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Encounters in Public. Photography and Politics

Encounters in Public. Photography and Politics in the Imagined Community of Civilised Spectator-Participants.

Ariella Azoulay, Civil Imagination. A Political Ontology of Photography (London: Verso Books, 2012)

Some of the most difficult questions pertaining to photographs are related to how we read, interpret, and ascribe meaning to them. This becomes all the more urgent in the case of photographs showing the effects of war and violence. So-called atrocity photographs—illustrating the horrors that people can inflict upon one another or upon each other’s (built) environment—elicit a wide range of responses, from disturbingly emotional to thoughtfully intellectual. One of the responsibilities we have is to sincerely scrutinize those responses, for one can never be sure of what photographs show or tell.

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Francesca Woodman at the Guggenheim

Though it has been nearly three decades now since Francesca Woodman (1958-1981) passed away, her photographic heritage continues to cast a spell on researchers, students of photography, and a general audience alike. Her youthful works (in retrospect made into an oeuvre) are subject to heady academic scrutiny, personal reflection, museum canonisation, and commodification (vintage prints from her student years change ownership for five-figure sums nowadays).

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How dare we be so beautiful?!

On the teenager portraits of Rico Scagliola & Michael Meier.

An androgynous character dressed in white shoes, jeans, and a nearly half-open black shirt sits relaxed and slightly leaning forward by a tiny pond in a garden, posing for a photograph. (S)he is looking downwards at his/her mirror image, reflected from the surface of the water. This image, in its general composition not quite unlike Caravaggio’s painting depicting an actively forward-leaning Narcissus, offers some clues about a giant photographic enterprise which resulted in a multimedia installation named Double Extension Beauty Tubes, combining still and moving images with a soundtrack, and a hefty paper volume called Neue Menschen (New People).

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Once upon a time, in a place far, far away…: The paradoxical third space and the photography of Jaap Scheeren and Babette Kleijn

“I don’t remember, but I wanted to go back to sleep and keep dreaming.”

—- The girl Ako in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s short film Ako/White Morning (1963).


Where exactly are we, when we are looking at a photo? Asking the question is easier than providing answers. At the most, we can talk about it in approximate terms. So, instead of pretending to be able to answer the question, I would like to offer a few possible routes of thought. When I think about being absorbed in a photographic image, I am not thinking about being somewhere physically or geographically, but about being somewhere mentally. In other words, looking at photographs takes the observer into a kind of reality that differs from that of sleeping, dreaming, grocery shopping, talking to someone, etcetera. Moreover, looking at photos creates a different experience from looking at paintings or other kinds of two-dimensional images.

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This is not a photobook: Errata Edition’s study on Zdeněk Tmej’s ‘Abeceda: duševního prázdna’ and the mystery of missing pages.

Photobooks are precious objects. The previous decade saw a rapid increase in their popularity and in their monetary value. Largely responsible for this are the books on photobooks by Andrew Roth (The Book of 101 Books, 2001) and Martin Parr & Gerry Badger (The Photobook: A History, two volumes, 2004 & 2006). These reference works have disclosed a great deal of hitherto hidden treasures. Of course, photobooks whose classical status was already established were also included, alongside obscure and sometimes extremely rare books, both from the West and beyond. While Roth, Parr & Badger and others have made us aware of the beauty and importance of photobooks as integral works of art, the inclusion in the newly established canon has led to soaring prices, and nowadays its market is the playground of wealthy collectors. It is becoming increasingly difficult to gain access to original copies of canonised photobooks.

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Reading Photographs from the Penal Colony

Disasters do not only leave populations vulnerable to official refusal of aid or an increase in repression of dominant political powers, moreover, people in disaster zones are also more likely to be exposed to cameras and its operators. In some cases the people will be well aware of the presence of cameramen. They will participate in the process of picture making by guiding photographers in shooting or simply by staring back. By consciously co-operating in the act of photography, victims of disasters, oppression, and/or exclusion can make statements which, ideally, turns photographs into “emergency claims.” 

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On Photography’s Photographicness

Photography as we know it has its techno-cultural origins in the first half of the 19th century, but as a natural phenomenon photography must have been known since ages. German art historian and philosopher Peter Geimer, in Bilder aus Versehen: Eine Geschichte fotografischer Erscheinungen [Images by Accident : A History of Photographic Appearances], tells of an example of a photographic image of a book page appearing on an altar cloth during a thunderstrike in 1689. And it may even be possible that prehistoric peoples already had seen photographic images appearing in their tents. What is particularly revolutionary about the “discovery” of photography as announced in 1839 was the chemical art of fixing photographic appearances on material that has been prepared with light-sensitive emulsions.

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Photography and Cinema

Photographs do not say more than a thousand words. In fact, they say nothing at all. They are mute, and that’s what makes up their quality and their enigma. A single photograph is unable to show much nor to explain what it shows. To become meaningful and explicit, a photograph needs to be contextualised with a caption or a written or recorded commentary. It will show its shortcomings as a record of any kind unless it is woven into a narrative or will be part of a sequence of images. The film series Contacts, initiated by William Klein, shows this perfectly. In short cine-essays photojournalists and art photographers reveal their working methods by analysing their contact sheets. We get to see the before and after of their generally well-known photographs: the time of the image is stretched beyond that of the single frame.

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