Book: Ariella Azoulay’s “The Civil Contract of Photography”

The Civil Contract of Photography by Areilla Azioulay is discussed in The New Yorker by Sarah Sentilles, and having read the article I know I must buy the book. It contradicts so much that I’ve been learning here and elsewhere about photographing people in awful situations, and the arguments reported seem deeply compelling and convincing. I am reminded of something I learned a little while ago and had forgotten perhaps;  the motivations/intentions of the photographer are integral to the meaning of an image, and often those may only be revealed as potential viewers’ perceptions have evolved, or more simply as time passes.

We are told that we as citizens do not yet know how to read photographs and the article ends by giving us an analogy to further explain this. It’s an uncompromising position to take but perhaps a necessary one. “I thought of a friend whose son was diagnosed with a fatal disease. When he was dying, people would say to her, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” She would respond, “Yes, you can imagine it. You just don’t want to.” (I suppose the problem comes about in trusting people to learn to be more responsible viewers and that may well be an overambitious goal.)

One of the most striking examples in support of the arguments reported is how photographs of slaves intended to prove their sub-humanity instead “document the inhumanity of the owners”.

The article also explores the indexality of images and introduced an essay by Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson (also worth reading), saying, “Yes, photographs show what was there, Pinney argues, but what was there can be much more than what the photographer wanted the viewer to see”, and “”Margin of excess,” Pinney calls it. “Subversive code”. As a result, he argues, rather than being guarantees of certainty or proof, photographs are volatile, fertile, open, and available to uses that the photographer may not have intended.””

When I first started looking at Self & Other, I watched a talk given by John Tagg at Yale titled, Knocking around between money, sex, and boredom”: Walker Evans in Havana and New York. Evan’s sense of entitlement is discussed at length but we must not forget that intention is everything and it is likely to be revealed in time. 

I have long been worried that when I visit Northern France with Just Shelter I am so eager to avoid documenting in an exploitative way, that I am simply abstracting what I see to such a point that is becomes meaningless and pointless, except to a handful of people. Maybe I should stop worrying so much. I like the sound of this book very much. It appears to cut through dogma and is definitely one to get. I’ll report back once I’ve read it.


Books: Penny Wolin – Descendants of Light. American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry

Penny Wolin – Descendants of Light. American Photographers of Jewish Ancestry is reviewed on ThePhotoBook Journal blog, by Gerard Clausing who I have referred to here before. I am particularly interested in this book due to the people in it, the subject covered, its layout and the fact it is a kind of hybrid between art and information too. And I’m a bit saddened to see that due to the fact it was crowd funded and had a limited print run, it is not that all that affordable.

As an aside, and admittedly somewhat defensively, I noticed page numbers which were categorically and triumphantly dismissed as crass or somehow gauche on the OCA forum the other day by staff and students, which (I’m afraid to say) irritated me due the dogmatic stance it seemed to express. In Wolin’s book page numbers are used where necessary on text and information pages, although not on the image only pages – which is how I would have preferred to use them if the facility on Blurb’s online software had been available for A1.  It would have been useful to have page numbers on the final pages where I included the thumbnails of collaborative art, and then onwards through the information pages,  making it easier to locate items. I am reminded to keep looking at a wide variety of sources for inspiration and to trust my instincts and prior experience working in a marketing department that put together books and pamphlets, many of which contained images.

Now that that is off my chest, Clausing says, “This book is a painstakingly researched and intelligently thought-out compendium of ideas and visual content along several dimensions. It contains cultural information and stimuli, drawing on the featured photographers’ shared cultural history and beliefs that provide the basis for a rich universe of creative thought and stimulation, against a background that also is tinged by discrimination and suffering. Dozens of influential photographers are featured: their biographical and bibliographical information, challenging interview segments, portraits of many of them by Penny Wolin, and also photographs by the photographers. This publication is the result of a project encompassing many years of passionate research and collaboration, and was partly crowd-funded.”

The fact the book contains Lillian Bassman, a hugely accomplished photographer who reinvented herself (or at least her work) again and again throughout her life up until her death in her 90s, suggests to me this book is extremely well-researched and goes well beyond the usual compendium of names we see on our book shelves. I’ll have to start saving my pennies.

Book Review by Gerhard Clausing: David Kregenow – At Eye Level. Photographers Photographed

In an attempt to keep this as a reference I am reposting here. I particularly like the way some of these portraits are quite unlike images of people we so often in contemporary photography, where subjects are almost listless and vacant looking. I’ve discussed this sense of ennui elsewhere. From what I have seen in this collection (albeit a quick look for now) Kregenow has avoided that approach, although I appreciate these are are different genre. Perhaps I’m developing a strong aversion towards those types of images. As I think about what I’m aiming for in A1, this seemed a useful influence for one of the exercises. The book looks like one to put on my list of “I want”s, but in the meantime his images can be accessed on Kregenow’s site:

The Photobook Review