Top 10

Photobooks of 2019

Selected by Tim Clark

An annual tribute to some of the exceptional photobook releases from 2019 – selected by Editor in Chief, Tim Clark.

1. Long story short
Fraenkel Gallery

Long story short sees San Francisco-based Fraenkel Gallery return to publishing. Coinciding with the current exhibition marking the gallery’s 40th anniversary, this book is an endlessly rich slice of 180 years of photographic history. It aims to convey “that visceral sense of experiencing a work of art for the first time, in ways that defy words.” With a taste for the eclectic, it certainly delivers. Enigmatic photographs, such as the anonymous Untitled [Dinosaur Balloon], November 25, 1969 cover image, ricochet against immediately recognisable images from some of the medium’s stalwarts – Berenice Abbott, Man Ray, Katy Grannan or Eadweard Muybridge to name but a few – all continuing to entrance, all brought together in a celebration; not only of Fraenkel’s anniversary year, but to also retune our attention on the pleasures and rewards of sustained looking. With its sumptuous printing and lavish production values, Long story short is a joy to behold. A door to the heart of a gallery that has done so much to contribute to the culture, study and appreciation of photography as an art form in the United States and beyond.

2. Salvatore Vitale, How To Secure A Country
Lars Müller Publishers

As a case study to consider critical global issues, such as borders and immigration, Salvatore Vitale’s How To Secure A Country promulgates a timely and deeply-layered look at 21st century statehood. Edited with Lars Willumeit, this long-term visual research project – as opposed to an investigation of a ‘closed’ topic – deals with the machinations and protocol of security systems in Switzerland, a country widely regarded as one of the world’s safest. The work is organised into visual clusters to reflect the collaborations with individuals from different disciplines and via access granted by various institutions, both public and private, including those relating to borders and customs, cybersecurity, data centres, armed forces and even weather forecast and supercomputering. How To Secure A Country offers a privileged perspective and multi-vantaged point of view on the fraught relationship between individuals, power and state control, yet never through images that are self-explanatory, nor without pronouncing judgement. In Vitale’s work there is always space for the viewer.

3. Lisa Barnard, The Canary and The Hammer
MACK

Another book of first-rate intelligence is Lisa Barnard’s Canary & The Hammer, spanning four years of photographic work shot across four continents. The artist’s third monograph takes gold as a subject – its complex history, relationship to wealth accumulation and symbolic representation – to demonstrate its myriad of uses and ubiquity in modern life. Deftly combining image, text and archival material within a structure of seven chapters, Barnard’s project embraces a fragmented narrative as a metaphor for our dissonant and uncertain times. Overlapping disparate yet related stories, ranging from the 1849 Gold Rush or activities by Peruvian mining organisations to jewellery manufacturing and high-tech industry, hers is a larger vision comprised of systems, contradictions and affects, ultimately cognisant of capitalism’s proclivity to both exploit and self-destruct. Throughout her career, Barnard has rigorously tested and questioned parameters within contemporary documentary practice, all the while reflecting on photography’s ability to render visible such vast and seemingly unimaginable themes.

4. Masahisa Fukase, Family
MACK

It’s a swell time for reprints of photobook masterpieces. And MACK has been leading the way in recent years. Amongst its latest have been Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home and Alec Soth’s Niagara, and now comes Family by giant of Japanese photography, Masahisa Fukase. First released in 1991, and the artist’s final book, the project centres on a series of group portraits showing Fukase and his relatives in the family’s professional studio that were shot over nearly two decades. Family utilises the ritual of the family portrait but subverts it by featuring various nude or partially dressed women, many of whom are young performers or student actors bearing no relation to the family. Melancholy is piled on melancholy in these photographic gestures of commemoration. Touching on issues of memory, empathy and dispersal, it reflects what Geoffrey Batchen has referred to as “the desire to remember, and to be remembered”. And as Tomo Kosuga notes chillingly in his parting words to one of the book’s essays, Archiving Death: The Family Portrait as a Site of Mourning: “As we meet their staring eyes, we may feel that the process of the mourning vigil, conducted around the Fukase family, is taking place within ourselves.” File under: ‘essential titles’.

5. Hassan Hajjaj, Hassan Hajjaj
RVB

As the eponymous title suggests, this is a book about the vibrant Anglo-Moroccan artist Hassan Hajjaj – his creative universe, unique visual language and cultural remixing – that provides a noteworthy contribution to this year’s offerings. Remarkably this is Hajjaj’s first major monograph, produced to accompany the recent retrospective at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. It draws upon his signature colour work that so effortlessly and promiscuously straddles modes of documentary and fashion photography. It also reunites this with hitherto unseen black and white work. His is an approach to studio and street portraiture that harks back to the traditions of Malick Sidibé, but which is given a contemporary twist through the bricolage of high and low cultural references in order to shine a light on the louche of global consumerism. The book’s design perfectly augments the content of the imagery by drawing out the repeated motifs and all-over compositions in an explosion of patterns and visual textures. Pluralism and new signs of recognition are the order of the day.

6. Anastasia Samoylova, FloodZone
Steidl

Necessary images from the frontiers of climate emergency in the southern United States make up this brooding exploration of the people, spaces and surfaces existing in preparation of its onslaught. Rising sea levels and hurricanes threaten but it’s the absence of any drama or action that defines Anastasia Samoylova’s FloodZone. Instead, as individuals wait and look on, conjured is an atmosphere akin to a mood piece laden with suspense and foreboding. Through a skilful blend of luscious imagery, encompassing lyrical documentary photographs and black and white studies – by turns staged and spontaneous – along with epic aerial views, and touching upon issues of paradise, tourism, decay and renewal, FloodZone constitutes an inventive addition to the slew of recent approximate visions of the Anthropocene. As David Campany notes in the monograph’s essay, “Paradise is as photogenic as catastrophe.” And while “the seductive contradictions of a place drowning in its own mythical image” is indeed embodied, Samoylova’s is a fantastic double vision, proffering depictions that oscillate somewhere between the already seen and never seen.

7. Karla Hiraldo Voleau, Hola Mi Amol
Self Publish, Be Happy Editions and ECAL/University of Art and Design, Lausanne

Readers of 1000 Words will recall the recent magazine feature on this highly-original monograph. Within it, French-Dominican artist Karla Hiraldo Voleau has made it her business to take us on a journey through her personal history in Hola Mi Amol, one that burrows into her dual heritage, its influences and prejudices. As a child Voleau was often warned to treat Dominican men with suspicion, ergo the slightly leery title of this book project, and here she returns to the island of her youth to actively seek out those very individuals she was warned about. A cast of nude or partially-dressed men populate the photographs – seen at the beach, in homes and motels or riding on the back of motorbikes via selfies with the artist – in images that both resist the admonishments of her family and, by natural extension, play us as viewers on a meta-level. Combined with text extracts, Voleau’s intersections call into question ideas of authenticity and ambiguity in the narration of the artist’s various encounters. Hola Mi Amol speaks through the most personal and private experiences relating to eroticism, prowess and racial identities. Ultimately the male gaze has in effect been turned on itself to powerful, and at times beguiling, effect.

8. Sohrab Hura, The Coast
Ugly Dog

Blood splatters, smoke bellows, tattoos sore, rats cower, tears fall – the visual experience of leafing through Magnum photographer Sohrab Hura’s fourth monograph The Coast is akin to a feverish dream. Chosen by the jury of Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Book Awards as Photobook of the Year, there is something clearly so captivating about The Coast. And what’s interesting eventually winds up beautiful too. Opening with an absurd short story of a woman named Madhu, who has quite literally lost her head, the tone is set for an intense and unrelenting narrative that Sohrab relays in twelve varying iterations. It features photographs taken up and down the Indian coastline that work in service of what the artist refers to as “a metaphor for a ruptured piece of skin barely holding together a volatile state of being ready to explode.” Images are printed full bleed with only a narrow white gap creating a continuous visual flow – or assault – while their shifting contexts furnish our gaze onto a disorientating post-truth world, particularly in a country where disinformation and acts of violence are on the rise. Reality teeters between fact and construction in this fable for the times.

9. Amak Mahmoodian, Zanjir
RRB Books/IC Visual Lab

“This book is a conversation imagined between the artist Amak Mahmoodian (1980-present) and the Persian princess and memorist Taj Saltaneh (1883-1936).” So reads the preface to Zanjir, a riveting book hot off the press by Bristol-based, Iranian-born Amak Mahmoodian. What unfolds through sequences of quiet photographs – both authored and appropriated from the Golestan archives in Tehran – is a moving meditation on the actuality of having one’s family based there but no here and the hybrid experience of living between cultures, lands and languages, all bound up in sensations of love, loss and longing. From the subtle gaps between recording and not forgetting emerges this deeply poetic look at the vestiges of the past as they move into the present only then to become the past again. Time, memory, dreams and their inevitable decay approach something so powerful as it relates to the homeland. Mahmoodian, by her own admission, has created “a life of memories” swaying between presence and absence. With a stellar team of editors including Aaron Schuman and Alejandro Acin, Zanjir is a personal and rich foray into the imagination of an understated and poetic artist.

10. George Georgiou, Americans Parade
Self-published

This is the kind of photography that renews a feeling of wonder every time we gaze upon its imagery. Here, we are witnessing the theatre of life as seen through the parade of Americans during 2016, the year Donald Trump came into office and when the country had revealed its profound fractures. George Georgiou’s black and white photographs show one community after the next in a project spanning 24 cities across 14 states. Crowds of various sizes are captured via a simple but effective approach of photographing wide and from a distance to form tableaux-style images, their constancy bestowing a feeling of detachment but also one of acute observation. Revelling in the abundance and complexities of individuals who make up group identities, it is almost as if Georgiou is invisible – such is the candour. In these instances, people never stare down the camera, but instead focus on something beyond the frame. And they resonate with us, so pressingly that we look for ourselves in them. As we scrutinise the minutiae in such detail, images within images emerge, resolving into a kaleidoscope of mini portraits that are full of contemporary trappings. It thus offers up a valid document; in the same way the various locales reflect the socio-economic disparities of the United States to speak volumes of the environments in which the photographs were taken. Something must be said of the book’s quad-tone printing and its importance in revealing the sumptuous detail of the scenes, which, combined with lay-flat binding, allows viewers to really enter the imagery: exquisite.


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

Captions:

1-Eadweard Muybridge, Contortions on the Ground1887. (Long story short, Fraenkel Gallery)

2-Salvatore Vitale, A customised assault rifle transformed for sport purposes, from the series How To Secure a Country, 2014-18.

3-Lisa Barnard, Gold-miner Kimberly, at the Las Vegas Gold & Treasure Show, 2017, from the series The Canary and The Hammer.

4-Masahisa Fukase, from the series Family, 1971–89. Courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, and Éditions Xavier Barral, Paris.

5-Hassan Hajjaj, Keziah Jones, 2011. Courtesy Vigo Gallery, London, and Taymour Grahne Gallery, New York.

6-Anastasia Samoylova, Park Avenue, 2018, from the series FloodZone. Courtesy Galerie Caroline O’Breen, Amsterdam.

7-Karla Hiraldo Voleau, from the series Hola Mi Amol.

8-Sohrab Hura, India, 2014, from the series The Coast. Courtesy Magnum Photos.

9-Amak Mahmoodian, from the series Where Time Stood Still.

10-George Georgiou, 4 July Parade, Ripley, West Virginia, 04/07/2016, from the series Americans Parade.

Talia Chetrit

Showcaller

MACK

Released in January 2019, Showcaller is the first monograph of New York-based artist Talia Chetrit. Published by MACK, the book was conceived, edited and designed by the artist following her retrospective exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, Germany, in early 2018. The volume retraces the artist’s production over a 24-year period, starting from her beginnings in the early 90s.

Though individual series can be recognised within the flow of the pages – candid shots of herself and her friends as teens during the years sexual discovery, bizarre staged crime scenes, family portraits, remote cut-outs of busy New York streets, along with excerpts from fashion campaigns – Talia Chetrit has deprived them of any temporal connotations in the process of editing. Instead it is driven by the purpose of re-examining her own archive from a present-day vantage point. Relics of the past are introduced in the sequence, even assigned a new date of birth – a short circuit, which highlights how the context in which images are presented is fundamental for understanding their constantly mutating meaning. Some of them were not even intended to go public at the time of their creation.

The artist has gradually taken control over the medium – a gesture marked by the frequent presence of the camera’s remote control held firmly in her hand – first exploring, then stretching the power structures underlying our perception of sexuality and nude throughout art history. As the theatrical term Showcaller suggests, the staging of a scene and the presence of an actor are at the core of Chetrit’s method. Here photography is conceived as an act of performance, where the relationship between photographer, subject and viewer is continuously challenged. By placing herself in front of the camera, Chetrit offers us a complicit and welcoming perspective on her intimacies, one in which no room is left for embarrassment.

While appreciating the genuine sexiness of Chetrit’s photographs, we are forced to reflect upon the urge for privacy we experience in our daily lives, a deeply arguable and contradictory one as it is usually determined by the “community guidelines” of social media. Malice is in the eye of the beholder, and the same applies to beauty. With this book, Chetrit generously allows us to admire our absurd, sensual and beautifully grotesque human body in plain sight, celebrating explicitness in its most elegant and poetic form.

Ilaria Speri

All images courtesy of the artist and MACK. © Talia Chetrit

Top 10

Photobooks of 2018

Selected by Tim Clark

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

In association with Spectrum.

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

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

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

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

3. Raymond Meeks, Halfstory Halflife
Chose Commune

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

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

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

5. Max Pinckers, Margins of Excess
Self-Published

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

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

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

7. Mimi Plumb, Landfall
TBW Books

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

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

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

9. Thomas Demand, The Complete Papers
MACK

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

10. Sunil Gupta, Christopher Street, 1976
Stanley/Barker

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


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

Susan Lipper

Domesticated Land

MACK

The female body has always been conflated with visions and narratives of the land. There are all of the same old tropes, of course; that women are intrinsically linked to nature – even governed by it – in a way that men aren’t, and that the mounds and sweeping curves of the landscape mirror those of the female form. Indeed, Susan Lipper’s Domesticated Land opens with an image of sand dunes in the Californian desert that look more than vaguely reminiscent of the female body, but something entirely different is going on here too.

The notion of gendered landscapes is upturned in Lipper’s Land pictures. On the one hand, she shows us images such as one in which a woman lies face down with her head in the dust in front of a black hole that’s opened up in the ground before her, and another where we see the detritus of kitchen goods strewn across the sand (which may be somewhat symbolic of the author’s thoughts on the notion of woman as homemaker). On the other hand, we have the backdrop of the American West – cracked, fractured, historically male-driven terrain in which military bases and operations are nestled, and where countless male writers have famously journeyed in search of themselves. In some of Lipper’s pictures we see army men and tanks and brutalist concrete structures cutting through the landscape. Though personal and artistic journeys through this place are not new, Lipper navigates this land from a personal, female slant, making images that oscillate between document and fiction, and “putting female subjectivity into relief.” The desert as a land of mysticism, self-enlightenment and spiritual opportunity, roamed by healers and medicine men across decades, is probed too and homes appear abandoned, in one image a single serpent writhes in the ground, in others barbed wire snakes through the frame.

Domesticated Land is the third instalment in a trilogy of books for which Lipper spent nearly thirty years travelling the USA from East to West in search of ‘true’ America. Sun-bleached and washed out, Lipper’s black and white vision of the desert transforms it into a sort of stasis, unnervingly quiet, as if everything that was supposed to happen has happened, and now all we can do is wait. People are tiny in most of the photographs, swallowed up by the landscape and often looking outwards, to the sky or the horizon, watching for the arrival of something unknown. From time to time, the words of women punctuate the images. At the very end of the book, an excerpt from Catherine Haun’s 1849 diary A Woman’s Trip Across the Plains talks of an evening spent singing patriotic songs and celebrating the Declaration of Independence with the firing of a gun or two. ‘…three cheers for the United States and California territory in particular!’ it reads. Most potently, Domesticated Land seems to offer a timely sense of foreboding about the current state of America and its politics, and a possible harbinger of things to come.

Joanna Cresswell

All images courtesy of the artist and MACK. © Susan Lipper

Guillaume Simoneau

Experimental Lake

MACK

In itself, even the most detailed photograph, decontextualised as it always is from its physical and temporal surroundings, carries minimal meaning. But in a book, photographs accrue additional connotations via their mutual relationships, lending each other context, which, individually, they intrinsically lack. However, where the associations between the pictures are loose, there is a danger of incoherence. At worst, and most often, this approach results in a non-committal, confusing or even annoying photobook. At best, but more rarely, it can produce a fascinating, enigmatic work of art.

Fortunately, Guillaume Simoneau’s Experimental Lake tends towards the latter category. Made in a pristine region of north-west Ontario, in and around a world-class research facility exploring human impact on the natural environment, his elliptical, mainly colour photographs seldom vex and mostly intrigue. It certainly helps that Simoneau has a strong command of colour and a sophisticated eye for visual correspondence. A recurrent tangle motif runs right through the book, from the front cover to the very last photograph: a wire model, sewing, grass on water, a screen saver… they all suggest that everything is interconnected, and perhaps validate the need for the research Simoneau documents.

But there isn’t a clearly discernible position taken by the photographer, or even a dominant mood. In typically postmodern fashion, any overall meaning isn’t made obvious by the artist, and must be ascribed by the viewer. Is this research important, or inconsequential in the face of human activity and its effects on the planet? Will these scientists’ work have an impact, or are they just messing about in boats, fiddling while Rome burns?

The latter is suggested by the book’s afterword, a tiny found photograph tipped into the back cover: three youthful carefree figures crowd in a little boat on the water, while on the shoreline beyond, the forest is ablaze.

But perhaps we should not be so swift to judge. This image is not unlike Thomas Hoepker’s controversial 9/11 photograph, in which young people seem to be lounging indifferently across the water from a smoke-spewing Manhattan. As the widespread and heated discussion of Hoepker’s picture has demonstrated, photographs are at least as mendacious as they are meaningless, and we should draw conclusions with care.

Simon Bowcock

Images courtesy of MACK. © Guillaume Simoneau

Sam Contis

Deep Springs

MACK

Young men, the Wild West, Deep Springs Valley, California. For her first book, Sam Contis has mixed century-old archive photographs with new ones she has made in the same locality. A gentle, unforced continuity runs through the photographs in Deep Springs, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell the old from the new.

Rugged landscapes, rugged faces, a cow’s torso, a man’s torso. It’s as if the earth and the animals and the men are the same. But – as the book’s pink endpapers hint – this isn’t just the macho west of the classic cowboy. There is femininity, even a subtle sexual undercurrent. And the tender images are just as likely to be the old ones, such as a delicate young man barely concealed by his towel.

A young man holding a plant, his hands caked in the dirt of today, mirrors another young man reading in the dusty past: sustaining the body and feeding the soul. Nice geometric and thematic correspondences persist throughout the book. The curve of a dusty road as it embraces a rocky hillside is the same as the curve of a man’s arm as it grips another man. All is suggestion, and little is shown. Much is hidden, like a man’s emotions. The images often flow beautifully, such as a water-themed sequence culminating in clothes drying on a line. But by the end of the book, the clothes have become rags.

What can we glean from all this? First, nothing changes. Now is as then. Men are men, but men can be gentle. There’s killing and hard physical work to be done, but there’s also learning and leisure and friendship. Sometimes there’s more than friendship. And it has always been so. Second, we are the land. We spring from it and are shaped by it. Its harshness is our harshness. Its beauty is our beauty. But in the end, only the land remains. We return to its dust. A rocky outcrop which recurs throughout the book sits proudly as its final image. Imperious and impassive, it couldn’t care less. 1917 or 2017, we come and go. The land doesn’t notice.

Simon Bowcock

Images courtesy of MACK. © Sam Contis

Richard Mosse

Incoming

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

 

Judith Butler, in her book Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? poses an important question: “What is our responsibility toward those we do not know, toward those who seem to test our sense of belonging or to defy available norms of likeness?” How, Butler asks, are we to respond when we encounter a condition beyond our own life experience? What is our responsibility?

Irish artist Richard Mosse has developed a body of work looking at military testing, conflict and the technologies of photographic imaging, most notably in his lauded project The Enclave. The follow up is Incoming, a body of work comprising video in multiple formats, stills as a book, and large-scale prints about the mass-migration of refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East, at the thresholds of Europe, in Turkey and Greece, and at the borders of Iraq and Syria. Mosse uses a military grade thermal camera to make his videos and photographs: his imagery spans from close up details of human interaction, fragments of group crossings of the Mediterranean, landscapes of war including missile launches, to the holding camps for refugees. Much of this footage is montaged into a large three-screen video projection (recently presented at the Barbican, London) and a parallel book; panoramic footage of the temporary camps are reconfigured into large scale prints – sometimes called Heat Maps, alongside a video installation that resembles a bank of CCTV cameras, panning left to right continuously in a dizzying sense of searching.

Although the effects of the thermal camera are not entirely unfamiliar to us (used by the police force, and utilised in both factual and fictional television and cinema, in photographic projects, and even as add-ons to a smartphone), it is important to establish what a military-grade thermal camera does and does not see. What distinguishes the camera from other equipment is its distance and precision of vision, being capable of detecting the human body at 30.3 kilometres. Although it’s primary purpose is to identify heat, it continues to register detail in a lower, flatter range of greys, unlike many thermal devices since the camera is black and white, and not in colour. Mosse’s prints retain a photographic language even if they are also at once unfamiliar. It is possible to differentiate spatial planes and surfaces, textures, and script clearly. The recognition of a figure is possible, although identification is slower and loaded with doubt. It is an image, but one that we are not entirely comfortable with. The thermal image prompts an alienation from the immediate transparency of the reportage image, even if the project retains a documentary scope and purpose. The refugee, already identified as other by the state, is transfigured again by the strangeness of the camera.

Suffice to say every camera dehumanises. In rendering the body into two dimensions, a photograph is lossy and reductive. But our familiarity with this property of the image has caused us to quickly forget and come to terms with the image and its compromises, accepting the trade off of the arrested and flat image for its portability. Yet criticism of Mosse’s project in this regard seems to conflate the technology with its use. The dehumanising of the body is of course continuous with the technology and operations of the state, which we understand as intermittently picking out and targeting the human subject with reasons that power justifies under the rhetorics of the war on terror, national security, and as Eyal Weizman has recognised, the chilling but pervasive moral logic of the ‘lesser evil’. If this is disturbing, it should be, though it is not Mosse’s doing, as he investigates its properties.

Mosse has stated clearly that his aim is to use state and military technology in order to know and use it, seeking new purposes for it. And in our slower observation of his imagery, the thermal camera reveals the state’s tendency to abstraction, to render the refugee as ultimately perishable, under a condition that the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls ‘bare life’. It is also, as Judith Butler writes, the very construction of a difference (nationality) that allows the ‘refugee’ or ‘foreigner’ to be perceived as a threat. We are barely conscious of this fact in our short encounters with the technology elsewhere, where voice-overs for police chases re-inforce the messages of law enforcement. Its estrangement when isolated is surprising, but Mosse sets out to do undo it, using the camera for cinematic effect, and to construct slow and pensive images. Mosse, like the state, often operates at a distance from his subjects – but does this automatically render the result of Mosse’s investigation complicit or continuous with a global order – and by extension, a flow of global capital, as has been suggested?

We must look at the project in detail rather than arriving at rash judgements. The camera continues the western project of producing ‘visibility’. We know that the camera extends human vision, seeing heat rather than light. And we know the purpose of this function already: it is to identify a body or object that attempts camouflage against the eye or standard lens. The lens therefore functions in a manner akin to much of photography’s post-industrial ‘program’ – to extend the range of the visible, to make a world saturated in visibilities. Significant also is its range: the camera provides an ability to see at extraordinary distance, and to see whilst remaining hidden – a logic of power identified by Foucault in his studies on surveillance and the prison. But this is also to state that the camera operates as any device under power: it provides an advantage that increases the visibility of its object, whilst removing of its own capacity to be seen. And Mosse, crucially, turns his camera towards what has been concealed. A similar attempt to wrestle back control of the visible emerges in Trevor Paglen’s Limit Telephotography project, customising cameras to see into US military sites – both occupy high and distant to positions to see sites that are concealed in some manner by the state. Mosse turns his camera to the structural logic of the refugee camp, showing it at a distance, alongside other images within the documentary devices of closely cropped individuals, though it must be noted that the distant images are far more revealing, and affective, because they defy a humanist photojournalistic norm.

In one image, it becomes clear that refugees are housed in and amongst shipping containers. Their equivalence with freight is telling, cold and statistical. But worse still, they remain unequal even in this comparison: it is substantially easier for the container to pass into Europe than it is for the fleeing refugee. How frequently is such a structural marginalisation made apparent?

Mosse is not always effective, however. His large-scale three screen video projection, whilst attempting to show the proximity of conflict and the dangers of the sea crossing, is narrative, dramatic, and as a result overly spectacular. Mosse gets too close to this structure of entertaining and theatricalising, and an accompanying musical score for the video here reveals a pandering rather than a challenge to the conditions of viewership. Mosse’s intention to make the structural logics of the thermal camera, and the experience of the refugee visible, is made apparent in a pensive image; it is obfuscated when it moves towards spectacle.

If the body is the subject of a dehumanised gaze under a military use of the camera, does the body remain a target under Mosse’s use? We have seen that the thermal camera alienates our view of the body in a way that typically functions under the logic of enhanced visibility, but can we say that its operator is programmatically or unconsciously positioning the refugee as other, extending their distance from us? Mosse’s images are affected by the conditions under which images are made, namely changes in climate: in the footage of his large three-screen projection and book we see blackened figures, with heat emerging around the top of the skull and mouth. It is cold and windy, and the temperature difference between the air and the body’s sweat picks out details on the skin. By contrast, In Mosse’s wide landscapes (of the Hellinikon Olympic Stadium in Greece, for example), the body is wholly illuminated, its warmth dramatically changing the body to white. If a military-grade thermal camera saw in colour as do other thermal devices, the body would be blue when cold and red when hot. Such a responsiveness to climate undoes the notion that the body is differentiated or cast as one race by the camera or its operator, as has been asserted elsewhere. But it also undoes a total flattening of difference, as has also been stated at the other extreme: the camera does not conceal the differing presentations of the body, how the body is dressed, marked or conditioned, at least for an observer prepared to look at the image in detail, beyond the estranging effect of the thermal sensor. But such observations distract from the main potency of the image and what it presents to us, leading to outraged claims at one pole, and hopeful but false universalities on the other – both are loud and reductive, when the experience of the refugee surely calls not to be caught in the crossfire, but to be paid attention to, to be seen and heard.

The presence of the live body affects us, as the camera isolates it. In our pause in front of the image, its strangeness causes us to see that warmth is the bodies strength and its very weakness, its similarity to us (however politically and economically removed). And here the flattening effect of the thermal camera is telling at last: it is hard to identify the difference between the military guard, aid worker, or volunteer, and the refugee. What unifies is more evident than what separates, at least for a moment. If we must perceive the refugee as a target under the night vision camera, so too is the aid worker and each member of military personnel. Perhaps this is because, as Agamben is so keen to point out, we are all determined by the conditions of the state. It is also because the body’s heat is its very force, and its very vulnerability: this is also shared by the refugee and the soldier, whose lives are equally fragile, however much we are conditioned to deny it.

As Judith Butler has stated, such realisation of the very fragility of life is the possibility to realise our interdependence upon each other. When we produce difference, and articulate otherness, it can be perceived that we in no way depend upon that life, in fact, are threatened by it. She states that: “Th[e] interpretative framework [of nationalism] functions by tacitly differentiating between those populations on whom my life and existence depend, and those populations which represent a direct threat to my life and existence.” Such a notion of non-dependence is structurally untrue of course: any analysis of the wealth of western nations could not fail to include the resources and labour extracted from the rest of the world. It is simply that trade conceals by abstraction, concealing where luxury comes from and how wealth is obtained.

In actuality, we are each dependent upon both the refugee and their legal mirror, the migrant, for our luxuries, but also for our lives: by producing and enforcing forms of otherness that dehumanise or delegitimise, we produce conflict. This conflict begins with an article and its rash claims, and ends with an enforced difference, a creation of margins, alongside a demarcation of the speakable and unspeakable, represented and unrepresented. What can we do to re-instate our proximities to the refugee? We must reveal our own dependency, and how our life is equally precarious. It is here that Butler is most persuasive: “the call to interdependency is also, then, a call to overcome this schism and to move toward the recognition of a generalised condition of precariousness. It cannot be that the other is destructible while I am not; nor vice versa. It can only be that life, conceived as precarious life, is a generalised condition, and that under certain political conditions it becomes radically exacerbated or radically disavowed. This is a schism in which the subject asserts its own righteous destructiveness at the same time as it seeks to immunise itself against the thought of its own precariousness.”

What is our responsibility then? Richard Mosse’s Incoming attempts to look at how the body is figured in the technological devices of power. His turning of this camera, towards the sites through which refugees pass, has seen how the body of the refugee is dehumanised, situated as a problem ‘incoming’ to the shores of Europe, which Europe has variously responded to, lashed out against and ignored. And we are implicated in it, are in fact, dependent upon it. It is a glimmer of human life that calls us. This might not lead us to see the refugee in a deep and personal light, but to see our relationship to all notions of otherness through the shared interdependence that underwrites human relations, and to see that the delineation of difference through exclusion exacerbates, and does not reduce our own security.

Mosse moves between spectacle and contemplation, and this project reveals the sharply different affects that such modes of address might engender. And here, precisely is our responsibility: to consider our mode of address, our mode of encounter, and to think it through thoroughly, without recourse to further exclusion, or diminishment. If a dialogue is in any way to propagate a more equal and tolerant consideration of “those who seem to test our sense of belonging or to defy available norms of likeness”, it will need to know no distance, near or far. It begins by setting aim at common ground.

*

In attempting to produce a detailed and critically nuanced account of a project that has divided its audiences, it seems necessary to address two notable criticisms of Incoming – that Mosse has little right to produce his project, and that he profits from it through the structure of the gallery system. That I do so is not to defend Mosse but to respond to criticism that pulls on the heart strings whilst arriving at problematic outcomes that run counter to their claims. I have chosen not to address such criticisms head-on in my essay on Incoming, seeing it as an attempt to see the work in a way that attempts to bring out a constructive possibility within Mosse’s use of military technology. I have, however, chosen to comment on these criticisms after, perhaps in advance of the plausible criticism that I have neglected their claims, but more significantly, to demonstrate that whilst I think their broad positions (on the ‘whiteness’ or non-representation of minority voices in art and its criticism, and on the problems of a political art’s relationship to money) are valid and worthy of debate, their application to Mosse seems driven by something else, which undoes the seriousness of those subjects at hand.

Mosse, like the American painter Dana Schutz, has been the object of strenuous criticism surrounding how we depict those we do not know. Both artists have been attacked for representing the lives and deaths of others. Schutz’s painting Open Casket, at the Whitney Biennial, has been criticised for its representation of the death of Emmett Till, whilst Richard Mosse has been criticised for his representations of the refugees arriving on the shores of Europe (though strangely, not for his previous project). It must be said that this criticism comes with both valid and invalid claims, which we must separate to reach a place of substance and criticism worthy of the name.

Let’s note the valid first. Criticism about racial representation has at its origin a concern to address the lack of diversity of critical voices and there remains a deficit in both art and photography. Such a lack is not simply the lack of a black voice (as was argued in the Schutz debate), but a truly global one, consisting of voices from genders, races, nationalities and social statuses alike. Such a position must rightly set only a global equality as its goal, but I suspect that attacking a white European artist for documenting a refugee crisis is not effective. Not only does it destroy one voice in favour of another (which it is to say it is antagonistic), but it also fails to remedy the problem by escalating tension about who can and cannot be represented.

It also follows that an experience of inequality or trauma in a community necessarily would be most tangible, empathetic and perhaps ‘authentic’ when communicated from within that experience. And no doubt there should be scope and audience for a photographic project that emerges from the experience of being a refugee – though it seems a position of luxury to assume that a refugee has the energy to focus on anything beyond survival. But I would also stress that Mosse never claims to speak on behalf of the refugee. He does, however, correctly point to our implication in the refugee crisis, something for which we need to see the consequences beyond our own mediated vision, and which calls for the project to be made visible to us. Such a criticism of Mosse can easily take the place of real reflection. Mosse’s logic to see how power sees is neither unreasonable nor without some gained knowledge. Yet it seems as if conventional demands of reportage are applied to Mosse by his critics, privileging some unspecified quality of ‘authenticity’, ‘immediacy’ and ‘fidelity’ which aims to humanise and affect the viewer into change. This is striking considering our nearly universal awareness that this method of ‘objective-and-yet subjective’ photography is barely possible, reductive and ineffective: Susan Sontag, Martha Rosler, and Allan Sekula critiqued the manipulations of straight photography some time ago. The efficacy of such ‘unmediated’ images are doubtful at best, and it is a relief to encounter an image of conflict that does not always attempt to reduce the complexity of human displacement to pulling on heart strings.

What is most problematic is that a destructive logic follows a desire to increase the representation of critical voices – a closing down, that argues we must speak only of our own experience, and not attempt to relate to another. This argument leads to the opposite of diversity, of course. As was declared directly and indirectly at both Mosse and Schutz in many of the critical articles that have surfaced, we must not intrude upon, and are ultimately excluded from, the experiences of others – one skin type disqualifies from any experience of another, and one experience of gender from that of another also. We should be cautious in the assertion that one’s validity automatically disqualifies another, not least because it replicates conditions of exclusion. This position emerges from wanting to clear the way for a new voice, but it counter-intuitively results in a stand-off and poses an impossible problem with consistently moveable markers – who is excluded, and who excludes?

It is undeniable that Richard Mosse’s work is increasingly expensive, and this must result in a flow of capital that benefits both the artist and his gallery. Both the photography and art worlds are increasingly industries in which the economic value of projects takes a symbolic value that affects and alters what is displayed in public spaces. And whilst there is no doubt that the exchange value of art needs discussion and actual change, it seems that the raising of this question in relation to Mosse serves not the purpose of addressing the economisation of art but rather the attempt to diminish his project in order to reinforce a criticism that a critic might otherwise sense is incomplete. An investigation into the economics of this artist’s career is yet to be done, but it is also let quietly rest in too many established careers to turn the attention on the work of a young artist. We might also bring a critique into being by celebrating projects which redistribute money or engage in alternative forms of exchange, which are no doubt quieter than the channels of debate of media usually permit. Such a criticism requires a search for its remedy, not a casual and unqualified accusation since rhetorical addition cuts off debate. What Mosse does with his success will of course be telling, and we might indeed hope that he supports critical and investigative research and affects political change. Yet it also seems a little too early, three projects in, to take aim at Mosse and discredit his work on the economic demand that a project comes to make.

All images courtesy of the Barbican. © Richard Mosse. Installation views © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images.


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Sofia Borges

The Swamp

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The spine of Sofia BorgesThe Swamp reads: ‘REALITY AS MUD AS DENSE AS AIR’. Caught in the pursuit of something – unexplainable, authentic, actual, real. Inevitable though it may be, it evades us, repeatedly. It torments.

Borges stalks the spaces of natural history museums, zoos and study centres – sites of interaction with the specimens of the world. And what she encounters there are images: not objects, so much as the ciphers and projections of histories past. Display haunts the condition of the museum: it must show to us, but also more than that, it must explain and present. In its fervour, it wraps objects up in dialogues and scenarios, in narrative and facts. It produces elaborate fictions that appear like reality – dioramas that are spatial and textual.

The diorama of course is a technology, invented by Daguerre before he moved onto photography. Both the photograph and the diorama are markers of modernity – machine production meeting new sciences, emerging leisure classes, and the production of a culture obsessed with the visible – flâneurie, technological vision, spectacle, and an ever more emergent media and world of printed matter. It’s no surprise that Borges operates in these spaces – they are spatial analogues to the camera: modernity of course remains photography’s biggest subject. Borges wants to see if this can be shaken loose.

The images of The Swamp show the illusion of display whilst being set in a disorienting and discomforting arrangement, where an interest in surfaces and textures disallow a broader sense of context. In groupings, we move from what are clearly specimens and portraits to opaque surfaces and infrastructures, displays and details and to the strange, seemingly anomalous items and oddities that populate these sites. Our understanding is partial at best. A fragment of a model, a set or a label, taunts in its opacity; pipes and frames are detached from unknown and unseen trophies. Many of the photographs are elusive: images are unrecognisable, seen up close as details. Museum visitors might recognise a combination of fiberglass, natural fabrics, and paint familiar from lo-fi dioramas that pepper Borges’ project, but getting up close against those surfaces, details blur with the soft, matte and spotted paper and image grain. Even the paper seems to suggest a depth before flatly resisting such an illusion.

Amongst the occasional ruptures, the artifice of space shows itself. Borges captures the white metal nuts, which fix synthetic black stone in place, and sees the highlight reflected back in a vinyl photograph of two girls in traditional dress (strangely their backdrop itself looks painted, artificial – or does it?). But if this Brechtian turn usually promises a revelation of sorts – a realism – Borges refuses it. She also turns her lens towards objects that look increasingly unreal. Specimens of Opal, Opale Gras/Opaal Vettig sit next to each other, their labels a mixture of languages, one fatty, one greasy: in their reflections they look increasingly, tantalisingly synthetic, like fabricated Japanese model food, which is made to be eaten by the eyes but not the mouth. Suspicious under the glare of the light, there seems to be no exit sign beyond the illusion of the image.

If we despair of the confusion wrought by the treacle of images, we need to return to problem of reality itself. Would we know reality when we saw it? Thick and viscous, though evanescent, it is the product of what seems like contradiction. Borges acknowledges this when she points a camera in its direction. “I intentionally wanted to learn how to distinguish the difference between mimesis, meaning, image and matter. Paradoxically, I was seeking to do that by the use of photography.” Borges might lay representation upon representation, blocking rather than revealing the elusive real. But she suspects that moving toward that paradox might unravel it, reveal it for what it is. She senses that to untangle, we have to get closer but somehow distance ourselves – as if representation were a finger trap, which closes upon us, the more we attempt to extricate ourselves from it. We must try new strategies.

Borges finds a revelation in front of cave paintings: “we cannot signify reality. And we have been trying forever.” Just at that moment, it comes flooding back: Andre Bazin’s description of the ‘mummy complex’ of the image – its desire both to show, but also to wrap up; to display but also to cover over. It can be suffocating. At its origins, the image-maker builds a complex web of rituals, motives, and associations, concerned with the past but preserved for a future unspecified. S/he produces complex codes to disentangle, percepts and affects to absorb and sense. These are not reality, nor are they signs of it. We do not make images to show the world, we make them to show how we have responded to it; they reveal not the world itself, but what we are curious about and what we value. If we seek reality in the image, we displace our own reality for that of another. It is strange to think that we expect reality to show itself – to reveal itself to us. We need to find it. And so it is that representation replaces the world it claims to make visible. If we approach a representation passively, it remains a paradoxical object that confounds our understanding. But if we approach it with a sense that reality will not be ‘found’ within it, a sense of what the swamp is made up of becomes ever more tangible. Borges, by thickening the mud of reality and forcing us out to find our own way, strangely begins to show a path to try out.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Sofia Borges


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Allan Sekula

Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973–1983

MACK

MACK has a warranted reputation for photobooks, but also well deserving of acknowledgment are their series of collected essays by prominent photographers. The latest of these comes in a thoroughly overdue republication of the early writings and photographs of Allan Sekula, arriving almost exactly three years after his death in 2013.

In the title’s echoes of Walter Benjamin’s plea to read against the embedded ideologies of narrative history, Photography Against the Grain immediately spreads Sekula’s critical and theoretical cards on the table. His Marxist influences might feel uncomfortable to readers who have only ever known the era since these ideas were supposedly confined to the dustbin of history, replaced by the revolving roster of neoliberal mutations, which are supposed to pass for alternatives to each other. However to dismiss Sekula’s ideas as outdated because they rest on unfashionable ideologies is to mistake his importance then, and now.

Sekula achieved that rare thing of oscillating theory and practice to the point where they became indistinct, the two instead blending together like an optical illusion to create the ghostly afterimage of the invariably invisible subjects he so urgently wanted to discuss. And what subjects they were, the grim pantheon of the late capitalist world which Benjamin and some of his Frankfurt school contemporaries had already sensed steamrollering towards the ruins of their own era. Sekula tackled these vast and vital issues with a critical mind and eye, which viewed three decades later, still seems breathtakingly ambitious, not least because so few artists today attempt the same today.

Sekula’s commitment to photography never descends into infatuation, instead stemming in large part I think from an acute awareness of the medium’s shortcomings, its slippery muteness, its status as a commodity circulating in the same currents as the products and people he often photographed, interviewed and wrote about. In a time when theory is often a sort of opaque artistic window dressing, and social or political critique is so frequently defanged for the purposes of commerce, Sekula’s work stands as an example of what truly critical art can be. A reminder that when we find ourselves confronted by an apparently smooth edifice we must run our fingers against the grain, search for the cracks, and on finding them, dig deeply in.

– Lewis Bush

All images courtesy of MACK. © Allan Sekula

David Campany

Writer and Curator of a Handful of Dust

London

1000 Words Editor in Chief, Tim Clark speaks with the writer and curator David Campany ahead of his forthcoming exhibition a Handful of Dust, which opens at the Whitechapel Gallery on June 7th. Having previously been presented at Le Bal, Paris and Pratt Institute, New York, this parallel exhibition and book project sets out to track the passage or ‘biography’ of a photograph made in 1920 by Man Ray (Or was it Duchamp? Or perhaps Man Ray and Duchamp?) as its meaning shifts in emphasis from context to context; and to look at how those meanings might suggest associations with other unlikely images from the last century.

Their conversation shares views on how the meaning of the photographic image lies in its destination; the idea that we are living in a visual culture that may have trained us not to look, or expect to look, at any one image for very long; as well as the argument that reading about politics, philosophy, anthropology, history and psychoanalysis is perhaps more important for students than reading about photography.

Tim Clark: I can only assume the Dust Breeding image must have been orbiting your imagination for some time before putting together the proposal for the Le Bal show. Where and when did you first encounter the work and to what extent has your relationship to it changed over time?

David Campany: It would have been 1989, when I was an undergrad student in London. It was the 150th anniversary of photography and the Royal Academy had its first ever show of photographs. So embarrassingly late! Anyway, in a section on modernism I saw this strange, almost abstract photograph from 1920. It was titled Dust Breeding and credited to Man Ray. A flat receding plane, without obvious scale, covered in a film of dust with clumps, and what looked like geometric lines. I remember feeling a little dismissive. It was ugly and it seemed pointless. But it stuck in my mind. A little later I came across it again, while reading about the artist Marcel Duchamp. Man Ray had photographed the dust gathering on a sheet of glass that would later become part of Duchamp’s great work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-23). Duchamp wanted to keep parts of the dust by fixing it with varnish – a sort of visual way of trapping time. So it was an art photograph that took as its subject the dust of another artwork. That’s unusual. Sometimes this image is regarded as a work by Man Ray; sometimes it’s regarded as a document of an artwork by Marcel Duchamp.

Later I discovered that when it was first published it was titled A View from an Aeroplane, which really twists the possible meaning. This was shortly after the First World War, and aerial photography had become commonplace.

Much later still, I discovered the image had been important to many conceptual artists of the 1960s and 70s. Meanwhile the photo was cropping up in theoretical and philosophical texts about the nature of photography as trace or index. So my initial dislike turned to fascination.

TC: Thinking about how it’s been regarded and where the authorship might reside, how do you view Man Ray and Duchamp’s respective roles? Are we talking about a most unique form of collaboration?

DC: That photograph was in and out of various avant-garde journals and books for over four decades. Then in 1964 an edition of ten prints was made and both men signed them on the front. The respective roles of the image vary, depending on how the photo is used and where the emphasis falls. I guess in that sense it’s a photo that dramatises a tension that exists in all photographs, between art and document, intention and chance, fact and wish, between what’s in the photograph and what context the photograph is in. We’re interested in photography, and to that extent we’re somewhat invested in the idea of authorship. But maybe authorship isn’t the most significant thing about photography. It’s a medium haunted by the fact that only under very limited circumstances does the ‘author function’ (as Michel Foucault once called it) actually mean much. We see hundreds of photographs in our daily life and barely stop to think about the authorship of any of them. News photos, design photos, advertising imagery. I was looking at a book of teeth photos today, while waiting to see my dentist. No idea who took them, but no less fascinating for that.

TC: Indeed, the empirical mass of photography – that which doesn’t exist for the purposes of art – is a whole other universe, one that is endlessly fascinating but hardly explored, let alone collected by museums or galleries. Here, it is the language that speaks and not the author.

But it’s true that one of the many intriguing aspects of Dust Breeding is this manner in which it is symbolic of the promiscuous nature of photographs – the mobility of photography. Over its life, it has embarked on a journey through multiple contexts, as it appeared in many different ways and in numerous publications, shifting readings in the process as you say. The key then lies not the image’s origins but in its destination. Rightly or wrongly, Dust Breeding has also been co-opted by Surrealism, Abstraction, Conceptual Art and Land Art, to name but a few as well. As you obviously saw the possibility to acquire so much from one photograph, what other creative propositions does it speak to for you?

DC: The meaning of any image is in its destination. That itself is a rich creative proposition.

TC: Insofar as photographs are always somewhat tentative and destined to only give rise to further images?

DC: Images are essentially ambiguous. They can be made less so – by words and other images, for example – but the ambiguity remains. They may not give rise to further images, but they do give rise to further meanings. So my project was twofold: to track the career or ‘biography’ of Dust Breeding, as its meaning moves from context to context; and to look at how those meanings might suggest associations with other images.

TC: In terms of those other images that Dust Breeding gives rise to in your project, it’s telling that we encounter press and vernacular photography alongside the work of 20th century stalwarts including Brassaï and Walker Evans, as well as eminent contemporary artists such as Jeff Wall, Sophie Ristelhueber or Rut Blees Luxemburg, for example. How did you go about expanding the object list to include other conceptually-related material and give structure to the show?

DC: I don’t like the term ‘organic’ but it did just kind of grow. If you don’t follow the canon, and you don’t follow the official histories and you don’t follow the money… you naturally end up with a much more dispersed view of the medium. We all know that significant photography can be made pretty much anywhere in the culture, from postcards and magazines to fine art prints. Yes, I guess there’s always a little excitement if one sees an anonymous vernacular photo shown next to an Edward Weston, for example, but I suspect that even Weston knew that his own images were so often mannered versions of photographic types made by many kinds of photographer, most of them destined for obscurity. That’s a tremendous leveller. Indeed, this ‘dispersal’ was the ticket by which photography became a modern art proper, one that didn’t run away from the vernacular and the common document but came into a relation to them. Evans, Albin-Guillot, Krull, Brassaï, Man Ray and so many others faced this. Dust Breeding was made in 1920, at the onset of photography’s modern adventure and it heralds that sense of hybridity that won’t be contained by one discourse, let alone one conception of art.

Well, all that sounds very exciting but it can verge on the chaotic, as you might imagine. I wanted a put together a show, and a book, that explored the many implications of Dust Breeding, and did so on a tight-rope, so to speak. Walking a deliberately precarious line, where one doesn’t know exactly what is being suggested by placing one image in proximity to another. It’s the only project I’ve done where I genuinely didn’t know if the audience would think it profound or pointless. The French audience at Le Bal seemed to like it. And for a while a day didn’t go by without me getting an email from someone offering their interpretation of the show. That was very gratifying. I’m curious to see what London makes of it.

TC: Dust Breeding is such a wonderful title. What do you interpret to be its significance? Given the socio-historical context, is this an allusion to post World War 1 trauma and anxiety? Or are we dealing with religious connotations, namely in the Christian lexicon (eg. ashes to ashes, dust to dust)? Or perhaps we are witnessing a channelling of the complex sexuality of Duchamp’s art? After all, he said that everyone understands eroticism, but no one talks about it, and that through eroticism one can approach important issues that usually remain hidden.

DC: All of the above! The title is thought to come from a sign Duchamp hung in his studio: Do not touch: Dust Breeding. As if his studio was a farm, or a laboratory. Dust, that inevitable intrusion is being harnessed, willed into existence and form. Duchamp spoke of devising various procedures to ‘can chance’. To trap it, preserve it. Allowing dust to gather, as a trace of time is a sort of canning of chance. Photography too can be a way of canning chance. The dust photograph is thus a trace of a trace.

The subtitle of my book is From the Cosmic to the Domestic. Dust unites those realms.

TC: And what about the book/exhibition’s title, a Handful of Dust. It’s a line taken from T.S Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land published in The Criterion in 1922 – the same year the dust image first graced the pages of Littérature, is it not? Do you see one as an analogy for the other?

DC: Not just the same year, it was the very same month. October 1922. Eliot’s great poem is modern in the same way as the dust photograph – a hybrid work of allusion and association that pictures the world in fragments if not ruin, but sees the world’s possible redemption in those fragments too. It’s a coincidence I couldn’t ignore.

TC: Dust is obviously the enemy of photography yet as a subject of a photograph it also represents something entropic, an affirmation of the real in all its imperfections and dirt, which in a way is the opposite of modernity and progress. It represents everything ‘out there’ in the universe but also all that is below our feet.

Could you talk a bit about the process of editing the accompanying book that has been published by MACK. What was your idea to best express the images and their associations in this format and how did it differ from the exhibition experience?

DC: The format of the book is unusual. It’s a sequence of about 160 images, uncaptioned. It’s roughly chronological, with a few deliberate leaps across history. In the middle of the sequence sits a separately bound long essay. So you’re free to cast aside the writing and give yourself up to the task, or pleasure, or pleasurable task of navigating images that are tethered tentatively to each other. That’s as close as I’ve come in book form to the experience of the gallery setting, which of course isn’t very close at all, since books and shows are very different experiences (for all the obvious reasons). It’s true that some shows, notably thematic shows, can end up being “books transferred to the wall”. Naturally I was keen to avoid that. All I’d say is that the two photo-related activities that make me happiest are the working out of multivalent sequences on the page and the working out of relations between images in a physical space. A book needs to be a good book, and an exhibition needs to be a good exhibition. With this project the material works well in both settings. I worked on both simultaneously.

TC: The fact that the images are uncaptioned is interesting since earlier in our discussion we touched upon how text can either compliment or contradict an image’s meaning, albeit with ambiguity intact. Do you see the way you have sequenced and arranged the images for the book as a kind of writing in itself anyway? Is it a way not so much to write about photography but with it?

DC: Well, I was at pains earlier to say that images can be shaped by other images as well as text! Is a sequence of photographs a form of literature? Maybe, and I suspect that in the past I’ve talked about it in that way. But I think we use analogies with literature because we don’t have an adequate vocabulary for describing what happens when our response to one photograph is informed by another and another. We just don’t. I’m always surprised by that. Back in the 1920s, when editing was really coming into its own, both on the page and in the cinema, there were filmmakers and film theorists developing really complex ways of talking about cinematic montage. Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Vertov. Revolutionary figures. But beyond a few texts on photomontage and collage there was no equivalent body of knowledge being assembled for photographic editing. This doesn’t mean photo editing wasn’t as advanced. In many ways it was, but we’re left with quite an impoverished way of talking about it. That’s not necessarily a disadvantage. Part of me finds it very freeing.

TC: Freeing? In what sense?

DC: I think it was Koestler who said that true creativity begins where language ends. That can be a very regressive idea, and has been used to defend all manner of clichés about artistic life. Nevertheless there are times when it can be freeing to not be able to give a name to what you’re doing.

TC: I think photography is all editing. We can never emphasis enough the pervasive and persuasive role of editing in determining meaning, via interstices between images, via movement between one photograph and the next, via the itinerary of the eye.

Speaking of which… Slowness and sustained looking versus quick, casual consumption of images is also something that I’m curious to hear your thoughts about. I’m recalling a passage from Victor Burgin’s essay Photography, Phantasy, Function (1980) that of course you know very well:

‘To look at a photograph beyond a certain period of time is to be frustrated: the images, which on first looking gave pleasure by degrees becomes a veil which we now desire to see. To remain too long with a single photograph is to lose the imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to the absent other to whom it belongs by right: the camera. The image now no longer receives our look, reassuring us of our founding centrality, it rather, as it were, avoids our gaze. In photography one image does not succeed another in the manner of cinema. As alienations intrudes into our captation by the still image, we can only regain the imaginary, and reinvest our looking with authority, by averting our gaze, redirecting it to another image elsewhere. It is therefore not an arbitrary fact that photographs are deployed so that, almost invariably, another photograph is already in position to receive the displaced look.’

If you indulge me and imagine we ignore the date for a moment, Burgin could almost be describing our contemporary condition of waning attention spans, of photography in the age of distraction – an age in which the sheer volume of images we digest on a daily basis not just on the Internet but in the world around us is staggering. An age in which anybody with a smart phone is now a photographer but few have a sophisticated understanding of the uses and abuses of photography. At the moment of his writing, though, what do you think was his most pressing concern, given that psychoanalytic theories of photography such as the gaze, the imaginary and captation were only recently introduced? What precise aspects of visual culture was he writing in response to?

DC: You’d have to ask him that. That passage is fascinating for different reasons. Burgin’s argument is ontological, in that he feels there’s something built into the medium that makes photographs compelling to look at but only for a short while (“therefore”, as he put it, there’s always another image in place to take the displaced look). Against that ontological view we might say that we live in a visual culture that has trained us not to look, or expect to look, at any one image for very long… but we could. I’ve never quite made my mind up about that, and I guess there’ll never be a ‘court of appeal’ in which we have to make up our minds. But it is a question I think about, and it was on my mind a lot in this project, spiralling back to that one very singular image. Maybe images are like relationships. Some warrant a one-night stand, others demand a long-term commitment. And some you don’t see very often but they’re important to you nonetheless.

I was just reading a very suggestive essay by Hito Steyerl, titled Cut!, in which she suggests that each epoch of modernity has its own ways of editing (she’s concerned with movies but it applies to still photography too). The rhythms, the interstices change over time under different pressures. I think the Internet is generating a whole new set of rhythms and interstices on many fronts: in the online orchestration of images, in the online consumption of images, in the possibilities of retrieval and reconfiguration. I think you can see this in the number of books by photographers that have associative, elliptical edits. Such books seem to be influenced by, yet resistant to, online experience.

TC: This idea that we live in a visual culture that has trained us not to look is very interesting if not a little disconcerting. I guess I was not only thinking about the surfeit of imagery (via the Internet, billboard advertising, television, news photography etc.) that might avert our gaze but also about certain, self-conscious strategies present in art photography – namely typology and, more specifically, seriality as a means of creating the ‘displaced look’.

Someone whose work, given its nature, actively resists the idea of expecting viewers not to look at any one image too long is Jeff Wall, to name but one example. He doesn’t present groups or series of images as way of imagining photography, a practice of photography, he has described, as ‘so established it is almost unnoticed’. He has said, and as you included in your article for Source magazine, Quotations for an Essay about Editing (2009): ‘I notice it because I really cannot do it that way. I want each picture to stand on its own, with no sequential or thematic relationship to any other. At least, not any specific or organised relationship.’

What made you write about Jeff Wall’s Picture For Women (1979), a book again centred on one singular image, for which you received the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Writing in 2012? Was this image initially a one-night stand that surprisingly developed into a long-term relationship?

DC: Published books are strange things. They seem to say: “This was all very intentional. It was written by someone who knew what they wanted to do, and they did it.” But nearly all my books have come about by chance, and never turn out the way they start. The one on the Jeff Wall image had a strange genesis. When Wall had a big retrospective at Tate Modern, in 2005, there was a day-long symposium where a bunch of people were each invited to choose and talk about just one of his photographs. Steve Edwards, Briony Fer, Michael Fried, Michael Newman, and others. I chose Woman with a Covered Tray, a very understated image that I loved, and still do. Then the organisers called me to say that nobody had chosen a work from the 1970s or 80s, and could I reconsider? I’d recently published a survey book for Phaidon, Art and Photography, in which I included Wall’s Picture for Women. That photograph had already attracted a lot of discussion but I doubted one thing that almost every critic seemed to assume, that the photograph was shot facing a mirror. We’re always making presumptions when we look at photographs. That fascinates me. Anyway, I gave my talk at Tate, and a few years later the artist Mark Lewis, who instigated the One Work series of books for Afterall/MIT asked if I’d push my thinking and turn it into a whole book on Picture for Women. There was more than enough to discuss, not just about that image but why so few art photographers set out to make singular photographs, belonging to no set, suite, series, typology, archive or other ‘body of work’. Making just one, to stand alone, is still very rare.

Intellectually, I’m rather allergic to books about ‘photography in general’. There’s so little you can meaningfully say about it in general. When I was an undergraduate I spent an afternoon talking with Susan Sontag (a long story) and she and I ended up discussing this issue. I was a great admirer of her essays but never liked her book On Photography. When she asked if I’d read it I was brave enough to tell her this. I didn’t like the sweeping tone, and the absence of reproductions in the book gave her an unearned license to sail over an entire field making sweeping generalisations. She said that was certainly a weakness of the book, and that at the time she’d found it difficult to talk about specific images. Many writers on photography do find that difficult – they relate to photography as a technical/social phenomenon. I was struck by her honesty. Then she said, very genuinely, that maybe one day I might write a book titled On Photographs, or even On a Photograph. I never forgot that conversation.

TC: That’s a great story and On a Photograph would be a fabulous title. You’ve referred to Wall’s Picture for Women before as ‘perverse’. Could you elaborate on that?

DC: It doesn’t picture any thing perverse, but it does picture perversely.

TC: Perverse, in terms of confounding us as viewers through the deliberately disorientating sense that we are looking through the reflection of a mirror? Perverse in terms of presenting us with several spectacles going on at once – like in Édouard Manet’s painting Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, on which Wall modelled Picture for Women? I imagine these are just some of the work’s many obstinacies in giving up its meaning readily that intrigued you?

DC: Yes. It took me a whole book to explore the obstinacies and I still came to few conclusions. In general I find photographs ‘modelled’ on paintings insufferable. We can all think of endless corny and over-lit photographic remakes of Vermeer, Hopper, Chardin and so on. But Wall’s Picture for Women does address itself to the specific differences between the mediums. Manet’s painting really cannot be recreated photographically. It’s a painting. And Wall’s photograph is a photograph. That’s not a call for purity – all the mediums are free to mix and explore each other – but there’s a kind of dialogue that also clarifies differences.

TC: Yes, endless. When confronted with examples of photographers pursuing this line or gallerists and publishers embracing such practice, I immediately think to myself, ‘What a shame! What a shame that they still consider photography’s status as an art form to be a bit suspect.’ I think, ‘Are we really going to have this conversation again about the relationship between photography and painting?’ The same points seem to be rehearsed over and over again and comparisons are often facile. Yet, in the case of Wall’s Picture for Women I think it is clear we are dealing with something much more complex and sophisticated. Wall’s motives seem far from faithfully mimicking its source in photographic form but rather he deploys a large-scale tableau in order to force a reflection on spectatorship, to thrust us into a kind of cinematic space, to play with perspective, to muse on the ‘male gaze’ etc. Ultimately, this is done without lapsing into corny imitation – far from it.

However, if the picture plane is invisible in a photograph, how has Wall managed to make it visible? How do we ‘know’ whether this is a camera photographing itself in a mirror or one camera photographing another? What do you think Wall is trying to do, trying to break away from?

DC: I never think about what an artist might be “trying to do”. I’m more interested in what I am doing when I’m looking and thinking. The image provides the occasion for interpretation. It’s what John Cage called ‘response-ability’. I’m post-structural enough to know that meaning lies in its destination, not its origin. Maybe this is why I’m just as attracted to images by unknown photographers, and to the fields of photography where the author function plays little part. Film stills, snapshots, instrumental photos like press or police pictures.

Every few years I reread several of Roland Barthes’ books – his ‘autobiography’… S/ZThe Pleasure of the TextCamera Lucida… and the anthologies of essays. His circling around the relation between authorship and his own response is constantly fascinating. It’s curious how Camera Lucida is so beloved by photographers, when that book is certainly not beloved of them. For Barthes, the photographer’s authorship and intention are the obstacles that come between the image and his response. Yesterday I was with William Klein, whose images Barthes discusses, but only to say they are rich in socio-historical detail. He has no time for Klein’s powers of observation or quick-witted timing, or compositional brilliance. All Barthes sees are clothes and faces. Taking my copy of the book from my bag I asked Klein what he thought of Barthes’ approach, all these years later. He grabbed the book in mock anger and wrote on the image, “That was me – William Klein”! I guess authorship is always going to be a complicated issue for photographers.

Jeff Wall is certainly a ‘name’ in contemporary art photography and his manner of image construction means that many audiences and commentators feel that when they’re looking at his work they’re somehow in his artistic head. I don’t feel that at all. I don’t feel he has a ‘point of view’, certainly not an emphatic one that crowds me out. He simply offers me very rich occasions for response.

TC: Are you at liberty to say what you are working on with William Klein?

DC: Klein is a giant of documentary photography, fashion photography, and filmmaking in the 20th century (he’s also a brilliant writer and designer, who took care of every aspect of his landmark photographic books). He’s American but moved to Paris in 1948 and went back only intermittently. As a result he’s not had a retrospective in the US, and there’s no single book with an overview of his whole career. We’re looking into the possibilities of both.

TC: Sounds fascinating and a long time coming. Which great British photographers do you feel have been drastically overlooked by our photographic institutions here in the UK? Who hasn’t received their dues?

DC: There are so many! Hannah Collins, Victor Burgin, Chris Killip and Nick Waplington are four very different practitioners, who exhibit and publish all across Europe and America but deserve attention from major British institutions. From a slightly younger generation – Hannah Starkey and Esther Teichmann spring to mind. From the past – I’d like to see a comprehensive show of the work of Edith Tudor Hart. Britain has a habit of not quite valuing its photographers, while the contemporary art scene in the UK still has a problem with the medium. It used to exasperate me. But now I just get on with doing what I can, prodding here and there, championing when the occasion arises.

TC: Indeed! And all those you listed certainly merit major shows here in the UK. Even though we are in the photographic backwaters, I find it hard to believe that they haven’t been approached at certain points in their respective careers.

Obviously you’ve curated and organised many exhibitions on an independent basis – from a Handful of Dust at Le Bal (2015), as we’ve discussed, to Mark Neville: Deeds Not Words at The Photographers’ Gallery (2013) or Walker Evans: The Magazine Work, which started at MOCAK in Krakow (2014). Would you ever consider taking a permanent post in a public gallery or museum?

DC: It would depend on the institution. I’ve seen really dynamic curators swallowed by the bureaucracy and hampered by the slow pace of museums. That’s cause for concern. I kind of fell into curating, having never set out to do it. And to be honest I fall into most things, usually by being invited. It’s all very haphazard. I have my interests and somehow they find outlets. I was listening to a wonderful radio interview with the actor Tilda Swinton. “So Tilda,” said the host, “you’re enjoying a remarkable career…” Tilda interjected: “I’m not having ‘a career’: I’m having a life.” A life photographic, that’ll do me.

TC: ‘A life photographic’ – that’s a very nice way to put it. However, I find the term ‘photographic’ a curious, slippery one when used to describe an individual work or form of art ‘practice’ (another odd word). In your mind, how is something ‘photographic’ as opposed to just plain photography?

DC: I agree. I wouldn’t use the term to describe an individual work or form of art practice. I’ve ended up with a working life that moves between writing, curating, making images, editing, teaching, broadcasting, public speaking, and so on, but nearly always to do with photography in one way or another. A life that could be reasonably described as photographic.

How is a specific work or practice photographic without being photography? Interesting question. Perhaps when it partakes of an element of what makes up photography. For example, we might say photograms are photographic without being photography. Suntans are photographic without being photography. Signalling a Morse code message with a flashlight is photographic without being photography. I think the term ‘photographic’ has come about to designate a whole range of important partial practices.

TC: Just going back to the various photographic elements that make up your working life… Do you consider writing to be at its core? And I’m curious: who do you write for? Do you ever have a specific reader in mind?

DC: The image is at the core. That’s what I orbit around, in different ways. I had no intention of writing, and didn’t take it seriously until I was around 30. When I started to write – which was by invitation, on the basis of a couple of public talks I’d given about my own photography – I thought I should impress my academic peers. But once I’d done that, it wasn’t very rewarding. It felt needy and paranoid.

As a kid, I think I was smart, but not academically smart. That meant I had a lot of intellectual and creative energy that was going to waste, which can be an awful feeling. For whatever reason, photography caught me just in time, in my latter teens. It gave me a doorway to so many things. So in the back of my mind when I’m writing, I see me at the age of 19. I’m trying to catch him, scoop him up, offer him something to reach for. I’m not trying to tell him it will all be fine, but I am trying to tell him that the struggle to look and think can be worth it, even when it leads to more struggle. I think this approach chimes with something that’s dying these days, especially in academia, and that’s the drive for clarity of expression. My first drafts of my writing are over-wordy and contorted. Most of my efforts go into the re-writing. I’m trying to say things as simply as I can. That doesn’t mean I’m trying to simplify, or ‘dumb down’. I’m looking for the clearest way of expressing even the most complex ideas. They’ll still be complex, but I want to give myself and my reader (who is really my younger self) the best chance of grasping them. This isn’t a programme for all writers, but it is the one that interests me.

TC: I’m now imagining your writing as a sort of indirect letter to a 19 year old you. Are there any rules for writing that you either follow in the present or which you would set your younger self in retrospect?

DC: The points made by George Orwell in his essay Politics and the English Language are valuable. Never use a phrase you’ve heard before. Think three times before you ever use an adjective (it always says more about you than about what you’re throwing it towards). Avoid euphemism and cliché (i.e., use language and try not to let it use you). Be suspicious of ‘popular wisdom’ and the consensual categories to which the mass media will default.

I recently listened to a lecture podcast by Susan Sontag, and before she got to her main subject she said this:

“My work is much more intelligent than I am, and for a very good reason. Everything I write goes through many, many drafts. I feel that I am my first draft but then I’m a very good rewriter. I’m extremely tenacious, extremely stubborn. And I know how to improve, radically improve, what I get first onto the page. But I’m actually not as smart as the end result.”

That’s valuable. Kurt Vonnegut also has some good things to say about writing. Adorno on the essay form is terrific. Lastly, I find it worth listening carefully to great public speakers (and I don’t read their speeches). Speakers who can present, discuss, expound and think on their feet without notes, without hesitation, deviation, repetition or ‘TED talk’ over-rehearsal are very, very rare. Writing is, for me, connected to speech. Again, that’s not for everyone but it’s how I go about things. It might be because I found myself with a lecturing job before I found myself writing.

TC: Yes. And, of course, it was Orwell who commented on turning to long words and exhausted idioms as ‘like a cuttlefish squirting out ink’. Martin Amis has written some good thoughts too about writing as a war against clichés, how overused or abused words can become ‘dead freight’. What cliché is, he has said, is ‘heard thinking and heard feeling’. Sontag’s admission is interesting too. I was recently listening to an interview with Zadie Smith in which she said writing offers you a person in their best form – that ‘a book is somebody’s best self’, which rings very true.

I would like to ask: who has been the most remarkable writer on photography for you, personally? Who has been fundamental to your thinking on the medium?

DC: That Zadie Smith remark is interesting. When my students ask me who they should be writing for, I say: “Your future self. Write the best gift you could give your future self.” There isn’t a particular writer for me, no single figure who has been fundamental. As a reader, my most pleasurable moments come when the ideas and phrases from one writer overlap with another, when I move from book to book, or essay to essay. Those transitions – when one feels the presence of two minds and one’s own in the middle – can be so delicate, so energising, so joyously destabilising (a feeling Barthes once called ‘jouissance’). Putting down Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature and picking up André Bazin’s essay on the photographic image. Reading Pierre Mac Orlan on Atget and then Molly Nesbitt on Atget. Reading Walter Benjamin and then Rosalind Krauss. Reading an interview with Roy deCarava, then reading Teju Cole on deCarava. Most recently it was putting down Siegfried Kracauer’s 1930s writings on the mass media and picking up Hito Steyerl’s The Wretched of the Screen. I guess that’s the editor in me, looking for the connections and the tensions.

TC: What makes a writer, David?

DC: I don’t know. The question feels too general. Perhaps a Writer (capital W) is a person whose words you want to reread. I read a lot of books and essays for information, and a lot for their intellectual ideas. But I tend to keep only the books I feel I shall want reread.

TC: Do you ever experience fear of writing? And are you a writer with any certain rituals?

DC: I’m one of those for whom writing is the way of testing not just what one thinks, but how one thinks, so there’s always a degree of fear involved. I have no rituals, although I do tend to follow Walter Benjamin’s advice, and try to write the end of a text in a location that’s different from where the rest was written. And wherever possible I’ll structure an essay or book visually, first sequencing the images that will become the spine of the writing.

TC: Are there any forms of writing on photography that you find unhelpful or repellent?

DC: I’m not fond of writing that presumes to speak for the reader or viewer; and there are many great thinkers that I find hard to appreciate as writers, but I wade through their texts anyway. I mention no names.

I do appreciate your reference to form. I feel good writing should be pursued in any mode, from the monographic essay and exhibition text, to the peer-reviewed academic essay, the interview, or the review. Academic writing is in a bad way at present, which is a shame. The whole peer-review process is limiting experimentation, and I see too many young academics feeling they need to conform to certain conventions for the sake of their career progression. It’s all become very risk-averse. I write for the academic journals only occasionally (who would want to live in a peer-reviewed culture? Sounds vaguely Stalinist to me).

In re-reading much of Roland Barthes’ work I’m struck by the radically experimental attitude he took to form: never presuming but always forging forms that were appropriate to his thought. Barthes could make even a list of his preferences zing with intellectual energy and startling honesty. It’s chilling to think he wouldn’t last a day in the present academic climate.

TC: It’s interesting that you mention Barthes’ list-making ability since I’m particularly fond of his J’aime, je n’aime pas (I like, I don’t like), amongst other works. I quote a few extracts from both directions:

‘I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay (why doesn’t someone with a “nose” make such a perfume), roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould, too-cold beer, flat pillows, toast, Havana cigars, Handel, slow walks…’

‘I don’t like: white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums, strawberries, the harpsichord, Miró, tautologies, animated cartoons, Arthur Rubinstein, villas, the afternoon, Satie, Bartók, Vivaldi, telephoning, children’s choruses, Chopin’s concertos…’

What scope do you see for newer, more experimental forms of photography writing?

DC: Ha-ha, Barthes’ lists do look odd when out of context like that. (What was his problem with white Pomeranians and women in slacks??? Funny.) There’s always scope for new forms of writing, but a new form is only ever pursued when a desire and a necessity is felt, that for what ever reason it must exist.

But I’m not sure how much we need to read about photography at all. I’m always encouraging my students to read about other things. Politics, philosophy, anthropology, history, psychoanalysis, and about the subject matter of what it is they are photographing, be it trees, buildings, fashion or political protests. The American photographer Andreas Feininger published a book titled Photographic Seeing. This was in 1973, when the ‘serious’ study of photography was getting established in universities. He wrote:

‘There is no doubt that, as long as a student of photography is strongly motivated, i.e. seriously interested in a specific type of subject matter, he or she will eventually become a great photographer […] On the other hand, I have found again and again that people interested only in “photography” get nowhere. They go from photo school to photo school, take courses in photography, work as assistants to well-known photographers, read all the proper books, have an encyclopaedic knowledge of things photographic, own the latest and finest equipment – and never produce a worthwhile photograph.’

Of course it’s not a clear-cut either/or. The better writings on photography are also writings on other things.

TC: Yes, we see so many photographs of things rather than photography about something, anything. Is photography criticism not a great good then? Do you not consider it a noble pursuit?

DC: Put it this way…if photography isn’t photography when it’s only photography, the same goes for the writing about it.

TC: There we have it! In your introduction to Intimate Distance, Todd Hido’s recently-published monograph with Aperture, there’s a particular passage that really seems to encapsulate so much of what we’ve been discussing: ‘Living in the mind, pictures can never really belong to anyone. The unconscious does not recognise authors, origins, or destinations. What matters for imagery is resonance and restlessness.’

I was also intrigued by your idea of us all beginning in the ‘middle’. You write: ‘Making photographs is so often an act of recognition, conscious of otherwise, that what is before you resonates with things that came before. Those things might be direct experiences. They might be movies, picture books, music, or novels. We can never know for sure. And when we look at the photographs of others we are doing something similar: responding now through an elusive then. We all begin in the middle.’

DC: Well, we do all enter in the middle. Things were going on before we arrived, and they’ll continue after we’ve left the party. We pick things up where we find them and try to put them into some kind of narrative, be it history, or artistic biography, or autobiography. But it’s never clear-cut. For example, when we respond deeply to a work from the past – an image, a film, a novel – we are responding now. There is no time travel, and yet we know that the work could only have been made when it was made. So it’s not just that we enter in the middle… we are living in different time zones simultaneously.

TC: Could you tell me your favourite film, photo book, album and novel – those you would ‘choose as a pillow and plate, alone on a desert island’ (as Jeanette Winterson wrote of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities)?

DC: Cinema was the first art form that really mattered to me, and it’s still the backdrop to much of my engagement with images, so I couldn’t choose one film. I could give you four. Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Powel & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, and Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. Tomorrow it might be another four. Photographic book? Walker Evans’s American Photographs. Album? Joni Mitchell’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Novel? Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.

Image courtesy of David Campany. © Drew Sawyer