Photography Reviews

Slant – Aaron Schuman

 

Aaron Schuman is an American artists based in the UK. I came across his work because I love books from MACK and his new book “Slant” caught my eye. Only then when I started studying about his work that his previous work “Folk” was listed as one of the best photobooks in 2016 by Alec Soth, and that he has also been a curator and educator for years. Well his “Folk” work I will need to spend another morning looking into and studying, but what “Slant” interested me is that it features the little police reports from a small town in Amherst, Massachusetts and they are just hilariously ridiculous. These succinct and “extraordinarily anticlimactic” accounts of crimes, suspicious activities, events and non-events newspaper cutting from 2014-2018 are cleverly diptych with photographs made around the same town. The photographs are poetically matched with the text showing a “slanted” way fo rhyme, drawing this inspiration from Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all truth but tell it slant”.

Each of the image pairing was carefully made with many layers and meaning, providing a third space for the viewer to imagine and create possibilities. Quoting from what Aaron says at an interview from photocaptionist, he explained thoroughly how 2 images have been carefully thought out with different added layers:

“in the case of the fig tattoo photograph that you mention, there are many layers. Firstly, I should explain that I grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts – eight miles from Amherst – which is the home of Smith College… … it’s Program for the Study of Women and Gender continues to be one of the most important and prominent within academia, and attracts feminist scholars from around the world. Furthermore, Northampton is often referred to as ‘the lesbian capital of America’, as its population includes the most lesbian couples per capita of any city in the United States… …. it is considered one of the most liberal, left-leaning, ‘open-minded’, ‘alternative’ or ‘countercultural’ communities in America.

What I find fascinating about that particular ‘Police Report’ – ‘A man reported that he was uncomfortable with a protester standing at the intersection of Amity and South Pleasant streets with a sign stating “kill feminism”.’ – is the protest itself, and the fact that today, within Trump’s America, such an ultra-conservative sentiment has become a part of public landscape, even within the most progressive of places. But I’m also interested in the fact that the police were contacted because the protest was deemed threatening; that within this extremely liberal environment, someone’s public expression and protest via ‘free speech’, albeit of their very conservative beliefs, was deemed aggressive and provocative to warrant police attention, and met with such a conservative response. Also, the fact that it was a man who reported that he was ‘uncomfortable’ with this particular act of ‘protest’ is rather intriguing. And furthermore, there’s the irony of the street names – ‘Amity’ and ‘Pleasant’ – which imply certain, very American aspirations on the part of the original town planners, but which are somewhat undercut by the activities described as occurring on those streets today. So the text is already incredibly loaded in so many ways.

Then, there’s the story behind the photograph… … I knew that the fig had all kinds of symbolic meanings, Biblical and otherwise – the Tree of Life, the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve sewing fig leaves together to cover themselves during The Fall, the fruits own sensual and sexual suggestiveness, and so on – so after the tour was over, I went over and asked her if I could photograph her arm. She guardedly said yes, and afterwards I asked her, “Why a fig?” – “Its kind of embarrassing”, she said, “It a reference to The Bell Jar. You know, Sylvia Plath?”

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet”. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, 1963

…the photograph of the giant foot … … In the collection, I actually have multiple Reports from over the last three years in which the police were contacted because someone asked to photograph the ‘victim’s’ feet (as you say, it could be a prolific local foot-fetishist, or more likely several undergraduate art students trying to fulfil some brief given to them by one of the surrounding colleges) … … I passed this bizarre foot sculpture on the outskirts of Amherst – it was in the parking lot of a local ‘winery’ (something to do with squashing grapes with bare feet, I guess, as the area is certainly not known for its wine production) – and it was just too good to be true.

The whole spin of the work “initially, in 2014, I simply found these newspaper ‘Police Reports’ quaint and hilarious. But today, in 2017, I actually find them both unexpectedly poignant and painfully disturbing; they seem to reveal certain worrying undercurrents in America, psychological or otherwise, that point to a particular loss, at least in terms of being in touch with reality.”

The work itself is layered, complexed and highly informative with different insights coming together after each read. Attractive and simple at first, but hidden with deep meanings with metaphors relating to politics, media and psychology. I personally find this book is a jewel.

Reference:

https://photocaptionist.com/ism/slant-interview-aaron-schuman/

https://www.aaronschuman.com/slantpages/slant01.html

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Photography Reviews

La Vertigine – Federico Clavarino

Italian photographer Federico takes poetic and free-form images for his work La Vertigine, which means Vertigo in English. Vertigo means – a sensation of whirling and loss of balance, associated particularly with looking down from a great height, or caused by disease affecting the inner ear or the vestibular nerve; giddiness.

The poetic photographs connects one and other, somehow spinning your head from here to there, in a soothing and free way. There’s this sensation of freedom and openness, leading the viewer to imagine what’s not there. The tightly cropped images allow a lot of free associations when combined together in a book. It creates a tension between what is shown in the image, and what could be outside. Clavarino is drawn to shadows, hands, and the spaces in between things, he said “There is a very active frame in all of the pictures. It’s more about that than the actual things I photographed.”

References:

http://federicoclavarino.com

https://www.bjp-online.com/2018/12/la-vertigine-by-federico-clavarino/

http://federicoclavarino.com/assets/la_vertigine/La%20Vertigine%20PDF%20150.pdf

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Photography Reviews

Time to tame the tigers – Saskia Wesseling

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Photo courtesy to the artist: Saskia Wesseling

Saskia Wesseling is a Dutch photographer based in Hong Kong, who is a finalist of 2019 WMA awards. This year’s theme is “opportunity”. Saskia used this opportunity to talk about the education system here in Asia, especially in Hong Kong.

Visually the work is simple and straightforward. Images are portraits of children in their uniform, with exercise book or text books covering their faces, symbolising a lot of different meanings. It can be interpreted as the system only cares about children’s achievements, they don’t even want to know their “faces” ie. the child as a whole. The age of the children ranged from kindergarten to teens – showing that, this corrupted system starts from such young age. Postures of the children are very stiff and meticulous, indicating the indirectness of what the education system is doing to children, whom are meant to be free and creative, boxing them into exactly the same “robots”. Amongst the series, one of the photos indicating a boy with lots of medals around his neck, plus other other in the background, showing that education system emphasises on successes by achievements and awards, and regardless of children’s emotions or individuality.

There were two more photographs with a group of children standing on each step of the stairs with same posture and uniform. Saskia wanted to portray that if following what the system is providing and do so accordingly (visually indicated by the stamps), the children can take one step at a time to higher status. In one of the two photographs, a westerner child rebelled and left the “line”, so then in the other photograph, she was placed in much lower status of the stairs, which indicates that the system is rigid and there is no flexibility for creativity and the potentials for individuality.

All in all, the work is easy to understand and visually straightforward, so that even for those who doesn’t have art background can easily grasp what the topic is about, and what it is questioning. I’m not entirely sure why some photos are in black and white and some are in colour, maybe to indicate that the problem isn’t just a contemporary problem, but it grew from a long history and it is still happening now, with no changes.

The work is inspiring in that we both care about the same topic, but personally I am not too fond of the visual language used. Maybe it’s the mix of colours or images with selective colours. For me I think the visual form can be stronger. Maybe the use of light can be better but maybe she wanted to present the work in the most ordinary way. But definitely, work from film could be totally different and to a higher standard. It is what digitals can’t do.

 

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Chosen [not] to be – Marinka Masséus

 

Chosen [not] to be is a series about Down’s syndrome. A social activism project to bring awareness and act as a catalyst for government to make changes. These 5 girls, representing the Down’s syndrome’s community question and challenge a few questions that we are now facing.

  • What is beauty? As part of the Radical Beauty Project, which is about “challenging opinions and understandings of beauty in contemporary culture… working to provide an alternative vision for beauty today”, are we embracing diversity in the art fields? Why are we still considering Down’s as “faulty”?
  • With the rapid technological developments concerning prenatal screening (NIPT), we have the ability to know and decide whether we want to keep the child. So then are Down’s getting extinct? Are we embracing diversity of human forms?

What strikes me the most is that throughout this project, the artist found out that when the results of prenatal screening confirms Down’s, the first question the physician asks is “when are we scheduling the abortion”. Instead of asking “what do you need from me to make the best decision for you and your family”, the woman is immediately steered towards ‘getting rid of it’. Which means that the woman in question will never receive the proper information to make an informed decision about her new baby and prospective addition to her family. So the question is, what is the society and culture shaping us morally and ethnically?

In terms of the visual elements and conceptual symbolism, I must say I don’t really understand. What does the rope all over her face leaving an open eye means? It feels to me that the rope represent struggles from the outer-world, and that even that is so, she is piercing through. What about the dead plant on top of her head? It feels to me that the higher ups (those with authorities) are treating Down’s as dead weight, but still her face not entirely covered may mean that they are fighting against this issue. What about the pixels covering her face? Usually in television, we cover those who are of crime, or of shame with pixels to blur out their faces, so as they say to protect them from being recognised but also shaped us to label these are people as shameful and of vulnerable and dangerous groups. Marinka has cleverly used this symbolism to represent that conflict. Are they or should they be the protected type? Are we or should we be ashamed of them? But why she used yellow pixels I’m not entirely sure. Finally, the velvet circle and lines in on of the photographs. What does that represent? The lines reminded me about geometry and that maybe it means society or the outerworld is boxing this group of community. There are still other symbolic images that I have no clue why the artist uses it that way – e.g. the green smarties around Down’s faces. Or those red dots on a black and white landscapes etc.

All in all, I believe this is an important piece of work that brought us to question some very important topics about humanity. And what I admire the most and hopefully works out is, that it really does act as a catalyst for governmental changes. That we will have to wait and see.

References:

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/marinka-masseus-chosen-not-to-be

http://www.marinkamasseus.com/chosen-not-to-be/

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Blog

Scene – Alex Majoli

 

Alex Majoli’s scene is his new work about political demonstrations, humanitarian emergencies, and quiet moments of daily life. It is no ordinary work. What attracts me most at the beginning is the visual drama of the body of work, as if the work was shot in the middle of the night illuminated by the moon or in a staged movie. The theatricality of the work plays an important role for the idea and the concept behind, “we human beings as actors playing our own roles in society, and I set out to discover the best way to photographically and aesthetically represent this.”

For Alex, his idea and concept that, we are all actors and the world is our stage. And literally, he and his assistant took strobe lights to the “scenes of reality” and actively put a stage for the people to perform. What’s most interesting is that when this was happening, people who entered the “stage” automatically felt like they need to perform. Being photographed became an expectation rather than an interruption as David Campany said. Especially since the ever presence of smartphones, surveillance cameras, and the daily deluge of images, the value of photography has changed.

“It’s all about perception,” he says. “The more I documented and lived the lives of others, the more I realised that; what really is real, what really is true. Which is the right way to view reality? And I don’t think that one way’s better than another.”

Jim Casper mentioned in the LensCulture article “But why this mood? Why this visual strategy? Is it a statement about the uncertain and tense dark political days we are living through? The lack of brightness and contrast brings a heaviness to the work, and actually makes it difficult to see and appreciate the rich abundance of details and interactions at play in each image.”

Other than the theatricality, what else do the images want to translate? I’m not sure. What’s certain is that, he has brought the theatre to our reality, our daily lives, and that when this is done so, even us, as just normal human beings, somehow psychologically turned us as into actors and actresses, to perform, to act to dramatise. And by removing the colours and dramatising the lighting in executing these images, all is left are the actions and faces of these “actors” and “actresses”, accentuating the fictionality – as like scenes in movies, playing with the philosophical question of “are we really just actors in the life we staged?”

References:

https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/alex-majoli-scene-theatricality-life/

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/alex-majoli-scene-when-photography-intervenes-in-street-theater-of-the-real

https://www.le-bal.fr/en/2019/01/alex-majoli

https://aperture.org/blog/alex-majoli-david-campany/

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Dear Chris – Katrin Koenning

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“Dear Chris” is a body of older work by Katrin Koenning. I must say, I don’t used to understand this type of documentary photography. It’s like, when you learn English, and you haven’t learnt the style of poetry. My belief of photography at first was focused on single photographs. How to get the sort of “perfect” photograph. Time passed and after exposure to so much more variety of photography, especially with narrative photography, I began to understand and appreciate this type of work. And actually, it is the type of work that I want to move forward to. There’s so much more depth and layers that can build upon within a body of work.

Storytelling is very interesting. As a young kid, I’ve always loved illustrations and reading picture books. The range in storytelling with photography or visuals can be so huge. I used to think in movies, simple and direct, everything then in photographs must be literal so people can understand. Yet, the way Western artworks is told through symbolism. And visuals help audience to widen their imagination on the topic presented.

“Dear Chris” is composed of three interchangeable chapters – childhood albums, his objects and photographs of places of significance to Chris.

“As a society we don’t talk about death, let alone about suicide, so I felt a sense of responsibility,” Koenning explains. “But I was also aware of the fact that out of the family I was probably going to be the only one who could do that, because as an artist I had the right tool kit.”

Old family photographs immediately fill all of us with sentimentality, as a viewer you are not just seeing Chris’ childhood but, depending on your cultural background of course, you are seeing your own memories. On the website, I like how Katrin juxtapose these images with the clinical ways of presenting his objects. Objects are meticulously placed centre frame and the pale blue and blue background of the objects Chris’ possessed gives a feeling a “blue” but also the feeling of objectivity. That these objects are neither alive nor dead, losing its original function. The juxtaposition interchange our memories of Chris from past to present, from hope to loss, mirroring how we might feel when we loose our loved ones.

The landscapes – “places of significance” – are empty and still, using suggestive titles for viewers to extend their imaginations for what it would be like or where would Chris go when he was alive.

The title of the photograph below “Missing (2009)” made me think that this was taken while looking for Chris the first time he tried to commit suicide.  The light behind the trees suggests hope at finding Chris, it is a hint of how much happened before Chris’ death.

https://cheapevictoria.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/certificates-of-presence-dear-chris-by-katrin-koenning/

I absolutely adore her visual language and poetry. I used to be taught that the work needs to punch you in the face. Her work isn’t like that. It’s like water, lingering and longing, sip into your body here and there, gentle yet powerful. I didn’t know colour work can be so mesmerising. I used to think that deep contrasty black and white work is the way to make a punch. And a way for a statement. But slowly, being more open and receptive to ALL kind of imagery, I enjoy more and more the ordinary. The little here and there through life, which we all must go through and must encounter.

https://insidestory.org.au/a-country-big-enough-to-disappear-in/

http://katrinkoenning.com/work/Dear_Chris.html

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Photography Reviews

Sabine – Jacob Aue Sobol; Dream Away – Michael Northrup

 

https://www.jacobauesobol.com/sabine-1/

Aside from Sally Mann’s Immediate Family and Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh, here’s another example of work that is photographing and publishing the work of someone that is personally very close to the photographer.

Sobol’s first work “Sabine” is a book about the girl that he fell in love with when he was living in Greenland. The work shows intimate, closeness, sensuality and emotional photographs of his relationship with Sabine and his relationship with Greenland. For Sobol, he wasn’t a photographer in this project, he was a hunter, a boyfriend whom carries a camera and takes pictures. His work shows us that he was in it, part of the community, shooting from what he sees and feels as being one of them. It is a visual story of what he was experiencing, rather than an outsider trying to understand the community which, was what he tried to do when he first went.

‘I was ambitious and driven, but that meant nothing there,’ he laughs. ‘After a while, I realised I was only meeting the outsiders and outcasts in the community. They were drawn to this strange foreign guy with a camera, but no one else was even remotely interested. I was a distraction, an intruder.’

And then when he fell in love with Sabine the 2nd trip he went,

‘Something changed inside me and I got so much into hunting, shooting and fishing for trout and salmon. I realised that it was more important for me to come home with food than photographs. When I picked up the camera again, I was part of the community.’

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/may/28/art3

As we know, later on Sobol and Sabine fell apart, and the work was published under the name of Sobol. Now maybe they had consent with each other for the work to be published, who knows? Or where Sabine was from, somewhere that’s so primitive and aged, did she know about her portrait rights?

Now a similar work about intimate relationship – “Dream Away” by Michael Northrup which was produced in the US. It is about his personal relationship journey with Pam – his girlfriend, then wife and then ex-wife.

 

Similar sort of route and experience as Sobol’s with Sabine, yet with this work, there was a huge controversy discussion as to whether the book should/can be published. The case even went to the court. Pam although earlier on in their relationship consented these photographs, towards the end of their relationship, she refused to make her work public. This frustrated the artist, Northrup, and consulted Blake Andrew, a blog writer and photographer, about this issue.

Here’s the blog post about the email conversation exchange:

http://blakeandrews.blogspot.com/2013/02/correspondence.html

Which brings back to these moral and ethnic questions evolving around photography:

Should a photo subject (assuming they consent to the image) ever have some level of control over what eventually happens to their photos? Or is it always up to the photographer? Is this culturally affected?

Some food for thoughts.

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Photography Reviews

Halfstory Halflife – Raymond Meeks

This is the first photobook review I make. Well – I wouldn’t say it’s a review, more like my impression and opinions about this book. My way of learning to bridge what I read and verbalising them – reaching a much deeper state of visual literacy, which is to analyse and to interpret what these photographs mean. And – to make sense of the narrative which the artist is trying to write.

I have, never heard of Raymond Meeks before this book came out. And I’ve only started collecting photobooks maybe 1/2 year ago. Through friends and mentors, I’ve got to know about Chose Commune the french publisher and learned about the books they produce.

First I was drawn to Meek’s book by his double black and white photographs of the boys running up the woods. An escape maybe, but also a sense of calm to me. They were timeless images. And then I was totally intrigued by the images of boys falling into these deep dark holes. Reading the synopsis before reading the book is not quite a good a idea, because mentally I would already link that to boys jumping into the water, and I don’t separate that with what the photographs themselves are showing. But when I do detach myself from what information was given before, I can feel these outer-worldly images, of these boys maybe falling off into space, or in some dark galaxy, or maybe into some parallel universe that we don’t know of.

After all, these young men throw themselves into a water that is unseen, a water that we can only presume as the pale bodies glisten with wet droplets. There is only an engulfing blackness, its mystery heightened by these unfolding cycles. In this void, the past, present and future intertwine. There is no beginning nor end.

https://paper-journal.com/raymond-meeks-halfstory-halflife/

These photographs shows bravery, courage and anxiety of these boys and few girls. With context of these teenage boys, one would think that they are escaping the reality of growing up. Yet interestingly with the edit of the images, the images follow the jumping were parts of their hometown – the very reality they need to face. The repetitive images of them running up the path, pondering before the jump and jumping seems like a ritual, a ritual to try and try again, until maybe something better comes up. Yet reality is still here, full-frontal facing us.

This work of Meek’s is showing the kind of adolescence phase we all had, and we can easily project ourselves into being one of them, and experiencing that all over again.

Interview with Meeks:

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/raymond-meeks-halfstory-halflife

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