The way they look

Evidence – Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel

Larry Sultan, famously known for his work Picture from Home, which documents the lives of his home with parents in Southern California with contemporary photography, film stills, fragments of conversations and his own writings and other memorabilia, collaborated with Mike Mandel for a work less well-known Evidence, a brilliant recent discovery while reading the book Photography and Collaboration by Daniel Palmer.

Between 1975-1977, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel worked together and curated selected photographs from a multitude of images that previously existed solely within the boundaries of the industrial, scientific, governmental and other institutional sources. The work Evidence is about juxtaposing these previously contextualised images into new forms of narratives which some become humorous and while others perplexing. The work demonstrate that the meaning of a photograph is conditioned by the context and sequence in which it is seen, and by isolating from their original context that these images take on meanings that address the confluence of industry and corporate mischief, ingenuity and pseudo-science.

© Larry Sultan, from the series ‘Evidence’; Source @ Larry Sultan

One needs to read the book to fully absorb and comprehend what they set out to do (And I wish I have the book to read it closely too!). The absurdity of these pairings somehow has a common thread that holds the whole book, transporting you to a universe that you may be familiar with yet completely off in some way – suggesting that we often read images in a contextualised form and when that’s been removed, what seems familiar becomes floating in a space that is waiting for us to make meaning of. When there’s a series of these and are carefully curated and sequenced, our brain has its way to fill in those blanks and create new forms of narrative. Evidently these are images of evidence, of truths, of events, of history… somehow in Evidence the value of these images changed and became fictional.

The way they look

Summer Camp – Mark Steinmetz

American photographer, Mark Steinmetz, is known for his timeless photographs of “ordinary people in the ordinary landscapes they inhabit.” As Jorg Colberg says in one of his articles,

“If anything, what we really should be talking about when we use the word “timeless” is a photographer’s sensibility, a sensibility that in some form is translated into the pictures: what do the photographs make us feel (instead of: what do we see)? Are those feelings tied to specific eras, or do they connect to something that falls outside of the continuum of time? And what would that falling out of time mean?”

For the recent listed best photobook of the year 2019 by Chose Commune at BJP  ‘Summer Camp’, it is a book about youths during trips away at summer camp. Whether it is in the 60s or in the 90s, the feeling of leaving home and entering a space with other kids just before their teenage years can easily resonate with many of the viewers – the “timelessness” of this book. The photographer brilliantly captured the moments of the excitement, the pain, the friendships, the late games etc, just as they are, with a touch of tenderness and softnesses.  It marks the transition period from kids to adolescence, where as Steinmetz described, “when a little kid laughs or cries, it doesn’t have real resonance, whereas if someone has these emotions between eight and 12, there’s a poignancy to it. When they become adults, it’s just not the same. Many of these photos are about the predicament of being a kid put into a certain situation. In one picture, these girls who have been so horrible to each other all summer are now parting – and the depth of their love just gushes out. It’s almost excruciating…”

Summercamp-2© Mark Steinmetz, from the series ‘Summer Camp’ ; Source @ Mark Steinmetz

© Mark Steinmetz, from the series ‘Summer Camp’ ; Source @ Mark Steinmetz

Note: Also check out his most recent work ‘Terminus’, another brilliant series.

The way they look

Edward Weston

An inspiring photographer from the 20th centuries. He has been called “one of the most innovative and influential American photographers” (reference from Wikipedia).

A film about him and his philosophy of photography which I feel so inspired from.

“This attention to detail, this care and accuracy, this technique, is what produces art in any medium, but only if it serves the feelings and the knowledge of the artist. That is the hardest apprenticeship to art. To open the gates around our hearts, so that we can feel freely, to clean up the clutter of our mind, so that we can think clearly. No teacher, no master can tell us what to look for in the world around us, nor how to evaluate what we find. They can encourage our patience, our inquisitiveness, our right to have our own feelings and our own ideas, but we must do our own work.”

We must do what it takes to do our own work and walk our own path. Live the life you love and that’s all there is.

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Masahisa Fukase

The renowned Japanese photography work “Ravens” by Fukase has recently has his “Family” book reprinted by UK publisher MACK. Family has always been a topic that’s close to my heart. Knowingly that the “Ravens” work was really an antidote of the aftermath of his wife and muse Yoko leaving him, bringing him to use “ravens” as a symbolism to characterised his solitude of loneliness, pain and sorrow, the work “Family” is somewhat a different visually narrated work.

The cover and the design made my very first impression of the book. The design of the cover was very much similar to the Chinese 族譜, a documented scroll of written names of the ancestors and family branches in the entire history of e.g. the Chans. The 33 plates images (all done by dry plate technique) are studio portraitures of his immediate and relative families beginning and closing with the house that he lived in.


They are, in fact, no ordinary portraitures. In all the plates, his wife Yoko stands out the most, even when in group photographs where all face backwards. From the review by Jorg Colberg, he mentioned that “she is allowed to only wear what I learned is a traditional undergarment for women (koshimaki). In effect, she is naked, and it is only said garment and her long flowing hair that allows for some form of modesty.” For me the work speaks a lot about the masculinity power and how women and females are positioned in Japanese families. According to Colberg, the work also talks about cruelty and the relationship between Fukase and his father. Without knowing the history of him being terrified of his father since young, I guess personally I wouldn’t be able to nitpick this from reading the image (plate 29) alone. I do wish I can read Japanese to understand the synopsis written in his website to have a better view of his family history and the work.

What I really agree with Colberg is that “…what attracts me to this body of work, to this book, is that it resists the kind of resolution of so many other family projects where differences are acknowledged, and people might go their own ways, but it’s all good. Often enough, life just will not conform. Here, that narrative is missing, and there is just an assembly of fragmented ideas and aspects, some which are fighting each other… Sometimes, it’s good when things are not too spelled out.”

I think sometimes you don’t need to be extremely knowledgeable in the art history or skilled in visual literacy to be able to feel the the work. I guess this is the reason why this work is another masterpiece of his. The emotions, the conflicts and the tensions happenings within and portrayed in these family photographs can be felt and understood even though I’m some stranger and no family connection of his. For me, that is a timeless piece of work.


Side note: Towards the end of his artistic life, he also made another work called Bukubuku (means bubbling), which is his self-portraits when bathing in water, showing his solitude and isolation of the world once again through this visual diary of himself.

An excerpt of the work and article published by FOAM.

Screen Shot 2019-09-12 at 09.05.24

The way they look

Rinko Kawauchi

Rinko, a Japanese photographer / visual artist, whose work often revolves around small things and little moments in our day to day lives. Her work dances between the subconscious of dreams and the subtlety of the reality – flying birds, close-up of the details of hands, illuminated skies etc – creating loose narratives of visual poetry which gives a tranquil and serendipity feeling from within.

From PHMuseum we learn that she adopts her work ethics from Japanese culture and Buddhism. “I’m not a strict Buddhist, but I like an idea of Buddhism”, Kawauchi explains. And with this comes an appreciation of simple things, and their imperfections.”

Honestly I didn’t know how to appreciate her work before, when I felt at that time her work was very ordinary and nothing special. Yet maybe through my own buddhism practice as well, there’s a growing love and appreciation towards her work. The pictures often display moments that feels so close as if they can be touched. It feels as though I can just walk into this life of what she created – the dance between dreams and reality.

SFMOMA interview:



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Dialogues with Solitudes – Dave Heath


I came across Dave Heath’s work when I was reading The Photographer’s Gallery newsletter about images and wellbeing. To me, photography and heath has always been closely linked as many artists and photographers I know have used photography as a channel to release their emotional turmoil, and to use it a a therapy to make sense of the world. Dave Heath, an American photographer who was abandoned by his parents at the age of four, had a difficult childhood and spent his years in orphanages and foster homes. At fifteen, a photo essay in Life on a young orphan in Seattle, “Bad Boy’s Story” by Ralph Crane, was to have a decisive impact on his future: “I immediately recognised myself in this story and photography as my means of expression.” Photography became a way for him to enter the world, it was not a matter of choice, but a necessity.

His work “Dialogues with Solitudes” captures moments of individuals in their solitudes and vulnerabilities. Although photographs are taken at a distance, the work has an opposing effect of tenderness and sensitivity as if the photographer was standing next to the subject hugging each and every one of them. “There is a range of care within the frames. What is further striking about this viewpoint of alienation is that not only that Heath took portraits of extreme empathy, but that when doing so, he nearly always managed to avoid eye contact with his subject. What could be construed as voyeuristic is instead in the very rare case of Heath about the empathy needed to let his subjects be themselves without his intervention.”

A lot of the photographs were crops of the original frame, all of which was done afterwards in the darkroom, plus editing to low key visual forms showing the isolation and loneliness of individuals, magnifying each and everyone’s emotions and expressions.  It was his intention that “almost all of his photographs give no indication of location, date, or action – Dave Heath sought to translate an intimate experience of the world, something lived and felt: tension, in the city streets, between the constrained proximity of bodies and the isolation of individuals, as if they had lost their sense of self. He focused on isolated figures in crowds, and filled his frame with their “absent to the world” presences.”

His work reminds me of the recently published work by Christopher Anderson’s APPROXIMATE JOY, which is also capturing portraits of people from Shenzhen and Shanghai and their China dream. Similar approach but giving off totally different vibe. One is sensitivity and care, the other is ethereal and fantasy.



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?”


The way they look

Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness – Zanele Muholi


First I was drawn to the cover of this book – a powerful and hopeful portrait of a black woman. Immediately I was touched and wanted to learn more about the work. After doing some research, I learned that this book is about self-portraits of  Zanele Muholi, a South African photographer, portraying different personas, using her body to confront the politics of race and representation, questioning the way the black body is shown and perceived.

These images were produced over 3 years, and she took a self-portrait every day to send a message that “we live as black people 365 days a year, and we should speak without fear.” She calls herself a “Visual Activist” rather than a photographer or an artist as she believes that photography shouldn’t just be about fine art, but also in speaking for the unjust. Her three important facets of identity: woman, African, queer, brought her to not only use images to speak for them, but to discover within herself the different sides of her identity. She said, “all these images are me, they are different parts of me. I’m not mimicking black. it is my skin, and the experience of being black is deeply entrenched in me.”

Now this piece of work isn’t something you can just unravel like that, there are layers of meaning within each photo. Materials used in each photograph are symbolism or representations of something cultural or political or history of African. For example, an image of her with plastics wrapped all around her head. These plastics are used to wrapped around luggages to cross boarders, and often it’s because of their race that they get to be asked funny questions and get stopped at the customs. The feeling of this made her feels like trash, which is metaphored by the plastic that covers the suitcases used in the image.

It is important to study each photo carefully to decipher the message that Muholi wants to portray. Each element she adds to the image has a specific representation, even the way of her gaze, is it confrontational or is it a matter of questioning the audience?

I would love to get a hands-on to read this book. Her work not only taught me about the African culture and politics behind, but also about symbolism in art and semiotics of photography which I was not really aware of or familiar with. Nothing beats reading the images on paper and feeling and smelling the photographs.


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Hiroshi Sugimoto

Japanese artists are very fond of putting their “zen” philosophy into their art. Same with Sugimoto. The concepts behind his work are about environment and time. For example his work “Theatre” questions about time. The photos he took are evidence of the timespan across a movie. And what comes out in the end is a bring white screen – meaning – too much information ends up with nothingness.

With his famous work of “Seascapes”, he questions time again on a different level. He asked himself, “Can somebody today view a scene just as primitive man might have?” And his answer is the ocean, over and over again. He travelled all over the world for this work for a repetitive image of air and water in different continent. For him, he thinks no matter how time has passed, and what humans have done to Earth, this view may still exist. The ultimate timeless work you can produce. His work also aims to remind us, as human beings, to return to our innocent minds before we destroy ourselves in this capitalism world.

This concept is also found in his work “Dioramas”, which is about photographing his idealistic vision of nature. The work was shot in museums. Through the window of nature, he captures what diorama artists constructed for us humans to view in a museum. What’s mind blowing is that his work from this series doesn’t look like anything shot from a museum but the real primitive scene. This led us as viewers to think and question whether what he shot was real, and wonder what it was like during the primitive stage, again reminding us about the the nature and “nothingness” before us human destroy it all.


To be honest, his work is too conceptual for me. If I am to look at the photographs alone, I wouldn’t understand what he was trying to say. Maybe I’m not at that level yet. But it’s interesting to see what other artists do with the photography medium. How they talk about what they want to say through this medium.

The way they look

Rineke Dijkstra

Rineke Dijkstra – a portrait photographer. Her work didn’t catch my eye in the beginning. I mean – when you first look at her work, they are just portraits of people – at the beach, after birth etc. Unlike Sally Mann nor Cindy Sherman, the aesthetics or the emotions on these people she photographed are, you can say, just ordinary.

And here’s the controversy. That’s the challenge she wanted to make with portraitures. She asked, why are we and when do we idealised photography as glamorous? Why do we have to exaggerate in photographs like those celebrities or the famous? Why do we stage such dramatic scenes and that’s the way to be photographed?

What she wanted to photograph was the opposite – the ordinary, the daily lives of people. And with her 4×5 camera, she wanted to capture the split second of truth – that collaboration with the subject of which is natural and authentic, yet posing or holding it for 2 minutes while she captures it in her frames. She wanted her work to feel like a snapshot. She stripped away all the unnecessary background that add context, and just wanted the reader to look closely and spend more time to read and understand the character, by little things like their posture, their skin colour, the frowns etc. Her work, is about being empathetic to the people she photographed, creating that space where she allows different circumstances to happen and with the right moment, she clicks.

A video of her talk:

I have to say, I’m learning to read more ordinary photographs. The micro-details in those photographs and what they bring to the whole piece. To appreciate them. And to acknowledge them. To break free from what I’ve learned from the society before, or actually more like what they have implanted in me and re-learn what I believe is important.