-hour drive from her home in Ohio to Pre-Term, one of the longest abortion care providers in the state. Upon arrival, she discovered the clinic’s archive of photographs, slides and negatives living in banker boxes, piled high in cupboards and stacked on shelves. The images – many of which had gone undisturbed for decades – show clinic staff sterilising medical equipment, answering phones, re-enacting procedures and attending fundraising events. These women harnessed image-making as an educational tool to demystify reproductive health and put patients at ease with no step deemed too small or unworthy to photograph. After Pre-Term, the work began to expand as Winant interacted with dozens of personal, organisational and institutional archives across the Midwest, many of which she visited multiple times, building relationships with staff and tracing their histories. Between 2019 and 2023, she scanned and collected thousands of 4×6 images, each playing an incremental role in the struggle. In addition, for the first time in decades, Winant made pictures herself, determined that the inventory of care she was collating reflected the contemporary moment, as clinics fight to survive and serve their communities post-Roe. 

As an object, The Last Safe Abortion feels more akin to a family album than a typical photobook: spiral bound, softback and accessible. Images are mounted on bright coloured hues mimicking the vibrancy of community notice boards and the librarian’s preferred process of archival scanning. Whilst the material quality of the book is simple and pared back, proximity and volume – Winant’s signature strategies – are employed with radical effect. Over an abundant 170 pages, we experience an uninterrupted flow of this visual material, only sporadically breaking pace to present multiple frames of the same moment to slow the viewer down and encourage them to linger. The result is a disarming and profound encounter with care and solidarity en masse – a powerful antidote to the endless violence that dominates our visual lexicon. 

What does care look like? It’s a difficult question to answer because we feel it more than we see it, and care work is quiet and incremental. In the context of the abortion care work, care happens behind closed doors, in waiting rooms, on the phone, around the bed in the operating theatre and in the recovery room. It is remarkably undramatic and visually mundane, yet both life-changing and life-saving. This dissonance gives the project its potency, not just within its context of the women who have dedicated their lives to the work of reproductive justice but as a critical probing of photography and its values.

Unlike photography’s tradition of one revered author, the visuality of this work is the sum of many people, including but not limited to Francine, Chrisse, Sri, Colleen, Deb, Beth, Gayle, Tammi, Barb, Jackie, Carol, Theresa, Harriet, Marge, Jennifer, Karen, Adele, Sunita, Terel, Gina, and Brenda, Gwenne, Dorothy, Cynthia Doleres and Jean. Their unseen labour, made visible by Winant, builds upon a legacy of feminist movement strategy, disseminating information and care for women by women, made possible by a deep commitment to intergenerational interdependence. 

The role of artmaking as a political tool is something Winant makes clear she is still grappling with in her essay at the book’s close.  She writes: ‘It occurred to me that building relationships was the point of the work rather than its subject. What if my work was reciprocal rather than extractive?’ Like the body of work at large, these ruminations sound simple yet offer urgent perspectives about how pictures are made, who gets to make them and how we assign cultural value to photography. The Last Safe Abortion leaves you wondering what would the world look and feel like if the images of violence and trauma being circulated at great velocity were replaced with models of care, collaboration and tenderness? ♦

All images courtesy the artist, SPBH Editions and MACK. © Carmen Winant

The Last Safe Abortion is published by SPBH Editions and MACK.


Gem Fletcher
is a writer, consultant and podcaster. Her work has been published in Foam, Aperture, Dazed, Creative Review and The British Journal of Photography. She also hosts The Messy Truth podcast, a series of candid conversations that unpack the future of visual culture and what it means to be a photographer today.

Exteriors – Annie Ernaux and Photography

Lou Stoppard (ed.)

Book review by Peter Watkins

Curator and writer Lou Stoppard adds visual repertoire to Annie Ernaux’s iconic Exteriors, originally published in 1993, through a new publication and exhibition titled Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography — co-published by MACK and Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP), Paris. Recognising Ernaux’s iconic literary style – unapologetic, brave, and tender, inherently political and dedicated to amplifying marginalised voices – Stoppard sifted through 24,000 photographs, resulting in a photo-book that captures the rituals of everyday life, in a way not so mundane, as Peter Watkins writes.


Peter Watkins | Book review | 21 Mar 2024 

Annie Ernaux’s intimately autobiographical writing is much like the dull ache of an old injury, reminding the body, through its persistence, of its entanglement in the world over time. She writes for the sake of memory and forgetting, and has been prolific in her output since the mid-1970s, earning a Nobel Prize for Literature along the way. Her writing is unapologetic, unembarrassed and tender in its bravery. She has spoken of her work as being inherently political, driven by a genuine desire to give voice to the underrepresented, namely the working class, in acutely observed reflections from her everyday encounters. Her work is paired back, unadorned, with no room for hyperbole. A pioneer of autofiction, she doesn’t seem to suffer from the indulgences and excesses that sometimes accompany the genre. 

Ernaux has spoken of photography as acting as a catalyst for her writing, but it’s ordinary, as opposed to extraordinary, photographs of people that are meaningful to her. She uses photographs as an aide de memoire, and has suggested that: ‘The photograph is nothing other than stopped time. But the photograph does not save. Because it is mute. I believe on the contrary that photography increases the pain of passing time. Writing saves, and cinema.’ In her book The Years (2008), the opening passages come to us like abrupt flashes of memory; fragmentary, and incomplete, but bright and image-like. These lines reveal perhaps most clearly, both her directness and the umbilical bond between photography, memory and language, as well as the existential fear of forgetting and being forgotten: ‘All the images will disappear. […] Everything will be erased in a second. […] We will be nothing but a first name, increasingly faceless, until we vanish into the vast anonymity of a distant generation.’

Upon reading Exteriors (1996), Lou Stoppard contacted Simon Baker, Director of the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, surprised that there hadn’t previously been a major institutional collaboration between Ernaux’s writing and photography, particularly given the building attention around her life’s work, not to mention the photographic claims her writing has made, as so explicit in Exteriors. Stoppard was promptly invited to spend a month going through some 24,000 photographs and 36,000 photobooks that make up the MEP’s collection. Her selections represent some of major names in documentary photography such as William Klein, Luighi Ghirri, Ursula Schulz-Dornberg, Claude Dityvon and Daido Moriyama. The photographs were made in the mid-20th century onwards and depict almost always people, built-up environments and ephemeral encounters in the city. 

Post-war photography of this kind moved us away from a prescribed reading of the image to a multi-layered, subjective and ultimately equivocal vision of the world – uncertain images for uncertain times – and, in that sense, the pairings seem apt, if sometimes a little on the nose. Stoppard herself concedes these ‘moments of visual coincidence’ of course occur, a near-impossibility to avoid perhaps, given the familiarity of the imagery evoked in Ernaux’s writing. She also didn’t want to focus on the grand boulevards of Paris, on Eugène Atget, or the traditional idea of the flâneur, but, rather, on a more universal vision of the everyday, the language of advertising and the rituals of life. Indeed, to do otherwise wouldn’t have made sense, given Ernaux’s politics and focus. As Stoppard points out: ‘To compare Ernaux’s writing to photography is a project that is impossible to divorce from questions of class. Seeing is a privilege. Photographing is even more of a privilege.’

The inference of pairing Ernaux’s originally slim 74-page Exteriors with this curated selection of photographs from the MEP’s collection is to cement some of the photographic associations we already hold dear to her work, but perhaps also to examine this lesser-known publication in photographic terms – extending readings, teasing out connections and re-examining the question of how literature and photography can coexist, and to what end. Stoppard makes headway in this regard in her accompanying essay “Writing Images”, found at the end of Exteriors – Annie Ernaux and Photography, jointly published by MACK. Here, she attempts to contextualise Ernaux’s photographic intentions not only by examining Exteriors, but also by reaching back within the wider context of her work. 

Over the decades, Ernaux’s writing has fearlessly examined, amongst others, themes such as the interior life, identity, women and the body, shame, nascent sexuality, illegal abortion, female sexuality, relationships, grief and the perception of time. Unwavering in her pursuit, these themes have played out somewhere between Ernaux’s subjective personal experiences, read within the wider societal and political movements of the times. 

If Ernaux’s work often leans towards the exploration of interiority, a pursuit nearing claustrophobia in its intensity, then Exteriors, in some respects, represents a literal break, turning itself outwards to the surface of things. The book, in its original form, is made up of journal entries written over the course of seven years, between 1985 and 1992, and mostly in-and-around Cergy-Pontoise, one of five suburban “new towns” surrounding Paris built up in the 1960s, a place she has vehemently rejected as being simply categorised as a non-lieux or non-place. This is where she has written much of her work, a place that is integral to her writing, a place she calls home: ‘A place suddenly sprung up from nowhere, a place bereft of memories […] A place with undefined boundaries.’

These are observations from Ernaux’s adopted home, the neighbourhoods she moves through, from the dentist’s waiting room to the RER suburban train or visits to the Hypermarket. These are the banal spaces of the everyday, observed matter-of-factly, sharply. This is a real, visceral vision of the periphery, away from the charm and clichés of Paris. For Ernaux, these everyday spaces are imbued with sociological and psychological substance, with ‘as much meaning and human truth as the concert hall.’

The images serve to punctuate what is about a third of Ernaux’s book, which is broken up chronologically, and slipped formally between the photographs, inevitably encouraging associations through juxtaposition. The text and images evoke one another, but are not intended as captions or illustrations. Rather, they are offered equal weighting on the page. The images weave between eras and geographies, almost all depicting people, or signs of humanity, pointing towards the universal experience of the city, where, for the first time in history, more than half of the world’s population currently dwells. The photographs, as well as the text, attest to the observational faculties of their authors, captivating and complicating our attention, without ever really being too prescriptive or dogmatic in their associations.

In her interview with the Louisiana Channel, Ernaux describes her work as factual, and restrained of feeling. She writes in Exteriors: ‘I have sought to describe reality as though through the eyes of a photographer… To preserve the mystery and opacity of the lives I encountered.’ But with that comes a tireless curiosity, presented to us by an omnipresent Ernaux, who has the imagination to transform these all too familiar encounters from daily life into something of real vibrancy and fortitude, and, of course, there’s plenty of feeling built into that act. The same could be said of many of the photographers whose work make up the pages of this book. The people encountered come to us as protagonists of their own stories which we glimpse, move through and then beyond, perhaps inviting us to consider the increasingly unequal social hierarchies pronounced and laid bare in the shared urban environments that we presently occupy, in turn allowing us to reflect on how they might be reimagined. ♦

All images courtesy the artists, MACK and MEP.

Exteriors – Annie Ernaux and Photography runs at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, France, until 26 May 2024. The accompanying book is published by MACK.


Peter Watkins is an artist and educator based in Prague, Czech Republic. Watkins received his MA in Photography at the Royal College of Art in 2014, and has since exhibited his work internationally, receiving several awards for his ongoing practice. His work is held in the collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. His book
The Unforgetting was published by Skinnerboox in 2020. He is currently Associate Lecturer at Prague City University.

Images:

1-Claude Dityvon, 18 hears, Post de Bercy, Paris (18 hours, Bridge of Bercy, Paris), 1979. Gelatin silver print, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 1979. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

2-Dolorès Marat, La femme aux Gants (Woman with gloves), 1987. Fresson four-colour pigment print, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2006. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

3-Dolorès Marat, Neige à Paris (Snow in Paris), 1997. Fresson four-colour pigment print, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2001. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy of the artist, MACK and MEP.

4-Hiro, Shinjuku Station, Tokyo, 1962. Gelatin silverprints, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the Elsa Peretti Foundation in 2008. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy The Estate of Y. Hiro Wakabayashi, MACK and MEP.

5-Ursula Schulz-Dornburg, Ploshchad Vosstaniya – Uprising Square, 2005. Photogravure, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the artist in 2020. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

6-Janine Niepce, H.L.M. à Vitry. Une mère et son enfant (Council estate in Vitry. A mother and her child), 1965. Gelatin silver prints. MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 1983. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

7-Marie-Paule Nègre, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris (Luxembourg Garden, Paris), 1979. Pigment inkjet print, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of the artist in 2014. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

8-William Klein, Finale de l’élection de Miss France, entourée de Jean-Pierre Foucault et Mme de Fontenay (Final of Miss France contest, surrounded by Jean-Pierre Foucault and Mrs de Fontenay), 2001, from the series PARIS + KLEIN. C-type prints, MEP Collection, Paris. Acquired in 2002. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy William Klein Estate, MACK and MEP.

9-Bernard Pierre Wolff, Shinjuku, Tokyo, 1981. Gelatin silver print, MEP Collection, Paris. Bequest from the artist in 1985. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy the artist, MACK and MEP.

10-Daido Moriyama, Untitled, 1969. Gelatin silver print, MEP Collection, Paris. Gift of Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. in 1995. From Exteriors: Annie Ernaux and Photography (MACK and MEP, 2024). Courtesy Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation, Akio Nagasawa Gallery, MACK and MEP.

Teju Cole

Pharmakon

Book review by Anneka French

In his third MACK title, Pharmakon — meaning poison, remedy, or scapegoat, Teju Cole explores the material of absence through images woven together with 12 short stories of post-apocalyptic or crisis scenarios, where displaced individuals, mortality, environmental threats, and bureaucratic challenges loom. An apt title, as Anneka French writes, for a book carrying significant political weight, Pharmakon indicating something that might cure, kill, or displace blame – feasibly all of these things simultaneously.


Anneka French | Book review | 14 Mar 2024

‘Time with a photobook is a wander off the beaten path…’ wrote Teju Cole in an article for The Guardian in 2020. ‘Sitting with it, you have to sit with yourself: this is a private experience in a time when those are becoming alarmingly rare, an act of analogue rebellion in an obnoxiously digital world.’

Materiality is prominent in Cole’s new title, Pharmakon, his third with MACK following Golden Apple of the Sun (2021) and Fernweh (2020). Pharmakon features a suite of highly enigmatic photographs that place emphasis on materials to signify absence. The images, taken over a four-year period, are frequently bleak, occasionally humorous, sometimes sensual. Traces of human-life are evoked, for instance, through peeling layers of paint or marks squeaked across dusty glass, through textures of weathered marble or worn concrete, sand, reflections and gentle ripples in water. Such tactile surfaces begin with Pharmakon’s cover, a thin, navy-blue leather-like buckram that lends the volume gravitas from the off. Cole, a novelist, essayist as well as a prolific photographer, has written 12 short stories that intersperse the images inside. These texts, from a few pages to a few paragraphs in length, which are complete pieces in and of themselves rather than fragments per se, open the images up to meanings beyond the initial impressions of the viewer, offering interpretations and parallel trains of thought that range from the ethereally abstract to the unequivocally political. All are unsettling to some extent, shaping the photographs that precede and follow them. There is equal weight between text and image.

The early pages of the book include pale blue skies carved up by overhead wiring and interrupted by the tops of two stone buildings – open and enigmatic but with a sense of curtailed possibility. These are followed by wooden fence panels that afford a glimpse of industrial hoardings beyond the slats. A narrow strip of sky is visible across the top and tarmac painted with yellow markings appears along the bottom section. Next comes a view of water from the window of a vehicle that overlays two pages, followed by a board printed with photographic images of the sea and sky, punctured by screws, and papers removed from a wall. Landscapes, buildings and objects are here offered just out of reach, our views of them altered or denied.

Cole’s first story comes like a punch in the gut. Visceral and shocking, it unfolds from a circular forest clearing into a scene of gunshots and attempted escape, sharp in its clarity, scale and impact. Two photographs of woodland or parkland, a public statue wrapped in brown fabric, an abundant apple tree and two views of a further tree against a building with large windows follow this, not the setting of the story exactly but something comparable, maybe even places that are closer to home. The photographs carry echoes of the story, their locations specific but non-identifiable. The last image in this sequence is a blurred view of open grass and trees, as if the photographer is moving very quickly through the landscape, running like the protagonists in the story.

Many of Cole’s photographs point towards the passage of time. Two facing plates show similar views of a high-rise building at night and in daylight. Our eyes are drawn to different areas of the two images as elements recede into darkness or slip into focus. The grid formation of the building’s windows is recalled in the braille panels that feature elsewhere in the publication and in ceramic tiles, bricks and blocks of stone that appear in several of the photographs. The tower formations are mimicked through trees and architectural structures scattered throughout – including one grand column behind which a piece of litter has been tucked – a stack of books with their spines turned away from the camera, and more loosely, in the rougher surfaces of multiple large rocks. Whole mountains, boulders, smaller rocks and sand chart an ever-diminishing sense of scale that is grounding and humbling.

Cole’s stories carry significant political weight. Post-apocalyptic or crisis scenarios are either foregrounded in the action or hover more insidiously in the background. There are multiple displaced people, dead people, people threatened by the landscape, weather, ill-health, violence and bureaucracy. There are repressed histories and memories that resurface. These themes are supported and extended by the photographs, so that even a quiet, apparently innocuous image – a brick wall, boulder or spillage – becomes highly charged. A piece of paper torn from a lamppost becomes an action of resistance or suppression, fences and walls become borders of exclusion, a mound of earth becomes a grave, a dead bird becomes a dead human. Specific formal arrangements and motifs – particularly water, rock and shadow – repeat, disappearing for a while and then bobbing back up like a float pushed beneath waves.

The complexity inherent in the word pharmakon, an Ancient Greek term meaning poison, remedy or scapegoat, makes it an apt title for the book. The word is semi-familiar and multi-faceted, indicating something that might cure, kill or displace blame – feasibly all of these things simultaneously. It is political. The closing pages of the book assemble images of grids and holes, curved pipes and shadows. The last story is titledCircle”, which returns us to Cole’s initial metaphor of the woodland clearing. In this story, Cole writes: ‘You cannot write about the circle from inside the circle. To write about the circle, you have to be outside it. No, he thinks, that’s not quite right: you could write about the circle from inside the circle. It would have to be possible, and perhaps necessary.’ This riddling is undercut with deep violence in the text’s final paragraph. The book concludes with a vapour trail in the sky, two facing plates of lilac-pink sky and an off-centre double page spread of the sea and another lilac-pink sky, calming, open and hopeful, even while this scene and all the others before it are affected, carefully and incisively, by the force of Cole’s words. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and MACK © Teju Cole

Pharmakon is published by MACK.


Anneka French is a Curator at Coventry Biennial and Project Editor for Anomie, an international publishing house for the arts. She contributes to Art QuarterlyBurlington Contemporary and Photomonitor, and has had written and editorial commissions from Turner Prize, Fire Station Artists’ Studios, TACO!, Grain Projects and Photoworks+. French served as Co-ordinator and then Director at New Art West Midlands, Editorial Manager at this is tomorrow and has worked at Tate Modern, London, Ikon, Birmingham and The New Art Gallery Walsall. 

Images:

1>6-Teju Cole, from Pharmakon (MACK, 2024). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

RaMell Ross

Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body

Book review by Pelumi Odubanjo

Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body, RaMell Ross’ debut book published by MACK, is a potent visual reminder of the history of black American life, a kaleidoscope of lyricism, and visual and narrative abstraction. Pelumi Odubanjo considers the gravity of what it means to carry such an archive of black visuality.


Pelumi Odubanjo | Book review | 17 Nov 2023

In his debut monograph Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body, multidisciplinary artist, filmmaker and writer RaMell Ross reflects on the landscape and visual scope of the American South, reimagining it through a range of mediums, from large format photography and conceptual work, to film and writing. Journeying through the optical terrains of the region, Ross directs our attention through the everyday environments, bodies and structures which coalesce to form what he terms ‘Spell/Time/Practice/American/Body’. Unravelling these words through the five chapters which form his monograph, Ross invites us to reimagine the ways in which the visual may be used to disrupt our existence, in turn asking us what the black body is able to do, say and reperform when abstracted across land and time.

The monograph stretches over Ross’ interdisciplinary practice, mimicking a musical compilation album as we pace through its mystery and quotidian nature. Commencing with a pictorial account before combined with textual narrative, the story begins with the chapter “Spell”, set in South Country, Alabama, where Ross directed his Academy Award-nominated documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2018). In the two photo series that are present in the monograph, Ross documents South County over two different periods, first from 2012 to 2014, and then from 2018 to 2022. Both capture the semi-ruralness of the land using an illuminating approach to photography, extending beyond the physical structures of the environment into intimate, multigenerational layered images of black communities in the American South.

In the opening series South County, AL (A Hale County), Ross plays on the idea of the undetected as he obscures place and person through various visual tricks; with some subjects facing away from the camera with their hoodies acting as figurative silhouettes, some using the parts of cars to fragment their bodies and others tactfully using light and shadow to allude to a slow unveiling of face and body. The series simultaneously inhabits pastoral and urban spaces as Ross repeatedly searches for new ways to abstract his subjects within the American landscape. In one image, titled “Yellow”, we see a young girl crouched down, the bend of her body mirroring the outline of the foliage that surrounds her. The rose bush that occupies the closest point to the camera obscures the girl, refusing to let her be shown in totality, the red petals slowly fading into the image, appearing as small glimmers of red paint flicked across the photograph. The young girl acts as a mediator to the image’s green hues, her small yellow dress delicately draped alongside the cut grass of the meadow, her small white hairclip and yellow hair accessories appearing as if extended parts of the rose bush closest to the camera’s eye. The image intends to draw the viewer directly towards one place: our young subject who rests in a state of adolescence and wonder. The viewer’s vision becomes purposely pixelated as the young girl’s body both fades away into the landscape and is illuminated through the camera’s unquestionable focus on her. This action is mirrored in Ross’ later image “Giving Tree”, where we see another young character with their body bent, facing downwards as they hang from an isolated tree. Again, Ross purposefully dissembles the young body, fragmenting and splintering it as a large branch passes through her abdominal area. The young girl folds herself across the bough, dressed in a loud red shirt that pronounces her against the natural palette of the surroundings. Her draped body appears lifeless, both contrasting and echoing the “still life” of the ongoing scene. This image awakens brutal memories of black bodies in the American South’s past, one where, in Alabama alone, it has been recorded that over 300 black people were lynched from 1877 to 1943 during the Jim Crow era. By draping herself from this tree, this young girl becomes one of the strange fruits as sung by Billie Holiday, forming a peculiar sight in a yet all too familiar setting.

With this latter image, Ross reminds us that, in its simplest form, a tree is not a symbol of terror. And in this scene, this girl is arguably creating her own sense of joy through play. As with the girl in the previous image, she is simply existing, a state that Ross is able to permit through his lens. It is in her imagination and desire to play that Ross captures what it means to reproduce images of black bodies within such landscapes. Ross creates an unease in his photographs that touches on racial history and violence through a blunt approach to image-making. In these ways, Ross positions his characters in an ontological plurality that so much of black life exists within, between past, present and future, living in an abstraction that lends itself to an inverted understanding of documentation. Ross forces his viewers to question the production of images that they are used to observing of the American South, and defends his right to abstraction, creating an expressiveness and lyricism that goes beyond documentation.

Moving towards various mixed-media and writings, Ross’ poetic works are scattered throughout the book. In Ross’ later poem, titled “Slangness”, we observe the interplay between what is textual and what is visual, his words becoming beacons of speech, yielding to the sling of his dialect, stripped to its bare rhythm. Ross’ playful words mirror the writing of poet and theorist Fred Moten, whose poetic verse and approach to black radical theory reopens wounds of blackness in its ontological form, allowing readers to consider what it means to strip blackness to its barest form. This creates space for transformation and transition, as something which exists in between various co-existing spaces and places.

Similarly to Moten’s style of poetic languaging of black social and cultural contexts, Ross uses his images and words to question what it means to exist in both the past and present as a black Southern body. Much of Moten’s work around the making of blackness is concerned with the specific conditions that form what we know as the black body. Looking into and beyond ideas around blackness in its bodily form, Moten is a writer concerned with the ways in which form and formlessness may be co-opted as tools to suggest alternative ways of viewing and understanding black life as it exists in the present. In this, Moten uses a form of voice composed of fragments, scattered across long sequences and varying shapes, a purposely abstracted form. His words draw you in, and ask you to read through the lines, with language serving as a means to both disrupt and resist expectation.

Ross’ words and imagery are activated through a vortex of abstraction, both in its formlessness and its form, as he allows words to take on new meanings within readings of his work. Similarly to Ming Smith and Roy DeCavara, photographers who leaned into abstraction to create images that enact the constellation of black life that surrounded them, and much like Moten in his writing, Ross uses language to create an inseparable dialogue that meditates our understanding of blackness in the American South. Most aptly seen in his “Black Dictionary (aka RaMell’s Dictionary)”, Ross uses abstraction to resist the system of capture, both linguistically and visually, recognising the role of the linguistic historical subjugation, and freeing them through a lively interplay of idiolect and dialect.

What is it that a black object does? What is blackness able to do in its abstraction? In Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body, Ross testifies that it can reclaim and free you. Occupying the chapter “Practice” is a documentation of Ross’ film Return to Origin (2021), a remarkable conceptual work in which the artist freight ships himself into a 4 x 8 ft box, a reference to Henry Brown who shipped himself to freedom in 1849. In this re-enactment, Ross uses historical references and filmmaking to create a conjunction between the past and present. In turn, Ross challenges us to reorient our understanding of “black objects”, and how through material, method and ways of being in the world, we may build our paths to freedom.

There is an argument that the mass volume of works included in this book causes it to wander at points, and in places risks losing its sense of narrative. However, it is through this abundance of material that we see the gravity of what it means to carry such an archive of black visuality. Ross’ work positions itself as a vital visual reminder of the history of black American life, a kaleidoscope of lyricism, and visual and narrative abstraction. ♦

All images courtesy the artist © RaMell Ross.

Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body is published by MACK.


Pelumi Odubanjo is a curator, writer and researcher based between London and Glasgow. She currently works as the Assistant Curator for Glasgow International, having previously held positions as a Curatorial Assistant at the Serpentine Galleries, London, and as Studio and Programmes Assistant at V.O Curations, London. Odubanjo has curated for festivals and institutions including Photo50 at the London Art Fair, Photo Oxford, Tate Exchange at Tate Modern, London, Brighton Photo Fringe and the Black Cultural Archives, amongst others. Her writing on contemporary photography, art and culture has appeared in Magnum Photos, New Contemporaries, Artillery Magazine, Photoworks and Photo Fringe.

Images:

1-RaMell Ross, “Open”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2012–14), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

2-RaMell Ross, “Man”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2018–22), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

3-RaMell Ross, “Ladrewya and Michelangelo”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2012–14), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

4-RaMell Ross, “Tomb 76: Catch”, from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

5-RaMell Ross, “Here”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2012–14), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

6-RaMell Ross, “Light in the Attic”, from Earth, Dirt, Soil, Land (2021), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

7-RaMell Ross, still from Return to Origin (2021), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

8-RaMell Ross, still from Return to Origin (2021), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

9-RaMell Ross, “Flag Case Black”, from Earth, Dirt, Soil, Land (2021), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

10-RaMell Ross, “Dakesha and Marquise”, from South County, AL (A Hale County) (2012–14), from Spell, Time, Practice, American, Body (MACK, 2023). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Top 10

Photobooks of 2022

Selected by Alex Merola

As the year draws to a close, an annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases that caught our eye during 2022 – selected by Assistant Editor, Alex Merola.

1. Carmen Winant, Arrangements
Self Publish, Be Happy / Images Vevey

The book – as both medium and as subject – is probed to its expansive potential in Carmen Winant’s latest. Large, elegant but always “DIY” in feel, with its rough, naked spine, Arrangements is one of those books that is both specific and sweeping at the same time. For the once discrete and disparate tearsheets that bound it together – depicting Bikram yoga classes, beauty pageants, moonwalks, childbirth, tantric sex and the young Malcolm X – have been decontextualised to conjure wonderfully capacious constellations which, as a whole, wrestle with, and trouble, the notion of “theme”. Most admirable is Winant’s insistence on labour; inherent not only in the (ever-visible) tears of each page, but also in the collaborative networks that enable the making and sharing of a book, foregrounded through the detailing of the designer, printer, distributor and, of course, publishers Self Publish, Be Happy and Images Vevey on the graceful front-cover. Whilst this is a book that could have been subject to an infinite number of rearrangements still, the strength of the “arrangement” Winant lies in its courage: the courage to put something out into the world; something confounding and generous in equal measure.

2. Collier Schorr, August
MACK

As strong as the taboos it touches, Collier Schorr’s third chapter in the Forests and Fields series is over a decade in the making and well worth the wait. Her many revisions have resulted in an unnerving book, extending Schorr’s investigations into ancestral responsibility through the mythos of the small town of Schwäbisch Gmünd, a synecdoche for German history. A finely-calibrated blend of history and fiction, the sequencing moves through Polaroids picturing crucifixes, flora and androgynous boys, at their moment of ripening, in and out of Nazi uniform. Invoking the performative history of fetishism and uniform – with references to Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) as well as August Sander’s portrait of Hitler’s guard – Schorr is clearly working with the reactions the young men portray when they are confronted with artifacts of the Third Reich. Her anachronisms are provocative and transgressive, but also intimate and cathartic, resonating further given that Schorr is of Jewish descent, while most of her subjects are not. It is commendable how Schorr has sought to uncover the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of traumatic history, inherited and imagined. Ultimately, this book does not lose itself to nostalgia, even if it is hinged to it. For the fleeting Polaroid frames land on the now, shedding light a war whose ripple effects persist.

3. Zoe Leonard, Al río / To the River
Hatje Cantz

Intended as a companion, rather than a catalogue, to its coinciding exhibitions at Mudam Luxembourg and the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Zoe Leonard’s Al río / To the River is a real tour de force and totally befitting of this most ambitious body of work. Comprised of 2,000 kilometres worth of photographs, the first volume follows the Rio Grande / Río Bravo along the US-Mexico border through a nuanced weave of abstractions of whirling water, iPhone shots of digital surveillance imagery and documents of Leonard’s own path. Countering the mass media’s sensationalist portrayals of a natural river that is made to perform a political task, all the while exposing the topographical indistinguishability of its demarcations, Leonard’s “half-pictures” inconspicuously shift through different ground-level vantage points, geographical times, tempos and tones. The arrangements of photographs – alternating between standalones to groups of two, four or more – invoke a multiplicity that is perfectly reverberated in the second volume, wherein writers, artists and other thinkers ruminate on the fraught history of the river from their respective fields. The book is an anti-monument, developed through its repetitions and refractions: its emphasis instead is on subjectivity and embodiment; on the notion that taking a photograph is taking a position. After all, Leonard’s preserved black frames do not carry the weight of the world, but the weight of her vision, which in turn becomes ours.

4. Kikuji Kawada, Vortex
Akaaka

Evidence of Kikuji Kawada’s ability to make a masterful book has increased spectacularly with his aptly-titled tome. There are clearly elements of his great opus The Map (1965) contained within the DNA of Vortex, not least for the cover’s chilling allusions to the scars of war left on urban environs. Yet, Kawada’s extractions of the zeitgeist carved into the depths of Tokyo have taken on a fundamentally twisted form here, resulting in surely one of the most bewildering books in some time. Spending time in its company is an intense experience; with extraordinary energy and stamina, the claustrophobic, seemingly never-ending full-bleeds, packed with immense colours, contrasts and textures, plunge us into a strange catastrophe. Pulled predominantly from his vast Instagram archive – which, as curator Pauline Vermare notes in her accompanying essay “Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt”, feels like a “timeless conversation with a man of outstanding depth, soul and modernity” – Kawada’s visions have been augmented on matte paper, thereby summoning the impression of coming into contact with another’s memories – or indeed nightmares. The book feels like, in many ways, a culmination of Kawada’s lifelong mental-mapping, through which he has strived to find the “clues to the future and the whereabouts of my spirit.” Yet, one also feels his quest into the darkness of a sky from which the sun has fallen is but over yet.

5. Nan Goldin, This Will Not End Well
Steidl / Moderna Museet

There are few experiences as ecstatic as encountering a Nan Goldin slideshow in its intended form. With that said, since her breakthrough The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1985), Goldin has produced several books-on-films which have both eschewed and embraced the artist’s original vision for her slideshows. This Will Not End Well is a stunning culmination of all of them, and the first time we can truly appreciate, in one place, the breadth and depth of her work as a filmmaker. The book’s exquisitely-paced sequences are true to their sources; flickering glimpses of light, sinking deeper into the night. Whilst its filmic debt is obviously strong, the black spaces of the pages also remind us that Goldin’s slideshows are, too, films made out of stills. The statis of each frame is heightened here on the page, the result being a reinforcement of the artist’s use of photography as memoir, as preservation, as a talisman against loss. And now, in place of the soundtracks, one hears whirring, whistling and voices. They are different voices, all telling the same story: of passages in and out of addiction; of families lost and found; of romantic obsession until death. There is much pain and heartache to be found here – but also, when it is most needed, love, tenderness and strength.

6. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker
Dewi Lewis

Dewi Lewis’ republishing of Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s Byker (1983), a very distinct and authentic snapshot of British cultural life during the 1970s, feels timely in this moment of heightened social inequality and reflection. It is of course a testament to the incredible depth and power of this body of work, which documents the Finish photographer’s deeply-lived encounters with the terraced, working-class suburb of Newcastle; it was amongst the steep cobbled streets and smoking chimney pots that Konttinen found home. Whilst Byker was destined for redevelopment and eventually bulldozed (along with Konttinen’s own house) to make way for the Byker Wall estate, the photographs do not actively court the reader’s sentimental responses. Instead, they bear an intensity of living and loving, of struggle, resilience and, above all, community. The photographs have been handled with tremendous respect, exemplarily reproduced in tritones and re-sequenced alongside local anecdotes, many of which are published for the first time. Although Konttinen’s introductory text yields wonderful insightfulness, sensitivity and wit, it is her eye that exhibits the greatest empathy. It is perhaps an empathy that only photography, with its ability to, even decades later, relay and multiply a human consciousness, could elicit.

7. Sayuri Ichida, Absentee
the(M) éditions / IBASHO

Looking for the ties that connect the photographs contained within Sayuri Ichida’s Absentee is like groping for Ariadne’s mythical thread, until one realises that the seeking is essentially its point. Though oftentimes elaborate, the book does not feel overproduced or too precious; it is a consummate piece of bookmaking, ranking amongst the finest and most memorable of the collaborations between the(M) éditions and IBASHO. Ichida has reworked the traditional category of elegy (in this case, in honour of her mother) to impressive effect, inviting a variety of viewpoints which can only be gained through act – or process – of feeling. Feather-light in one’s palm, the book is comprised of multiple Japanese bound gatefolds that house four-image sequences. They reveal urban structures, scenes from nature and Ichida’s own body, inverted in silver inks on black matte paper, eliciting an elemental, even ritualistic, experience. For all of Ichida’s emphasis on touch and surface, the book’s dualities – between positive and negative, exteriority and interiority – seem to constantly point, in a very visceral way, to something much deeper. In the strange, tense symmetries of worlds Ichida has sketched, what really comes through is the power of their being in a book: frail but immovable.

8. Samuel Fosso, African Spirits
Sébastien Girard

The latest gem to emerge from the printing workshop of Sébastien Girard is African Spirits by Samuel Fosso, a most enigmatic artist who, since his early experimentations in performative self-portraiture in his Bangui studio in the 1970s, has never stood still. Although it is, in design terms, a comparatively restrained follow-up to the dashing Studio Photo Nationale (2021), Girard’s decision to print Fosso’s legendary series as a newspaper-format risograph publication is characteristically wise, for here is a work concerned with the media, celebrity and the history of representation. Fosso references and restages (or moreover parodies) famous photographs – including mugshots, press images and studio portraits – of prominent personalities of 20th century Black liberation movements, the most iconic of which is Carl Fischer’s 1968 Esquire cover showing Muhammad Ali impaled by arrows, martyred as St. Sebastian. We also find Fosso self-styled as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, two principal thinkers of Négritude. Indeed, the posture of revolt – a voice of raising up, a voice of freedom, a voice for the retrieved spirit – propels these performances. What’s more, through his extension of photography’s role in the construction of myths – this book only the latest chapter – Fosso reminds us that what’s past is always prologue.

9. JH Engström, The Frame
Pierre von Kleist

Believing in man today is complicated; what is left to admire, desire or envy? There has been no shortage of meditations on masculinity in recent years, but JH Engström’s, which is entitled The Frame, stands out for its scope and sincerity. The daunting exterior of this black, almost bible-like, book belies what lies inside: three-decades-worth of portraits of the men in Engström’s life; trans and cis, naked and bruised, desperate and vulnerable, sometimes violent but never fantasy (someone else’s, theirs, his). Divided into roughly-edged chapters, which either begin or end with a portrait of the artist himself, the rhythmic sequencing is, whilst skilfully sustained and indeed thematised, totally unconcerned with the language or logic of a single, sovereign gender. On the contrary, these broken faces find themselves mirrored by the frost-shattered, ice-aged rocks of Engström’s native region of Värmland in Sweden, which bracket – or frame – this book, which is really more like a refracted self-portrait. The effect is startlingly existential. What Engström invites us to find is the anima within. This is, after all, what makes us human.

10. Meghann Riepenhoff, Ice
Radius Books / Yossi Milo

Volatility, tactility, mercurial, the sublime: these are the words that come to mind when perusing Meghann Riepenhoff’s exquisite Ice. Although it is delivered with an immaculate blind debossed cover bearing frosted imprints, the imagery within is anything but. By producing cyanotypes through an unpredictable process of physically tracing ice – in varied temperature degrees, water types and crystalline structures – onto photographic paper, Riepenhoff has clearly conducted herself with great integrity, putting herself at the mercy of natural forces in an era when human urges to contain the environment have caused unprecedented destruction to our planet. Because her prints are left unfixed – in a state of flux from the point of their conception – their being reproduced on the page naturally limits their inherent drama. Nevertheless, it is by way of the book’s cumulative effect that Riepenhoff successfully evokes the fluidity in the frozen. These are the words which title the beautiful text by Rebecca Solnit, who writes: ‘… there was the yearning of blue, which is itself the colour of yearning because it is the colour of distant things…’ Riepenhoff reminds us that they are also the blues that kicked off the photobook in 1843: the blues of Anna Atkins. How wonderful it is to see her legacy live on in such spellbinding ways.♦


Alex Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words. 

Images:

1-Cover of Carmen Winant, Arrangements (Self Publish, Be Happy/Images Vevey, 2022). Courtesy the artist, Self Publish, Be Happy and Images Vevey.

2-Tearsheet from Carmen Winant, Arrangements (Self Publish, Be Happy/Images Vevey, 2022). Courtesy the artist, Self Publish, Be Happy and Images Vevey.

3-‘Mattias. Study for The Night Porter (1974)’ from Collier Schorr, August (MACK, 2022). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

4-Detail from Zoe Leonard, Al río / To the River (Hatje Cantz, 2022). Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain and Hauser & Wirth.

5-From Kikuji Kawada, Vortex (Akaaka, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Akaaka.

6-From ‘The Other Side’ (1992–2021) in Nan Goldin, This Will Not End Well (Steidl/Moderna Museet, 2022). Courtesy the artist, Steidl and Moderna Museet.

7-‘Kids with Collected Junk Near Byker Bridge, Byker’ (1971) from Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Byker (Dewi Lewis, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Dewi Lewis.

8-‘#207’ (2021) from Sayuri Ichida, Absentee (the(M) éditions/IBASHO, 2022). Courtesy the artist, the(M) éditions and IBASHO.

9-‘Self-Portrait (Muhammad Ali)’ (2008) from Samuel Fosso, African Spirits (Sébastien Girard, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Sébastien Girard.

10-From JH Engström, The Frame (Pierre von Kleist, 2022). Courtesy the artist and Galerie Jean-Kenta Gauthier.

11-From Meghann Riepenhoff, Ice (Radius Books/Yossi Milo, 2022). Courtesy the artist, Radius Books and Yossi Milo.

Luigi Ghirri

Puglia. Tra Albe e Tramonti

Book review by Luce Lebart

Luce Lebart extols the virtues of the latest monograph dedicated to Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri, Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti, published by MACK, a dazzling testament to the singular vision of the maestro of colour and light as well as his relationship with Puglia — the distinctive region at the heel of Italy.


Puglia, between sunrises and sunsets… The title of Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti, published by MACK at the beginning of 2022, announces its colours. From dawn to dusk, the hues here are slightly faded, as if they were swept by the wind and salted by the sea. The palette is sensitive and, above all, recognisable. It is that of the Italian photographer, maestro of colour, Luigi Ghirri.

Thick but supple in the hand, this beautiful book brings together more than 200 of the photographs that Ghirri, a native of northern Italy, took in the south of the country during his stays there from the beginning of the 1980s until his death in 1992, at the age of 49. There is no doubt that the photographer was marked by the light so different from that of his province of Reggio Emilia in Emilia-Romagna where he took most of his photographs. This light certainly contributed much to shaping his geometric apprehension of the landscape, as explained by those close to him.

Throughout the pages, the photographs follow one another with regularity, a parade reminiscent of cinematographic travelling: of wandering and strolling with family, friends or simply alone. At times, white pages offer occasions for breathing, punctuating the photographer’s views. The sudden whiteness of the paper echoes the dazzling whiteness of Puglia’s light. Each photograph is surrounded by white margins and seems to emerge into the light. The photographs are silent, as their captions are only run at the end of the book. The book, however, is far from silent. Three beautiful texts follow the picture album and recount it warmly, all written by relatives who are attuned to his work and sensibility.

Snapshots of strong moments give way to more banal ones. The little stories rub shoulders with the big stories. Ghirri’s method, as he himself wrote, is ‘very close to literature, but also to cinema…’ He said: ‘Cinema has moments of greater overall intensity with more narrative moments or with pauses which are nevertheless necessary for the comprehension of the film.’

The photographs published during Ghirri’s lifetime have been included alongside new unpublished photographs taken from his archives and chosen by his family. This book was produced by several hands and brings together different temporalities. It is the tangible reactivation of a project of the same name which, formerly, remained in the state of a maquette.

The first version of Puglia had indeed been designed by those who worked on the concept with his wife Paola Borgonzoni Ghirri, accompanying an exhibition devoted to Puglia which had opened its doors in 1982 in Bari on the initiative of Gianni Leone. Passionate about photography and an adorer of Ghirri’s singular gaze, Leone – then head of Spazio Immagine in Bari, dreamed of exhibiting the works of the native of Scandiano. It was in this context that Leone invited Ghirri to discover his region. Ghirri had started photographing 10 years earlier, in the early 1970s, and became known in particular for his major exhibition organised in 1979 at the Galeria Nazionale in Palazzo Pilotta in Parma, as well as for the monographic book that accompanied it, published by Quintavalle, with an introduction by Arturo Carolo. 40 years after the Bari exhibition, it is again Leone who suggests that the Ghirri family take over this unpublished dummy to tell its story.

“Nothing old under the sun,” Ghirri liked to say. This expression sticks to his vision, a vision that has accompanied the contemporary work made from his archive. For his daughter Adèle Ghirri, who is in charge of the huge collection now kept at the Luigi Ghirri Foundation, the archive is a “living space” that is in no way immutable or fixed. On the contrary, it is “a reservoir from which to extract and reveal new images”. It is with this approach that this beautiful book was designed at the crossroads of different views: that of the photographer, the gallery owner and the photographer’s friends and family. The past works on the present, bringing to life, in a different way, memory and recollections. This approach is actually familiar to the rights-holders of the photographer: also published by MACK was Colazione sull’Erba (2019) made with previous unseen archival images from Ghirri.

The form of Puglia speaks to its content and materialises its concept. The volume is surrounded by a recycled paper jacket, the centre of which displays the image of a deserted square in Bitonto. This image was not part of the original selection of the 1982 model, itself reproduced at the end of the book. On the front cover, we find this same place of Bitonto but with a tiny time lag: a boy with a bicycle has burst into the image here. The human figure was absent from the 1982 version. The Puglia of 2022 incorporates it: we meet the gaze of young communicants on their way to the church; men chatting in the piazza; children passing by; fleeting shadows, like memories brought back to life. These guests are added to the facades of whitewashed houses, to the images of green and white cabbages placed on a makeshift table, to the deserted alleyways, to the closed doors transformed into flat areas of colour with blinding luminosity… And then, an omnipresent coastline. As Arturo Carlo Quintavalle explains in his text: the journey in Puglia is a ‘story not about Puglia but of Puglia.’

For the photographer’s daughter, the form of the book is a privileged way to share the breadth and depth of Ghirri’s work. The collaboration with MACK has now lasted more than 10 years and has been rather productive, from Kodachrome (2012) to The Map and the Territory (2019), and The Complete Essays 1973-1991 (2016) to Colazione sull’Erba. This collaboration has also helped to disseminate the work of the photographer adored by Italians. “Nothing new under the sun.” The links between the man and his work created during his lifetime are still there. Life goes on, and, over time, the immense work of Ghirri extends and branches out. ♦

All images courtesy the artist and MACK © Luigi Ghirri

Luce Lebart is a historian of photography, curator and researcher for the Archive of Modern Conflict.

Images:

1>7-Luigi Ghirri, “Bitonto, 1990”, from Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti (MACK, 2022). Courtesy the estate of the artist and MACK.

8-Luigi Ghirri, “Polignano a Mare, 1986”, from Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti (MACK, 2022). Courtesy the estate of the artist and MACK.

9-Luigi Ghirri, “Grotta Zinzulusa, n.d.”, from Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti (MACK, 2022). Courtesy the estate of the artist and MACK.

10-Luigi Ghirri, “53 Bitonto, 1990”, from Puglia. Tra albe e tramonti (MACK, 2022). Courtesy the estate of the artist and MACK.

Writer Conversations #5

David Campany

David Campany is a curator, writer and educator. His books include Indeterminacy: thoughts on Time, the Image and Race(ism), co-authored with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa (MACK, 2022); On Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2020); Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Steidl, 2013); Photography and Cinema (Reaktion Books, 2008) and Art and Photography (Phaidon, 2003). His curatorial projects include #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis (2020), The Lives and Loves of Images (2020) and A Handful of Dust (2015).

At what point did you start to write about photographs?

‘About’ is a complicated word. I first started to write during my undergraduate years. I was on a wildly ambitious 50/50 programme, half image-making, half writing, informed by a number of disciplines: semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminism, post-colonial theory, theories of institutions and ideology, aesthetics, phenomenology and film theory. Reading preceded any writing. Lots of it. I was struck early on by the difference between writings that began from the particular – this or that image – and writings that began with a theoretical abstraction, and deployed photographs as illustrations or examples. Both have their merit, of course, and I wrote in both ways at that time. Seven or eight years later, opportunities came my way to write for magazines and books, and I had to figure out if I could do something. By then, I had already been teaching for a few years. I suspect the daily practice of getting complex ideas into sentences comprehensible to students shaped how I began to write. As the years passed, I became somewhat averse to writing ‘about’ photographs, preferring to write around them, off them, in parallel, leaving the image as something for the reader to consider for themself. This came from the realisation of how little words can do in the face of the image, and to pretend otherwise was folly. That ‘little’ is vitally important, but it is little.

What is your writing process?

Everyone has their own creative rhythms and must accept them, because they cannot really be altered. I’m not all that productive but I don’t waste time. I usually work on two texts at once because I get stuck so often, and instead of doing nothing I can switch.

Most often, I write in order to find out what I think about things, and I try to write in a way that will carry me and the reader through that thinking. That means that the form of the writing is always in play, and cannot be taken for granted. I never know if a piece of writing is going to work out.

Occasionally, I’ve written polemics, and polemical writing was certainly the strongest kind I encountered as a student. I still relish reading strident texts, past and present. They do help to clarify. But I discovered I was temperamentally unsuited to that mode, which is premeditated and programmatic. Writing to discover what you think is quite different. It is speculative, risky, uncharted. Against that, I enjoy the parameter of the word count. If there’s no limit, my writing gets baggy. Not always, but often. (Maybe that’s why I’ve never blogged.) Interesting writing can be any length. A hundred words, a thousand, ten thousand.

What opened me up was the realisation that I could include images alongside my words. The richest experiences I’d had as a reader were with writings that included images, mainly in books on cinema. I liked it when the choice and sequence of images threaded through a text seemed almost like a form of writing. My own writing is done this way wherever possible. If I can get the ‘image track’ to feel interesting, to me at least, I can then begin to write. I don’t know of many other writers who do this. My interest in this approach is why I also became a curator and an editor of photographic books. There are parallels. I have often encouraged students to write this way, beginning with the choice of images. I’ve noticed it can work wonders for smart students who thought they had no chance of writing well, or in a way that they might enjoy and benefit from. If you fear the blank page, put an image on it. (Having the image on the page for the reader to look at for themselves is also a great discipline for a writer.)

I rewrite a lot. Partly, this is because my first drafts are lousy, but I’m trying to get my words to work well on the ear. I’m sure that comes from teaching, but also from the fact that I’ve always been impressed by good public speaking. If my words are dead to the ear, I know I need to rewrite. That’s not a rule for all writing. It just works for me.

The invitation plays a key part. I am fortunate in that institutions, publishers and image-makers often ask me to write. That element of surprise is really useful, as is the feeling of confidence one gets when someone likes your work and thinks you could do something worthwhile. I’m as likely to write for a little-known artist as for a major institution. Follow the work, not the reputation.

Sometimes I would rather not produce a text on my own, feeling I have more interesting things to discuss than to write. In these situations, I’m likely to suggest a conversation or written exchange, rather than an essay. Some of my published conversations – with Jeff Wall, Anastasia Samoylova, Stephen Shore, Sophie Rickett, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Daniel Blaufuks, for example – are among my favourite writings. I should say here that these conversations really are conversations. They are open-ended, speculative, responsive and all about the exchange of ideas. I know this project has the word ‘Conversations’ in its title, but it doesn’t really contain conversations. What I’m writing here is a response to a questionnaire: an efficient way to solicit formatted ‘content’. That’s why the questionnaire is such a dominant form these days. A conversation is the opposite.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

Mixed feelings are the best motivation for me as a writer, and as a viewer. If my feelings are too clear to begin with, then there’s little in it for me. As for problems, I think the largest one has been the growing gap between writing that takes place in the academy (universities) and writing that takes place outside. I think this is worrying for a society. When I became a writer, having worked in a university for a while, that gap was already becoming very real, and I could see it had political consequences. The smart stuff wasn’t getting into the world, and when it did, it was not often understood. As neo-liberal capitalism marched its violent way onwards, the academy retreated from the public square, making its critiques and presenting its alternatives to its peer group, in ways its peer group appreciated. I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. As an emerging writer, I had to face that in a very immediate way. I made the decision, for good or bad, to publish outside of the academy. I’ve written very few “peer-reviewed” essays for academic journals, for example. (Seriously, who wants to live in a peer-reviewed culture? Sounds vaguely Stalinist to me. Sure, I want my brain surgeon to have read the right journals. Culture is different.) The essays I have written for academic journals were to see if I could do it on those terms, as an exercise. Once I’d ticked that box, I wanted other challenges, other audiences, which I didn’t know existed but I had a feeling they might. (I’m always fascinated to see how people who write about photography describe themselves. ‘Theorist’. ‘Art historian’. ‘Critic’. ‘Academic’. The aversion to the term ‘Writer’ says a lot.)

There is such anxiety around images. Rightly so, and for a lot of reasons. But there is a tendency for writing, for writers on the visual arts, to step in and overwrite, to attempt to supply the ‘script for looking’, to take away the anxiety the image produces and stabilise things. More often than not, this is prejudice and preference masquerading as reason. One sees this in everything from museum wall texts, to reviews, blogs and critiques. Images get ‘explained’ in terms of authorial intention, biography, strategy, what we ‘ought’ to be thinking, and so forth. This runs the risk of diminishing us all as viewers, patronising us while pretending to enlighten. Moreover, it refuses the essential ambiguity of images. There are forms of writing that don’t do this, that keep the door open, however awkward and painful that can be. Ambiguity, the openness of the image, can be an anxious problem… But it is the only way out, so we ought to embrace it.

The other problems that motivate my writing are self-imposed. They involve finding new relations between image, thought and language. 

What kind of reader are you? 

Pretty voracious and wide-ranging. I am also a re-reader. Texts can be returned to, in order to figure out how they were written, and as a way of measuring one’s own intellectual and emotional development. There are novels and philosophical essays I make an effort to reread every few years. They stay the same. I change.

How significant are theories and histories of photography now that curation is so prominent? 

I had no idea curation was so prominent. Nevertheless, writing is writing and curation is curation. They share some concerns and approaches, of course, but, as a writer and a curator, I’m interested in the differences.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Unimprovable sentences. The ability to get paid. (As far as I know, we’re all doing this project for nothing.)

What texts have influenced you the most?

Influence is largely unconscious, so don’t ask me. I am not being flippant. The answers we give about our influences are merely the answers we are able to give. Among my conscious answers, the ones that come readily to mind are the writings of Roland Barthes (on almost anything other than photography), Susan Sontag (same), Jacques Derrida, Fred Moten, Susan Stewart, Fredric Jameson, Raul Ruiz, Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras, Julia Kristeva, Gilles Deleuze, Victor Burgin, Frantz Fanon, Adam Phillips, George Orwell, Lydia Davis, Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf. I would give a different answer tomorrow, I’m sure. Between what we know and what we don’t, there are hunches and intuitions. I have a hunch that the texts influencing me most profoundly were, and are, song lyrics. Words as sung. I cannot memorise a line of poetry, even if it means the world to me. I remember songs without even trying. I cannot imagine this has not had an effect, but I am not sure I could define it.

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

There are many places. It’s good to be mindful of this.

The space of critical refusal interests me. For example, how would discussions about identity take shape if one considered the possibility that the most interesting and profound things about identity do not offer themselves to the camera, to visibility? Or, what do we do about the fact that the narrowly consensual categories of both the mass media and art world demand certain conformities? At what points and in what situations might a commitment to photography be a walking away from it, and a turning towards something else, either as a maker, writer or viewer? There are photographers who face these questions and find other ways. And there are writers who have advocated for this too. The endless ‘commitment’ to photography, the presumption that all things of value can and must be available to its often-crushing and limiting embrace, is a very real issue. This should be faced as a matter of some urgency. (I don’t feel committed to photography at all costs, merely fascinated by it, and life beyond it is rich.) Critical refusal ought to be a vital part of the way photography is thought, discussed, taught and written. It should always be on the table. There are many positive signs that this is happening.♦

Further interviews in the Writer Conversations series can be read here.


Writer Conversations is edited by Lucy Soutter (University of Westminster) and Duncan Wooldridge (Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London), upon the invitation of Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University). 

Images:

1-David Campany

2-Book cover of David Campany, On Photographs (Thames & Hudson, 2020)

3Book cover of David Campany, The Lives and Loves of Images (Kehrer Verlag, 2020)

4-Book cover of David Campany, Walker Evans: The Magazine Work (Steidl, 2013)

5-Book cover of David Campany, #ICPConcerned: Global Images for Global Crisis (G Editions, 2021)

 

Top 10 (+1)

Photobooks of 2021

Selected by Alessandro Merola and Tim Clark

As the year draws to a close, an annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from 2021 – selected by Editor in Chief, Tim Clark, with words from Assistant Editor, Alessandro Merola.

1. Gilles Peress, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing
Steidl

What Gilles Peress has achieved with Whatever You Say, Say Nothing – unsurprisingly shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2022 – is astonishing, and surely must rank amongst the highest feats in photobook history. In some 2,000 pages, sprawled across two volumes as well as an almanac entitled Annals of the North, the esteemed French photographer embarks on a visual and philosophical exploration of the ethno-nationalist conflict that engulfed Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to 1998. With no beginning, middle or end, Peress’ tale defies the orthodoxies of linear narrative by orchestrating 22 semi-fictional “days”: days that recycle, over and over, the rituals of violence, protest and grieving; days in which the carnage becomes inseparable from the quotidian. That said, whilst Peress exploits photography’s “reality effect” to register the material specifics of the Troubles, it’s in the work’s accumulation that the strife operates synecdochically. For it expresses – like a photographic Finnegans Wake (1939) – what is elsewhere – or, rather, everywhere: the simultaneity of good and evil; the push and pull of power; the helicoidal unravelling of time. That this work speaks to such profound, ineffable ideas is a testament to the potential of the photobook when it finds its upper limits. And, indeed, few could have executed this unison between content, structure and form so flawlessly as Gerhard Steidl has: a book of all books, unlike anything that has come before.

2. Gregory Eddi Jones, Promise Land
Self Publish, Be Happy Editions

With the mounting complexities which define our times requiring increasingly sophisticated modes of storytelling, it is exciting to witness an artist invent something so utterly imaginative that it makes us see the world anew. Promise Land, by Gregory Eddi Jones, is one such example. In this whirling, poetic mashup, Jones riffs off T. S. Eliot’s apocalyptic epic, The Waste Land (1922), of course penned in the wake of the First World War and influenza pandemic. Aligned with Eliotean tactics of appropriation, Jones’ sequences are comprised of stock photographs: consumerist fantasies which, for the artist, not only bespeak the excesses of contemporary culture, but represent photography in its most hollow, debased and regurgitative state. Through a profusion of détournements – cropping, compositing, inverting, inkjet hacking and digital retouching – Jones makes implicit values explicit, inviting readers to re-evaluate the relationship between photography and truth, or sever their ties altogether. Here is a work that is bold, irreverent and oftentimes chilling, not least for the bookending displays of a composer waving his wand before a spell-bound audience; suggestions that there may be as much method as madness in this heap of broken images.

3. Hoda Afshar, Speak The Wind
MACK

From start to close – and vice versa – Hoda Afshar’s Speak The Wind entrances with its eloquent rendition of zār: the wind spirits which, for millennia, have shaped the topography and traditions of the islanders of the Strait of Hormuz, an oil passageway joining the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. They are said to inflict disease, placated only through ritual dialogues conducted with the gusts themselves. Situated somewhere between the sacred and the baleful, Afshar’s incantatory, cinematically-paced photographs do not so much conjure a people but channel their psychic entanglement with place. Punctuating the book are bound pages depicting wind-sculpted mountains; they form pockets that conceal islanders’ drawings and writings describing their experiences of being possessed by zār. Afshar’s dimensional switches cleverly rupture photography’s predispositions for certainties; those which can be clutched, seen. It’s easy to get swept up by these pages, to concede to forces greater than us, yet Afshar also empowers readers like she does her subjects. Setting foot on twinkling black sands, or setting sail through seas as red as blood, we are ultimately met by a crossroads: between reality and fiction; between this world and another.

4. Tarrah Krajnak, El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan
Dais Books

The breakthrough of Tarrah Krajnak has been one of the most significant of the year, and the artist’s nuanced handling of archival material is on full view in this precious book. Borrowing the title and parable blueprint of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, The Garden of Forking Paths (1941), it plays a deep concern with the circumstances surrounding her birth: amidst the terror of Peru’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, Krajnak’s biological mother travelled to Lima to work as a maid; she was raped, and gave birth to Krajnak in 1979, ‘the year of the orphans’. Instead of attempting to resolve these personal and political narratives, Krajnak invents mothers, imagines lineages and initiates what she calls ‘misremembrance’. The asymmetrical sequences pull our attention in fractured ways, moving through re-photographed images from political magazines, oral testimonies of women born in 1979 and the artist’s interactions with projections in which temporalities enmesh like palimpsests. Krajnak’s sharp prose and deliberate mistranslations bestow an added intensity to this book’s reckoning with subjectivity as much as history, all the while collapsing the boundaries between them. With El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan, Krajnak shows that affinity can be innate, even historical, persisting in the psyches of those separated by space and time yet linked by collective knowledge, memory and trauma. Theirs is a storied history, seen through a glass, darkly.

5. Catherine Opie
Phaidon

Boasting lavish printing and impeccable production values, Phaidon’s survey of Catherine Opie’s prodigious output is of the highest order and entirely befitting of one of the great chroniclers of this century. There is much to be praised for the ways in which over 300 photographs, spanning 40 years, have been mapped, not chronologically, but thematically across three chapters: People, Place and Politics. Yet, the lines which delineate them are almost non-existent. One spread pairs a headshot of Pig Pen (Opie’s long-time friend and subject) donning a fake moustache with a photograph of a lesbian couple seated in their backyard with arms interlocked; another the iconic ‘Self-Portrait/Cutting’ (1993) with a literal manifestation of the domestic scene carved-out on Opie’s back. They are juxtapositions that steer us towards the central paradox of Opie’s oeuvre: for all its supposed extremity in staging the queer body as a site of self-actualisation, there is, at its heart, a yearning for the fundamental. Because, whether documenting human, ecological or architectural subjects, she never strays far from home, hence the tome’s modest, perfectly-judged cover, which displays the young artist photographing herself in the mirror alongside potted plants and a wood burning stove. Opie’s work feels vital; it always did.

6. Raymond Meeks, Somersault
MACK

Raymond Meeks’ very beautiful and affecting ode to ­his daughter, Abigail, is a charged companion piece to his much admired aubade, ciprian honey cathedral (2020). Through imperceptible yet tenderly convicted narrative shifts, Meeks unveils the inner-world of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood and leaving home. He coaxes out Abigail’s emotional subtleties in a way perhaps only a parent could; she is alternately timid, whimsical, inquisitive and fearless. However, Meeks honours the guarded mysteries of adolescence, too. Abigail becomes, for her father, a horizon where intimacy and loneliness converge, as mirrored by Meeks’ sublime evocation of the wilderness that envelops their home, delicately tethered by train tracks, telephone wires and wilting daisies. His impossibly lucid visions crackle with longing throughout until we reach the parting words of Abigail herself, who recalls the innocent daydream of her younger self: ‘She wants to climb on a train and go where it takes her.’ The grace of Somersault is to measure distance whilst recognising that few distances are ever fixed.

7. Zora J Murff, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis)
Aperture

Where Zora J Murff ’s previous book, At No Point in Between (2019), takes as its subject the historically Black neighbourhood of North Omaha, Nebraska, his new book is nation-wide in scope. Beneath the swirling surface of True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) – currently displayed in exhibition form at Webber Gallery, London – lies a provocative meditation on America: its fragile bonds, elective affinities and colonial legacies. From police brutality and lynching to redlining and economic oppression, violence – fast and slow – runs through the veins of this book, so arresting in its dense web of image types: vernacular photography, newspaper clippings, Internet screenshots, video stills, landscapes, portraiture and more. Murff’s dexterous use of juxtaposition – often contextualising his own photographs alongside found and appropriated material – brings into focus the medium’s complicity in creating and maintaining racial hierarchies through the spectacle, commodification or erasure of Black bodies. This book serves as not only a complicated, oft-impenetrable ‘manual’ for coming to terms with the country’s past and navigating its present, but – true to its title – an autobiographical retelling of the epiphanies of a young Black artist finding his voice. And it’s emphatic.

8. Massao Mascaro, Sub Sole
Chose Commune

Sub Sole ­– a classical, richly-layered piece of narrative work which was recently exhibited in an elegant show curated by Fannie Escoulen at Fondation A Stichting, Brussels – follows after Homer’s The Odyssey (c.750 BC), traversing the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea. Its waters have, since time immemorial, been a crucible for voyages: some mythical and heroic; some real and tragic. Against the backdrop of such tense, intersecting contexts, Massao Mascaro furnishes our gaze across relics, architecture and the gestural relations between those who have sought refuge in Europe. These passing impressions are loosely arranged through nine visual poems, each introduced by a literary fragment which rolls along the bottom edges. The clarity of Mascaro’s frames; the lyricism of his sequences; the mesmerising gradations of Mediterranean light: all of them are a function of the casual grandeur of the world he has crafted. Yet, there is also a deeply disturbing cycle to this book, which ultimately feels suspended in time – timeless even – as intimated by the dialless clock that decorates its front cover, or the line from which its title derives: ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes, 1:10).

9. Frida Orupabo
Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim

Although the subversive strategies of Frida Orupabo are best experienced via her Instagram feed, @nemiepeba, and on the gallery wall, this debut monograph affords a persuasive translation of her work in book form. The opening black pages (preceding incisive essays by Stefanie Hessler, Lola Olufemi and Legacy Russell) showcase Orupabo’s social media images, offering flashes of the artist’s extraordinary online archive – a ‘voluptuous trail of black continuity’, as Arthur Jafa called it – which she uses as a laboratory to make her paper collages. Whilst the inclusion of installation views here attests to the uneasy transitions these physical pieces undergo when they enter the gallery’s white space, it also evinces the manifold ways of seeing Black bodies that Orupabo compels. W. E. B. Du Bois’ notion of ‘double consciousness’ – that is, viewing oneself through the coloniser’s eyes – is undeniable, but so too is bell hooks’ ‘oppositional gaze’. Orupabo’s greatest triumph might be in the transmission of a wholly new consciousness, found in the unforgettable, searing stares of her feminine protagonists. Their pasts are fraught, but, in Orupabo’s curative hands, they embody the spirit of resistance that literally underpins them.

10. Alexis Cordesse, Talashi
Atelier EXB

The catalytic inquiry of Alexis Cordesse’s subtle entry into the vernacular genre is this: how does one evoke a tragedy that is paradoxically made invisible through too many images? The tragedy in question is the Syrian civil war, an ongoing conflict that has displaced over half the country’s population since 2011. Seeking an alternative to the sentimental dramatisations of war all too often circulated by mainstream media, Cordesse performs an act of collective remembrance by collating personal photographs belonging to those living in exile in Turkey, Germany and France; those who entrusted him enough to share the memories they hold dear. These artefacts have, like their owners, survived perilous journeys, for, if they had been seized as pieces of evidence at the borders, they might not have made it – and, indeed, many didn’t. Such is the precarity of Talashi, whose title translates from Arabic to Fragmentation, Erosion or Disappearance. Slowly weaving what ultimately becomes an ever-vanishing tapestry of home, this book quakes with a quiet, mournful energy: a reminder that though all photographs are silent, some are more silent than others.

+1. What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999
10×10 Photobooks

The advent of photobook history – a still relatively new field of study – set in motion the books-on-photobooks. Although doing much to further our understanding of the medium, they have failed to redress the canon’s long-standing male biases. Enter What They Saw: Historical Photobooks by Women, 1843–1999. In the foreword to this important anthology, editors Russet Lederman and Olga Yatskevich stress the issues of access and funding or lack thereof; ergo their necessary expansion of what constitutes a “photobook” via the inclusion of albums, scrapbooks and maquettes. Indeed, marginalised histories are not just a question of gender, but of class and race too, hence the scarcity of, for example, African photobooks as opposed to books-on-Africa. The anthology countervails these factors through its signature turn: an interwoven, parallel timeline that charts publishing, magazine and small press events which might not have realised “photobooks” in the narrow, Western sense, but certainly influenced history. Many of these notations are incomplete, acting more like leads. Of course, one wishes that such a sole dedication to female authors did not have to exist. However, until it doesn’t, it prevails as a critical resource for discovering forgotten parts of photobook history: a history that is longstanding, forever rich yet still being written.♦


Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University. He lives and works in London.

Images:

1-Gilles Peress, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing (Steidl, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Steidl.

2-From the chapter ‘The Last Night’ in Gilles Peress, Whatever You Say, Say Nothing (Steidl, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Gilles Peress Studio.

3-‘Betterland’ (2019) from Gregory Eddi Jones, Promise Land (Self Publish, Be Happy Editions, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Self Publish, Be Happy Editions.

4-‘Untitled’ from Hoda Afshar, Speak The Wind (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

­5-‘Dead Ringer/Self-Portrait as Found Photograph (1979 Lima, Peru)’ (2018) from Tarrah Krajnak, El Jardín de Senderos Que Se Bifurcan (Dais Books, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Dais Books.

6-‘Joanne, Betsy & Olivia, Bayside, New York’ (1998) from Catherine Opie (Phaidon, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Lehmann Maupin, New York/Hong Kong/Seoul/London; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Naples and Peder Lund, Oslo.

7-‘Untitled’ from Raymond Meeks, Somersault (MACK, 2021). Courtesy the artist and MACK.

8-‘Stole-On (or, I wanna be a world star)’ (2021) from Zora J. Murff, True Colors (or, Affirmations in a Crisis) (Aperture, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Webber Gallery, London.

9-‘Untitled’ from Massao Mascaro, Sub Sole (Chose Commune, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Chose Commune.

10-‘Untitled’ (2017) from Frida Orupabo (Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim, 2021). Courtesy the artist, Sternberg Press and Kunsthall Trondheim.

11-‘Untitled’ from Alexis Cordesse, Talashi (Atelier EXB, 2021). Courtesy the artist and Atelier EXB.

12-Spread from Christina Broom and Isabel Marion Seymour, Women’s Social and Political Union Postcards Album (self-published, 1908–14). Courtesy Museum of London.

Hoda Afshar

Speak The Wind

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

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


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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy the artist and MACK © Hoda Afshar

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

Top 10

Photobooks of 2020

Selected by 1000 Words

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from the tumultuous year that was 2020 – selected by 1000 Words.

1. Andy Sewell, Known and Strange Things Pass
Skinnerboox

Readers of 1000 Words will recall last year’s feature on Known and Strange Things Pass. Now published in book form by Skinnerboox, Andy Sewell’s meditation on the complex entanglement between technology and contemporary life seems more apposite than ever given the socially-distanced times in which we exist – not to mention the illusory propinquity of screen-based connection. Within a kinetic, non-linear sequence of images that aptly push and pull, ebb and flow, cables – carries of immeasurable quantities of data – weave across the Atlantic Ocean’s bed, and resurface on either side in alien concrete facilities; so rarely seen, these are the material infrastructures that both literally and metaphorically underpin our hyper-connected world. Ambitious, understated and fleeting, Known and Strange Things Pass explores the ways in which the ocean and the Internet speak to each other and speak to us, whilst probing photography’s ability to render visible such unknowable entities, infinitely vaster than we are.

2. Poulomi Basu, Centralia
Dewi Lewis

It has been quite the year for Poulomi Basu, whose docu-fictional book Centralia has earnt the artist the Rencontres d’Arles Louis Roederer Discovery Award Jury Prize, and a place on the shortlist for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. Beneath its blood-red, sandpaper-rough cover, Basu takes us through the dense jungles of central India, where a brutal war between the Indian state and Maoist insurgents over land and resources has waged for fifty years, in turn casting light on the woefully-underreported horrors of environmental degradation, indigenous and female rights violations and the state’s suppression of voices of resistance. Embracing a disorientating amalgam of staged photography, crime scenes, police records and first-person testimonies – all punctuated by horizontally-cut pages and loose documents – Centralia traces the contours of a conflict in which half-truths reign over facts. Though not for the faint-hearted, this open-ended account of an ongoing war affords us space to reflect on what we have seen, and to choose what we believe.

3. Buck Ellison, Living Trust
Loose Joints

A worthy winner in the First PhotoBook category for the 2020 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Awards, Buck Ellison’s Living Trust, published by Loose Joints, requires us to study the visual iconography of privilege as embodied by white, upper-middle class lives – or W.A.S.P. – in the United States. In these carefully constructed and performative photographs, insignia such as wooden cheeseboards, organic vegetables, acupuncture bruises, car stickers, lacrosse gear and even family Christmas card portraits examine how whiteness is exhibited and ultimately sustained through everyday structures, internalised logic and economic prowess. Deftly drawing on the language of advertising and commercial photography, Ellison conjures an uneasy world where the “whiteness project” manifests itself over and over again all the while perpetuating deadly inequality both in material and ideological terms.

4. Antoine d’Agata, VIRUS
Studio Vortex

As the title suggests, this book squares up to our present moment amidst the global health crisis with an unflinching intensity characteristic of the famed Magnum photographer. As soon as Paris entered a lock-down in March, Antoine d’Agata took to the emptied streets with his thermal camera. Here, civilians, medical workers and hospital patients are rendered as spectral, flame-tinged figures that flash across the pages. With temperature the only marker differentiating each pulsating body from the next, d’Agata proffers a haunting yet visceral mood piece laden with an existential dread that is befitting of our times. Beyond the limits of reportage, VIRUS is ultimately borne out of an impulse to get to the heart of things, to make sense of the incomprehensible and to visualise what the naked eye cannot: an invisible enemy, at once everywhere and nowhere. A dystopian masterpiece, these images refuse to be shaken off quickly.

5. Lina Iris Viktor, Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter
Autograph


Although there is no equivalent experience to witnessing the allure and intricacy of Lina Iris Viktor’s paintings up close, her debut monograph more than makes up for it through its fittingly-regal design. Published to accompany her solo show at Autograph in London earlier in 2020, it takes us into the British-Liberian artist’s singular world, embellished with luminescent golds, ultramarine blues and the deepest of blacks. Drawing from a plethora of representational tropes that range from classical mythology to European portraiture and beyond, Viktor’s practice playfully and provocatively employs her solitary body as a vehicle through which the politics of refusal are staged, and the multivalent notions of blackness – blackness as colour, as material, as socio-political awareness – come to the fore. Some Are Born To Endless Night – Dark Matter is a spelling-binding survey of an artist who is paving the way for new and unruly re-imaginings of black beauty and brilliance.

6. Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth, Tree and Soil
Hartmann Books

The intrinsic splendour of the natural world takes centre stage in Antoinette de Jong and Robert Knoth’s first book since their highly-acclaimed Poppy: Trails of Afghan Heroin (2012). Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the Dutch duo set out on a five-year-long project to examine the devastation wrought on the region’s biosphere. Expertly edited by curator Iris Sikking, Tree and Soil combines photographs depicting nature’s reclaiming of the deserted spaces with repurposed material from the archive of German explorer, Philipp Franz von Siebold, which includes a collection of botanical illustrations, animal specimens and woodblock prints amassed during his trips to Dejima, a Dutch trading post, in the early 19th century. The result is an enigmatic yet radical dialogue between two distinct histories – the post-colonial and the post-nuclear, respectively – which speaks of the hubris of humankind and the value of nature, in the process ruminating on the disturbed relationship between the two.

7. Amani Willett, A Parallel Road
Overlapse

Another book of first-rate investment in narrative forms of photography comes from artist Amani Willett. Chronicling the oft-overlooked history of black Americans road-tripping, A Parallel Road deconstructs the time-worn myth of the ‘American road’ as a site in which freedom, self-discovery and, ultimately, whiteness manifests. The book’s direct point of reference is Victor Green’s The Negro Motorist Green Book (1936), a guide which provided newly-roving black road-trippers tips on safe spots to eat, sleep and re-fuel at a time when Jim Crow laws subjected them to heightened oppression, hostility and fear of death. Whilst maintaining the original’s scrapbook details – from hand-held dimensions to sewn binding – Willett has adroitly juxtaposed archival material with photography, media reproductions and Internet screenshots from the present day to lay bare the ongoing realities of systemic racism in the United States. A harrowing yet urgent title in a year in which the dangers posed to black people when out-and-about have been undeniable.

8. Diana Markosian, Santa Barbara
Aperture

In yet another dazzling year for Aperture’s publishing arm, with Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures and Ming Smith: An Aperture Monograph amongst notable releases, perhaps the standout is Diana Markosian’s Santa Barbara. Here, the Armenian-American photographer reimagines her mother’s leap of faith as she abandoned her husband in post-Soviet Russia to start a new life in the United States with her children. Family snapshots, film stills and re-enactments by actors play out alongside a script written by the original screenwriter of the 1980s soap opera Santa Barbara, which, for a generation of regime-weary Russians tuning in through their television sets, embodied the promises of the American dream. For all its experimental edge – rigorously merging fact and fiction – this book retains its deeply intimate take on the themes of migration, memory and personal sacrifice. With the project slated to show at the SFMOMA in early 2021, Markosian’s work continues to enthral audiences.

9. Yukari Chikura, Zaido
Steidl

Also excavating personal histories is Yukari Chikura in this strong contribution to the year’s offerings. Shortly after his sudden passing, Chikura’s father appeared to her from the afterlife, imparting the words: “Go to the village hidden deep in the snow where I lived a long time ago.” Committed to honouring this wish, Chikura embarked on a voyage to the remote, winter-white terrains of north-eastern Japan. The resulting publication documents what she found: Zaido, a good fortune festival dating back to the 8th century. Printed across an exquisite array of papers under the direction of Gerhard Steidl, images imbued with magical realism reveal costumed villagers gathering before shrines and performing sacred dances. Whilst the accompanying ancient map and folkloric parables lend this book an ethnographic feel, there is something more incisive at work too. Intertwining the villagers’ spiritual quests with Chikura’s own journey through the darkness that pervades mourning, Zaido is a tale of collective soul-searching that seamlessly traverses cultures as well as centuries.

10. Raymond Meeks, ciprian honey cathedral
MACK

No annual ‘best of’ book list seems complete without a monograph from skilled book-maker, Raymond Meeks. Characteristically poetic and perceptive, his new release with MACK invites readers into the domestic world shared between he and his wife, Adrianna, during a period in which they were packing up their home. Opening with a flurry of photographs which depict Adrianna asleep, bathing in the soft, early morning light, both the tone of imagery and its rhythms sets forth an experience that is akin to a waking dream. What follows is an intercourse of image and verse that pairs the quiet, quotidian rituals that populate each passing day with topographical observations of a house laid bare: mounted stacks of dishes, cracked walls and overgrown tendrils. Herein lies the melancholic undercurrent which vibrates throughout ciprian honey cathedral, a bittersweet evocation of the things memories cling to, and the things we leave in our wake. ♦


Alessandro Merola is Assistant Editor at 1000 Words.

Tim Clark is Editor in Chief at 1000 Words, and a writer, curator and lecturer at The Institute of Photography, Falmouth UniversityHe lives and works in London.