Hunger – Epilogue
In 2005, I interviewed Oren Bloedow, co-songwriter and guitarist of Elysian Fields, the obscure and gloomy Brooklyn-based band he formed with ex-lover and sultry torch singer Jennifer Charles – I wrote about music before I came to photography. They had just released Bum Raps & Love Taps (2005), an album that dealt with personal pain, but also feelings of transcendence. “I believe that many of the challenges related to joy and sorrow have to do with clinging to moments, to time,” Bloedow told me. “When something starts to feel good, you tend to slow it down so that it doesn’t slip away. And when something feels bad, you do the same to prevent it from escalating.”
On the cover of the album is a black and white photograph of an old man having a cigarette, his face shrouded in smoke, with a pint glass on the table that could be perceived as half full or half empty. The photograph is by Michael Ackerman, and it is also printed in Hunger – Epilogue, the first publication of Ackerman’s work since his highly-praised book Half Life (2010). With over 130 photographs, half of them previously unseen, the large-format newsprint is a fitting end to Void’s Hunger series, a project that takes its lead from Franz Kafka’s short story A Hunger Artist (1922).
‘Time, in its great disarray, is a specialty of Michael A’, writes friend and filmmaker Jem Cohen. Ackerman himself has confessed to his obsession with the passing of time. Many of his photographs show traces of fading and erasure, others suffer from marks, scratches or light leaks. There are vivid vignettes of life, friendship and love, as well as the fear of losing loved ones. Dark and ghostly portraits carry an intensity or a fragility, or both at once. A walled-in elephant looks ecstatic, vultures feast on a carcass. There’s anguish. One spread really kicks the gut: a constellation of re-photographed portraits from tombstones and official reports; mostly children, mostly from the Holocaust (yes, that is Anne Frank there) – death and remembrance are as much a personal as they are a collective experience. ♦
All images courtesy of the artist and VOID. © Michael Ackerman
Falconry almost automatically came to mind the first time I saw images from Stephen Gill’s The Pillar, his second book since his move to rural Sweden. For this project, Gill hammered one wooden pillar into the ground in an open field next to a streamlet not far from his home, and a second just opposite, upon which he installed a camera with a motion sensor. Birds coming down for a rest or a feed would set off the camera and without much fuss or awareness of the act, their picture would be taken. The results are absolutely stunning, providing us with an often full-frontal view of their magnificent presence.
Falconry, because Gill says he “decided to try to pull the birds from the sky”, a phrase that briefly generates an image of the photographer standing in that empty field, wearing a leather gauntlet with food on it, his hand raised towards the clouds. Falconry, mostly because of H is for Hawk, the captivating memoir in which British author and experienced falconer Helen Macdonald writes “that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly”; that they are all things in themselves; and how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.
How categorically human we are and how inherently removed we are from the animal world, is what lies at the very heart of The Pillar, and of Night Procession, Gill’s other Swedish book, about animal nightlife in the forest, in which Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård writes: “What I see is the world without me. (…) the animals and the world that is theirs when they are on their own and undisturbed by human presence.”
Falconry may have come to mind, but in fact The Pillar has nothing to do with it. In a most crucial way it is quite the opposite. Just as falconry exists within the sphere of hunting, so does the sport of wildlife photography. Gill’s images, however, mechanically made from close range, completely lack the sniper-like feel that most bird photographers evoke while aiming for razor-sharp images with their long telephoto lenses.
Gill doesn’t want to shoot a trophy or claim a prize; he doesn’t want to defeat, dominate or conquer the animal; he is no photographer-hunter. What Gill is after, is the same wonder and joy he experienced as a child in Bristol, trying to photograph garden birds from the bathroom window with a 10-metre release cable. And to find that fascination and enchantment again, he resorts to similar boy scout-like techniques. Ultimately Gill presents us with a beauty that is inextricably linked to the natural world, its beings and its all-encompassing harmony; a beauty, however, that will only truly reveal itself in our absence. That is the paradox in which we find ourselves, the parallel state in which humans and animals exist. This is the realisation that both Night Procession and The Pillar offer. ♦
All images courtesy of the artist and Nobody Books. © Stephen Gill
Beyond Here Is Nothing
‘The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness
And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour,
And for me, now as then, it is too much.
There is too much world.’
These lines from the poet Czeslaw Milosz, who following World War II moved from Poland to the United States to escape the Communist regime, come to mind when looking at Beyond Here Is Nothing by Laura El-Tantawy. Having grown up between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United States herself, and having experienced the turmoil during the protests in Cairo in 2011, this book is a deeply-personal contemplation on identity, home and the desire to belong.
Designed by SYB, it is a small and precious object, bearing resemblance to a jewellery box. Consisting of three interwoven volumes opening in three directions, the book presents four images at a time in interchanging juxtapositions. Handling it is like trying to get to the very bottom of it. But to find what? ‘I feel like if I dig my hand deep into my soul, I will find nothing’, El-Tantawy writes in one of the diary-form fragments in the book.
At the same time, leafing through its pages feels very similar to opening windows and indeed a lot of them are also depicted. The images, however, at times mesmerisingly abstract, liquid even, and thriving on stark colours, picture an outside world that is too much to grasp. There is nothing tangible there, nothing to connect with. In a world that is becoming more and more fragmented, the notion of home becomes both elusive and illusive. For many this is an age of dislocation.
Switching between inside and outside, the book becomes a riff on the windows and mirrors concept by John Szarkowski, who stated that the photograph can be a mirror, where the photographer projects his or her sensibility onto the things out there in the world, or a window, showing the outside world in all its presence. In Beyond Here Is Nothing they are mirrors, yet one can sense that she desperately wants them to be windows. But all too often the outlook is hindered or turbid. Next to some dark silhouettes, El-Tantawy also photographs her own shadow, evidence of existing in this world. It was again Milosz who wrote: ‘And flowers and people throw shadows on the earth: what has no shadow has no strength to live.’ ♦
– Stefan Vanthuyne
All images courtesy of the artist. © Laura El-Tantawy