1000 Words

Writer Conversations

#8 Max Houghton

Max Houghton is a writer, curator and editor working with the photographic image as it intersects with politics, law and human rights. She runs the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, where she organises regular public talks, symposia and exhibitions. Her writing has appeared in publications by The Photographers’ Gallery, London and the Barbican, London, as well as in the international arts press, including Foam, 1000 Words, Photoworks and Granta. With Fiona Rogers, she is co-author of Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames & Hudson, 2017) and her latest monograph essay on Mary Ellen Mark will be published in 2022 (Steidl). She is a Laws faculty scholarship doctoral candidate at University College London. With David Birkin, she is co-founder of research hub Visible Justice.

At what point did you start to write about photographs? 

I had just finished the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course in 2001, and was researching (more than writing) for a Guardian journalist, Nick Davies, when Jon Levy, who’d I’d met through a mutual friend, asked if I’d write for his new website for photojournalists, Foto8. He sent me a set of photographs taken in Vietnam by an American photographer called Les Stone, which documented the ongoing transgenerational effects of Agent Orange. It was a fascinating exercise, because immediately I felt a responsibility to the overall subject matter of the Vietnam War, to the photographer and to the people in the pictures who I would never meet. Also, my question was: am I writing about the images or about the subject matter? These concerns endure. Six years later, I began an MA in critical theory (I didn’t have a first degree) to help me think them through. Foto8 grew from being a kind of dotcom start up to a published magazine, which eventually, along with Lauren Heinz, I edited. My bottom-line excitement, in staying with photographs for so long, is the idea that what we see never resides in what we say… It is an infinite relation, as Michel Foucault wrote. I’m always skipping from one register to the other, and back again.

What is your writing process?

My writing process is essentially reading, listening, editing, running and sleeping. I think that if we let it, our ‘back brain’ (please don’t ask me for the science!) works it all out while we’re doing other things. I can only understand something if I’ve written about it, or if I’ve been lucky enough to have a proper dialogic conversation on the subject. I’m not a hugely opinionated person, so it’s important to afford very close attention to the work, and indeed to spend time with it, in order to find out what it might be that I think, or that the work emits.

What are the questions or problems that motivate your writing? 

I’m interested in the idea of being able to write with photographs, which I hope might be a practice underpinned by an ethics of care. I think this is an originally feminist term, which resists patriarchal injustices… And while, of course, that is part of my intention, I also mean to use the term in relation to the root of the word ‘curate’ – cura – which is a specific way of paying attention. If I am asked to write with an artist’s images, it is important to me to impart the same kind of care in my writing as the photographer did in the original images. I don’t tend to write about work that doesn’t move me; in that sense I’m not a critic at all, though I know there is useful place for such writing. I’m also motivated by what (photographic) images might do in the world, and in how, as technical images (as Vilém Flusser described them), they combine with other images in the world to stimulate thought processes. The image brings a different form of knowledge, which is different again when combined with text. It’s fair to say the image-text is the underlying question that motivates my writing. As well as this, I’m always interested in what moves me; what connects me to actual feeling, and, as a logical extension of that, what might move others. At best, I hope my words might sometimes connect people to emotion. I think we can all exist very superficially. If we take time to notice how we feel, and when we feel, and manage not judge those feelings as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we may be able to spend a little longer thinking about what matters. Finally, I continue to seek an inclusive practice, and my desire to challenge and refuse brutal, dangerous and often dominant power structures that shape our world remains potent.

What kind of reader are you? 

Oh, reading. I don’t know who or what or how I’d be without it. I wish I could read everything I want to read, but then I wouldn’t live. It’s simply how I understand the world; it’s been my way of being in it all my life. I guess I’m that kind of reader!

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

I’m not sure one precludes the other? I’m very glad to see how curatorial practice is expanding to unpick those questions that theories or histories might more traditionally cover, but surely they are all interwoven as discourses? Okwui Enwezor’s 2002 documenta would offer a very significant example of such weaving for me, for example. I wonder if I fully understand the question? I certainly see how curation is influencing future theories and histories, even in terms of whose histories are being made visible. It’s also an aspect of my way of being with photographs that recently I’ve been able to pursue, but this is not an isolated or removed practice… On the contrary…

What is the role or currency of the idea of documentary in your writing? In Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (2017), the book that you co-wrote with Fiona Rogers, both your photographer selections and the written project introductions propose exciting new terrain for documentary practice. It is practically a manifesto for expanded documentary.

Fiona’s wonderful Firecracker platform rightly foregrounds the individual work of the artists, and I guess we were not seeking to make such a statement. I’m grateful for your phrasing; it’s absolutely documentary that grounds me, but not in any kind of limited way. I see documentary as a desire to gain evidence of something vital, something that needs to be seen, shared and understood; afforded attention. Its methods can and indeed must be as expansive as possible. The kind of work that understands how documentary images have been used to categorise and control; the kind of work that has ingested some of the world’s trillions of other images; the kind of work that seeks; the kind of work that may never even be finished… This is what interests me.

What qualities do you admire in other writers?

Clarity, (emotional) honesty, generosity, nuance, wit, precision, creating images through words, humility, mystery, playfulness (not necessarily all at once)… The same qualities I admire in other humans(!).

What texts have influenced you the most?

All works by W. G. Sebald, without question (though of course there ought always to be questions). T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1941). Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966), Philippe Sands’ East West Street (2016), Patricia J. Williams’ The Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991). Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Roy de Carava and Langston Hughes’ The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), bell hooks’ Teaching to transgress (1994), Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster (1980), “To See and Not See” (1993) by Oliver Sacks, “You’re” (1960) by Sylvia Plath… I could go on…♦

What is the place of criticality in photography writing now?

Central, isn’t it? Like always?

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


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

Images:

1-Max Houghton © Stephanie Smith

2-Max Houghton, ‘Aesthetic Justice Tower’

4-Max Houghton, ‘Holiday Tower’

5-Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

Nan Goldin

Sirens

Exhibition review by Max Houghton

The image of the siren in popular culture is as seductive temptress of the sea, luring unsuspecting men to their deaths. According to Emily Wilson, translator of The Odyssey (2017), Homer’s sirens were not, in fact, sexy mermaids. ‘The seduction they offer is cognitive: they claim to know everything about the war in Troy, and everything on earth. They tell the names of pain.’

This understanding of a specifically feminine wisdom from bird-like creatures who operate between life and death resonates with Nan Goldin’s achievement in Sirens, an exhibition at London’s Marian Goodman Gallery. The war in question is not Troy, but addiction, and who and what fuels it. And, of course, as with Homer, this most personal odyssey is as much about love, knowledge and justice as about war itself.

The show states its first intention with a cabinet of protest, filled with Oxycontin bottles, notes from the Bankrupt States of America, and badges emblazoned with the word ‘Painkillers’, with ‘Pain’ crossed out in a purposeful act of sous rature. Because the word and its negation are both visible, the paradox of the nature of a drug like Oxycontin, and the morals of the company, Purdue Pharma, that supplies it, are vividly foregrounded.

The opioid crisis in the US – where for every one million Americans, almost 50,000 doses of opioids are taken every day – has been well documented. The art world has played its part, largely via the activities of Goldin’s advocacy group, PAIN, conducting successful campaigns against accepting donations from the Sackler family, owners of Purdue, which has funded so many institutions from the Tate to the Serpentine. Of the key institutional players in the UK, only the V&A remains impervious to this pressure. Goldin’s focus on opioid addiction is personal. She was addicted to the illegal drug heroin in the 1980s and to the legal, aggressively marketed drug Oxycontin after a prescription for tendonitis in 2014. Every work she has ever created, every photograph ever made is borne out of a deeply personal impetus. In Sirens, it is folded into every collision between singing and seeing, into each caress of two aesthetic modes. But what is ‘it’, this core personal mood? I would suggest it is best expressed in words as honesty. In a 2013 interview, when talking about the suicide of her sister, and how her parents made it part of a revisionist history of family life, Goldin said: “I think the wrong things were kept secret. I still do.” These two sentences encircle her art practice like a force field.

One of the four new audiovisual works created for the exhibition The Other Side (1994-2019) operates as memorial to friends lost (of course, all her works do this). I enter this room to the unmistakable sound of Song to the Siren. The Did I dream you dreamed about me? line, with its hypnagogic double-step into another realm, is the territory to which we are led when immersed in Goldin’s work, at once worldly and otherworldly. It is hard (for me) to retain images from films or filmic sequences; it is as though once seen, they disappear back into their own realm, only to be remembered on second sight. Within the exhibition, images recur, both between the multi-media works, and in the framed still portraits that occupy one whole room and several walls. This repetition of faces illuminates them like old friends, or like someone passed in the street, half-noticed, yet intensely felt. The lyrics and emotional register of further tracks such as Fever and What Makes a Man a Man? are edited to highlight specific images and to add a layer of meaning to what we see. The latter song, performed by Charles Aznavour, asks a question that haunts many of Goldin’s images. Her world was (is) populated by people defined in society as drag queens, transvestites or transsexuals. To Goldin, they are simply her friends; such gender definition has always been fluid. My notes on the images, scrawled in the dark, read as follows: embrace, fabrics, bed, opulence, birthday, balloons (more), déjeuner sur l’herbe, kissing eyes open, sofa snogging, Bangkok boygirl, direct gaze, hazy eyes, marriage, Baudelaire, Marilyn, cadaver, parade. In writing the list, I can conjure the images again; they are vivid once more, but for me only, and my connections to loss and to love.

In another installation room, two films run consecutively; Memory Lost and the eponymous Sirens, and for this reason, we must assume the two work together as twinpoles of ecstasy and addiction. Memory Lost is most overtly ‘about’ addiction. This imagery is interspersed with old answerphone messages – wakeupwakeupwakeupwakeupwakeup – and the desperate sound of a jarring ring tone. Goldin understands well how film can disrupt linear time, and how temporal dislocation is a feature of the addict’s life. This film runs on narcotime and the user’s experience of ‘being outside of myself, looking down’ pervades. Such an out-of-body experience is also a marker of trauma. As the voiceover suggests, if it was trauma that likely fuelled the addiction in the first place, the role of the drug is obvious – to make us feel totally desirable, totally human, whole.

Sirens begins with ethereal whistling, accompanying imagery of an androgynous being, speaking words we can’t hear, making gestures and signals we can’t fathom, like the sirens intonating the names of pain. What follows is a series of metamorphoses – a face in a sequined mask, a woman inhaling smoke, playing with her slinky, a tall, stilted creature encased in metal. The footage here is familiar, too, but not from within Goldin’s archive. She has repurposed fragments from Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Kenneth Anger and other distinguished directors, playing on tropes both familiar and unfamiliar. Unsettling images crescendo to a huge rave scene, which feels epiphanic, ecstatic, yet culminates in an unbearable bleached-out brightness. People are running; from where or towards what, we cannot know. The closing imagery invites the viewer back to an oneiric state, as a woman, washed up on a beach, awakens, as though from a particularly sensual dream.

A three-minute video, Salomé, is at once the most theatrical and least intimate of the new works, yet offers in some ways the most gripping visual experience. The images are split between three channels, one of which features Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510); a second, horrified faces of establishment men, looking; a third, the seductive performance of a drag queen. Sexuality is celebrated, as Salomé makes voyeurs of us all.

Goldin’s intimate knowledge has already shaken the financial foundations of the art world, by stemming at least some of the blood money sloshing through its halls. It could offer further insight into why millions of people in the free world feel an overwhelming need to numb their pain, or as visual antithesis to the deadly disease of shame… though such question are still not so readily asked. Speaking of her sister’s death, Goldin said “What killed her is she was born at the wrong time. She didn’t have a tribe.” In a society that certainly has tribes, and where activist voices are recognised and respected, it is nevertheless hard to know in which direction we are moving, riven as we surely are with brutal enmity and continued injustice. Goldin’s work feels urgent; it always did.

It felt poignant, like an exhale, to see the upper floor of the elegant gallery taken over entirely by large scale photographic prints of the sky. It’s impossible to photograph the firmament well or badly; its vicissitudes too numerous, its beauty too fleeting or too eternal. We can’t remember the sky. We can never forget it either.

Images courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery New York, Paris and London. © Nan Goldin.

Installation views of Sirens at Marian Goodman Gallery London – 14 November 2019 – 11 January 2020.


Max Houghton is a writer, editor and curator working with the photographic image as it intersects with politics, law and human rights.  She runs the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. Her writing has appeared in publications by The Photographers’ Gallery and The Barbican, as well as in the international arts press, including Foam, 1000 Words, Photoworks and Granta.  She is co-author, with Fiona Rogers, of Firecrackers: Female Photographers Now (Thames and Hudson 2017).  She is a Law’s faculty scholarship doctoral candidate at University College London. With David Birkin, she is co-founder of Visible Justice.

Tereza Zelenkova

The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall

Essay by Max Houghton

Photography might have been invented to give credence to Rimbaud’s famous expression ‘Je est un autre’; his grammatical slippage expresses the I and not-I of the image as potently as it articulates the condition of self. The poet’s oeuvre, as well as that of another feted Symbolist, Joris-Karl Huysmans, haunts and animates the work of Tereza Zelenkova, whose photography has been exhibited this year in two simultaneous shows in Amsterdam: The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall at Foam, and The Essential Solitude at The Ravestijn Gallery. Choosing to position herself in such a constellation, the artist invites the viewer to look carefully at the connections between her black and white images; to notice the allusions.

Since her earlier work The Absence of Myth (2013), which includes a close-up rephotographing of a girlishly languid Rimbaud, Zelenkova has been enticing us into acts of contemplation about the nature of reality, or about nature and reality. Within her work, neither state is inhabited and instead we are enveloped within the realm of a fecund Symbolist imagination. It is not a slow descent from here to elsewhere, but rather a sudden tipping, reminding us of the unsteadiness of the very ground beneath our feet. Zelenkova traps us in a claustrophobic interior world, as inhabited by writers and artists in order that they make the necessary journey inward.

Zelenkova quotes from Georges Bataille’s Literature and Evil (1957) in her text for The Essential Solitude, picking up on his relentless quest for a ‘different’ truth, as well as the ways in which his work was influenced by Symbolist antecedents. Her preoccupation is the same, and in order to seek out this elusive truth, she employs both image and text, which, as another Symbolist, Georges Rodenbach knew, offers a rich form for such exploration. Rodenbach’s 1892 literary attempt to raise the dead amid the streets of Bruges is punctuated by ghostly photographic imagery, among the very first works of fiction to be so.

However, it is specifically a novel by Huysmans, A Rebours (usually translated as Against Nature), which serves as epigraph for The Essential Solitude, and in which the protagonist, Jean Des Esseintes, exiles himself within a library, in order that he can gorge on aesthetica, and closet himself away from stinking brutish reality. Zelenkova chose a very particular site as a set for this story – the Huguenot House on Folgate St, London, created by the late Dennis Severs, whose loyalty was to historical imagination (as opposed to facts), and whose stated desire in creating his non-traditional museum was ‘to bombard the senses’ (he succeeds). The subject of the images (The images … scarcely mentioned so far. What an oversight. Like in Rodenbach, (like in Sebald), these images do not hold to the tick-box standards of contemporary photography. Instead they ask to be considered as flashes of understanding, trapdoors to other senses, a way of seeking new perfumes and stranger, even darker, flowers.) … is a woman with floor-length hair. She variously sits at a desk, sits blind-folded, looks out towards the window, lies in sensual repose, but we never see her eyes. A remarkably long-haired woman has appeared previously before Zelenkova’s lens, in a 2011 image called Cometes, which translates as a comet, but also as a portent of disaster. Hair observed thus becomes its own world, with its rivers and tributaries and unexpected surfaces. It hides things. It can grow even when we are dead.

The atmosphere conjured throughout this series is that of an opium den; dark, soporific, oneiric. Sumptuous, sensual fabrics drape thickly, carrying the scent of centuries within their folds. A dressing table is laden with precious objects: pots, pearls, feathers, an open book. Closer inspection reveals a tiny ceramic hand on a stick, for scratching the unreachable itch – could any item be more essential for a life of both solitude and creativity? Two poppy heads – papaver soniferum – in negative and positive, lull us to the edge of sleep, to the uncanny landscapes of hypnagogic hallucination.

This essay is strewn with the names of dead men; the Symbolist mode of expression is not very well populated by women, other than as dead lovers, or virgins or femme fatales, so it is all the more pleasurable to Zelenkova begin to carve her own path. She does this most vividly with the image The Unseen, from her most recent work, Snake, in which three women are seated at a lace-clothed table, a fourth stands; each face covered by heavy white cotton veils. Had the artist pinned back the veils, we may have entered the territory of a Vermeer painting, or even Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Instead, we are suspended in a moment of acute expectancy, as we observe this sightless, silent quartet, who seem to have emerged from another realm of being altogether. Their presence is even more unsettling within the series of images, which otherwise depict significant sites in her native Czech Republic, photographed – always in black and white – with unforgiving flash. We see much imagery from the forest, in which the ‘natural’ is always open to question or to incursion. Zelenkova may be alluding to Grimm’s fairy tales, to the female serial killer who inspired Dracula or to the writing of Gustav Meyrink (his death mask is among her images). Meyrink wrote about the Golem of Prague, a creature that becomes visible in the city every 33 years, appearing with a doppelganger.

Perhaps this is what the snake sees, when it disappears through the hole in the wall (the hole is pictured too), or what we each see on the other side of the mirror (I is another). Zelenkova says this series is unfinished, and may remain so, leaving the reader to unpick this strange and complex weaving of a literary photography in parentheses for years to come.

All images courtesy of The Ravestijn Gallery. © Tereza Zelenkova

The Snake That Disappeared Through a Hole in the Wall was originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015, supported by Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Photoworks.


Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.

Salvatore Vitale

How To Secure A Country

Essay by Max Houghton

Switzerland has long enjoyed its reputation as ‘the safest country in the world’, not least for anyone wishing to keep financial affairs private. Since the Treaty of Paris in 1815, self-imposed political neutrality has been central to Switzerland’s security. This decision saved thousands of Swiss – though few Jewish – lives during WWII, when the country was encircled by Axis powers. Neutrality, however, does not equal pacifism. With every male citizen aged 18-34 mandated to military service, Switzerland is a gun-nation, the third most heavily armed country in the world, after the United States, and Yemen, and where it is common-place to see a ten year-old loading SIG SG 550 or FAS 90 (similar to the AK47, but also customised for sport). In case of invasion, hyper-vigilant Switzerland is ready to defend its territory.

Making citizens feel safe comes at a price, of course, as Josef K. found out, to his detriment and eventual voluntary suicide, in Kafka’s The Trial. Kafka was matchless in describing what happens to a person, when everything and everyone is perceived in terms of a threat; a kind of disintegration at the level of the soul. Spiritual bankruptcy.

A question hovers, and remains ever-present: when does a threat become a risk? Looking for the answer has preoccupied photographer Salvatore Vitale, a Sicilian, who has been living in Switzerland for the past twelve years. One imagines the initial shock of experiencing the smoothness and visibility of a Swiss road at night. His adopted home, surrounded by mountains, enfolded into the very centre of Europe, offers unique social, political and financial protection to its citizens; it is palpable. Vitale could feel it in the air. Over time, his observations of differences in efficiency and state protocols inspired a desire to create an extensive visual research into How To Secure A Country. He began to collaborate with the prestigious ETH university in Zurich, a relationship which has proved essential in both trying to assess one of the most complex security systems in the world and in gaining permission to access places otherwise sequestered. The collaboration functions at many levels and is used by Vitale specifically to be responsive to interests outside the art world. By being guided by specialists within various institutions, he aims to show how the system works from the inside. This approach to research is as refreshing as it is rigorous.

Looking at Vitale’s meticulous, clinically clean Switzerland, we might begin to comprehend that the landscape we more stereotypically associate with skiing or yodeling or Heidi is in fact weaponised, to use a popular term, or we could say ‘securitised’. Mountains are hollowed out to house entire army divisions. Fake stonework conceals artillery; domestic residences in chocolate-box pretty villages harbor canons; bridges are stuffed with dynamite, ensuring all roads become dead-ends in the event of an attack.

‘Pre-emption.’ Brian Massumi writes, ‘is the generative logic of our time.’ He is writing, in Ontopower, about post 9/11 USA, but the Swiss approach might operate as a kind of antecedent. The experience of looking at Vitale’s chilling imagery reminds us how ‘[t] his incipience of an event as yet to be determined, overfull with really felt potential, carries an untenable tension.’ Vitale has striven to find an aesthetic approach that bears witness to this tension. He has restaged the contents of instruction manuals, spent time in border control rooms, weather stations, and airport watch-towers, and been present at simulation exercises in order to understand the production of security. Vitale’s eye also takes in the environment in the shape of mountain valleys, nocturnal foliage, a lake inhabited by a police diver. To further the connection with Massumi’s thinking, Vitale’s enterprise reveals how state power is a significant factor in shaping the very environments in which we live. Eventually, it all becomes entirely natural.

Vitale is also spending time – the project is ongoing – at MeteoSwiss, which supplies vital meteorological analysis via its super computer in Lugano. There is a productive connection between the weather and state security, which Vitale is exposing, in terms of air traffic, both civil and military, or chemical or nuclear accident, for example, as well as providing forecasts for climbers or hikers, who would be at risk from extreme weather. In wealthy Switzerland, the profitable insurance industry relies on such risk analysis.

Piecing together the many links in this unwieldy network, via Vitale’s imagery, we begin to see how a politics of knowledge is created through power relations. He brings us a sonar image, used on a rescue mission undertaken by Swiss lake police, who provided the image. Sound wavelengths in water are approximately 2000 times longer than those of visible light, which makes it possible to ‘see’, when light can’t penetrate far enough. The resulting image can only be interpreted by a highly-trained expert, leaving the layperson to consider it purely as visual spectacle: a narrow, symmetrical chasm between two masses, with an unidentifiable circular ring to the top right. Scientists have employed sonar imaging techniques in Lake Neuchatel to find evidence of tectonically active zones that might trigger earthquakes, for example. Seek and you shall find.

As might be expected, technology is at the forefront of security production. While older methods of detection are still utilised – as we see in the image of the sniffer dog – the most advanced robotics technology is playing its role too. Vitale introduces us to ANYmal, which (it is tempting to say ‘who’) is being developed for rescue missions, and is designed for autonomous operation in challenging environments. Robotics research has been focused predominantly in this area since Fukushima. The inclusion of ANYmal in this series seems ominous. The human body begins to feel superfluous.

Perhaps the most revealing glimpse into the production of security is the series of still images, the title of which translates as The six errors with regard to security threats. Classic stock imagery of elegant ballets dancers, or three generations of a healthy Swiss family, is juxtaposed with more sinister pictures – a hooded person at a keyboard, a raging fire. The original video is a Swiss Army production, at once bane and antidote: one the one hand, it educates the public on possible dangers to their culture or economy, while at the same time, presents the army as the necessary solution; guarantor of peace and prosperity.

A couple of images offer brief respite from the tightly-calibrated visual regime. Vitale’s research began with border control, where, outside the inspection rooms and the extraterritorial space of the airport, he observed traces in the landscape, left by refugees. The viewer is affected by this fleeting human touch. A hand-written note in Tigrinya, the Eritrean language, offers reassurance for those that might follow in their footsteps: ‘We are here. You are in Switzerland.’ Elsewhere, a vivid red map acts as a warning to fellow refugees, to make clear that Switzerland is in fact a country in its own right.

A final image in this illuminating series shows a white cross on a red square, one of the most-recognised flags in the world, or the looking-glass version of a never-ending state of emergency. The disaster-to-come is always already present.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Salvatore Vitale


Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.

Piotr Zbierski

Push the Sky Away

Book review by Max Houghton

My eyes deceive me sometimes. I look at an image and see only the negative space, or decipher a creature or shape that it is not really ‘there’. I like to think my perception is enriched by the play of this optical unconscious, and that my sustained impulse towards the image is borne of such mis-looking.

The images created and sequenced by Piotr Zbierski amplify these visual glitches; his preference is for cameras that in some way distort the image. The ensuing instability of the image is used as a strategy here, to transport the viewer into the realm of the senses or emotions; to fold us in. Photography permits special access to this non-geographical place, Zbierski believes, and with Push the Sky Away, an ambitious book published by Dewi Lewis, he shows us the magic of the image. Or, at least, how the image can help us connect to such concepts, and to ritual, myth and the stories that bind us.

The title of the collection is shared (coincidentally, I imagine) with an album by Nick Cave, whose music mines the uttermost reaches of the soul. So if we Push the Sky Away, what’s behind it, above it, beyond it? Without the celestial, how would we comprehend our earthliness? What would happen if the sky was no longer our limit, and instead, we dwelt in a house without a roof? For Hamlet, famously, ‘This brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with gold fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’

Zbierski to be sure sees more than pestilence. He focus is towards being (as opposed to not being) and he has pushed on our behalf, to reveal our raw, unfettered selves. His is a play of three acts, or a triptych, which follows an unfamiliar rhythm, as though from a half-remembered dream. He collects fragments from a brutal though sensual present, which he seems to want to connect to a wilder, more spiritual past. He is a wanderer, a photographic Odysseus, collecting images from the wide, wide world. His accumulated knowledge has taught him that images alone vanish from our tenuous grasp, and this book’s power arises from the sequencing; that is its logic. It is as though Zbierski is trying to impart something urgent, using non-verbal language, to those who look.

Dream of white elephants, the book’s first section, is populated by black and white images, the first of which is a child, emerging from water, eyes closed – perhaps to symbolise how, wet and alone, we enter the world. Further images flit between playful and perturbing scenes, enticing the viewer to enter to find out more, accessing a space at once strange and familiar. The palette extends to incorporate colour in the second section, Love has to be reinvented. Bodies merge with the landscape; the domestic cat of section one has metamorphosed into a leopard, a cut-out dove floating benignly above its head (unless my eyes are playing tricks). Dogs nuzzle each other, rivers flow, the piper plays his tune. The distinction between people and animal blurs.

Zbierski’s vision becomes increasingly anthropological as the book unfolds, in that images of ritual, of holy men proliferate in the third section, Stones were lost from the base, alongside much more mysterious, fragmentary imagery. An image encased in a circle depicts an inosculation, or an en-kissing, as Robert Macfarlane recently described it, in which tree branches grow into each other. This, and the cover image, also featured across a double-page-spread, operates as some sort of key to this complex work. The cover image looks like an ancient settlement, but is in fact located in his native Poland, and the tents are hewn from local canes and palms. The emulsion on the negative was somehow damaged, resulting in rents swirling across the image, rendering it one of a kind. This kind of play between difference and similarity is also a hallmark of the work, and attests to its unsettling power. Zbierski appears to be reaching beyond religious and scientific interpretations of the world, to a more animistic view, in which everything in the universe possesses a soul.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud brought together animists, obsessional neurotics and children, describing their ‘omnipotence of thoughts’, which, combined with ritual, led to magical beliefs about the impact of their thoughts in the world. He might have included artists into this category, but instead it formed the basis of a later paper on narcissism. This observation is not of course a swipe at Zbierski, but might offer insight into the drive to create per se.

It is surprising in a book of images in this realm to see so much text. The first is a poem by Patti Smith, which I am predisposed to like. Its dedication reads ‘-for Piotr’, leaving my imagination to ponder the nature of the relationship between photographer and high priestess of rock poetry, which would be idle conjecture, or between image and text, which I am better placed to pursue. The poem is pure dreamspeak; conjuring oneiric visions from the depths by locating mental images, and positioning them as links in a chain. In this way, poet and photographer are one. The book also hosts an excellent essay by Polish academic Eleonora Jedlinska, which takes the reader on a philosophical journey through Zbierski’s images, in order to contemplate, among other things, what comprises the sacred, and, equally importantly, what constitutes the profane. Since David Campany created the removable essay, in his outstanding work a Handful of Dust, it seems desirable for all works to have the with/without option. This essay does enhance the experience of the extended photowork, but (how could it be otherwise) also points the reader in certain directions, sometimes away from, the flow of the image. Zbierski’s own introductory essay is thoughtful and interesting, but offers up a doubling with the ensuing chapters of images. As I suggested earlier, he is developing a different kind of language, without words, and must now apprehend his own authorship. Zbierski asks if such elements as pain or ecstasy can be tamed by a photograph. He makes his own question redundant by unleashing the wildness of the image with every turn of the page. After much looking, I am still not sure what it is that I have seen. It makes me want to look again.

All images courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing. © Piotr Zbierski


Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.

Edmund Clark and Crofton Black

Negative Publicity

Book review by Gerry Badger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All images courtesy of Flowers Gallery © Edmund Clark


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

Matthew Connors

Fire in Cairo

Book review by Max Houghton

The end is where we start from. This oft-quoted line from T.S. Eliot’s Little Giddings was an expression of philosophical, spiritual and, perhaps, aesthetic renewal after the horrors of the two world wars. It is also a deliberate conceptual strategy in the making of Fire in Cairo by Matthew Connors, a book which reads back-to-front. When many of us encounter a photo-book, this is how we flip through it, anyway. It’s a curious but pervasive quirk. Books in Arabic are ‘read backwards’ or, more accurately, they are read in the reverse direction to books in, for example, Germanic or Romance scripts. It is important, however, to note that language itself doesn’t have a direction.

Among Connors’ achievements with this work is that he has harnessed the energy of fire and revolution and used it as a charge for his own creativity, with this vivid green, cloth-covered book. It opens, at the ‘back’, with a short story which oscillates between sexual intimacy, the history of torture and the impossibility of knowledge, only to end in silence. This is our territory. He lands the reader in Midan Simon Bolivar, Cairo, a location which, like its eponymous hero, symbolises the people’s struggle and the possibility for change and freedom. During the heady days of 2011, when nearby Tahrir Square was the epicentre of the uprising to oust Mubarak, a bandage was placed over the eye of the Bolivar statue, after police had employed tear gas. As Pablo Neruda writes of Bolivar, “I wake every hundred years when the people are awake.” The story closes with its narrator detained, while the “bureaucracy of retribution” is adjudicated. As a description of what follows the fever and ferment of revolution, this chilling phrase conjures tedium, injustice and quiet threat of violence still to come.

We turn the page to a different kind of not-knowing: a portrait in black and white of an older man, in what I will lazily call traditional Arab dress. I cannot say if there is further significance to his attire – it may be clerical. Like the narrator, I am reminded constantly of my lack of knowledge. An extensive series of paired portraits follow this single image and, with a couple of disruptions, we are still seeing in black and white. Connors took two images of each person, seconds apart, and the editing process led to this effective juxtaposition, in which we can perceive subtle changes in light or expression. One pairing is of two different men – police not protestors – and is the exception that proves the rule. With this series, Connors invites the reader to question the nature of a photographic portrait, shown here to be always in flux. His doublings create a kind of binocular vision, without the illusion of depth.

These portraits begin a sustained meditation on sight and sightlessness, and speech and silence that courses through the work. The right eye of the first young man pictured is occluded. A few pages on, another young man sports a plaster on the delicate tissue just below his eye. Another man wears a scarf, creeping up to obscure his sight. A veiled woman has only a narrow aperture through which to see, curtailing her peripheral vision, as do the hoods of sportswear worn by others. A masked man’s eyes are open to the elements, his mouth a covered orifice. Then, on subsequent pages, fire ablaze in orange. Fire that seems to hang like a mushroom cloud in the sky, though the flames flare from tyres burning on the ground.

Next, another pairing is of a boy with an oversized sweatband concealing most of his eyes, as well as his nose and mouth. This seems to be the last doubling, as overleaf a vivid image of bright green laser lines engulfs the reader’s vision. This is the image on which the work turns. Now: riot police and tear gas trails. Then one final portrait pair (for now); this time in a full skull mask with upturned eye-socket slits, rendering the face underneath bug-like. Metamorphosis can indeed be a reasonable response to oppression. Questions of freedom of speech; the right to say what has been seen (another impossible task); the right to remain silent, hover over these faces, wary, vulnerable, fearless, hidden, exposed, altered.

During the uprisings – and since – thousands of people used laser pointers as an act of protest, shining their light at military helicopters in an attempt to knock them off course. In Fire in Cairo, the images they created in the night sky becomes a leitmotif, the most important in the book. They are images of protest, a union of technology and direct action, even, if we take the etymological light-writing definition, a new and potent photography.

Other images depict a city heading towards ruin — torn down posters, remnants of things destroyed by fire, shadows through trees, a young man clutching something that might detonate if thrown, a man bent double in apparent despair, military helicopters, birds in flight or fright. On seeing a found photograph of a bride, I am struck by the thought that it is in fact a lost photograph, unsutured from its family album. A graphic poster of a teenage girl has her face, especially her eyes, repeatedly and violently struck out. As the book draws to a close, a sinister portrait pairing reminds us of our compulsion to repeat. The figure is fully covered by a black garment, with a mirrored mask over the face, reflecting back a view of the contested landscape of the street. The revolution through masked and unseeing eyes. It is a mannequin, but such distinctions between real and unreal no longer make sense. The view thereafter is upwards. A sky redesigned by smoke and fire. Is that encroaching blood? Gathering darkness? New constellations have been created with green light, though we cannot be sure how long their luminescence will endure. They have, like pinned butterflies, been captured here.

All images courtesy of the artist and Self Publish, Be Happy. © Matthew Connors


Max Houghton writes about photographs for the international arts press, including FOAM, Photoworks and The Telegraph. She edited the photography biannual 8 Magazine for six years and is also Senior Lecturer in Photography at London College of Communication – University of the Arts, London.