Thursday, 30 August 2012

Collapsing the Private and Public in Cruising by Chad States

BJ2, from the series Cruising © Chad States
 Chad States's recently published book Cruising is a collection of photographs that depict gay men looking for a sexual encounter with other men. Photographed in parks, wooden roadside groves or public restrooms across America, the photographs represent a hidden yet equally visible act of sexual transgression that operates on code words, gestures or simple eye contact. By literally uncovering gay subculture through the foliage of trees and bushes, the photographs are as visually compelling as they are provocative.

Into the Hole, from the series Cruising © Chad States

States's series of photographs alludes to an intriguing power exchange: the subjects that he photographs are on the lookout for anonymous sex, yet the photographer, too, is on the lookout for taking photographs of complete strangers. It is quite evident from the photographs that those frequenting these spaces are there to look but also to be looked at. The photographer thus becomes a willing agent between an act of voyeurism and an act of exhibitionism. The fine difference between who is the voyeur or exhibitionist is at times unclear. Indeed, the most eerie images in the series are those in which the gaze of the subject is directed back towards the camera. The photographer, or the hunter, metaphorically becomes the hunted by his subject.
The lush greenery in many of the images visually situates the work in post-impressionist painting. The work of Henri Rousseau, for instance, similarly draws the viewer's gaze into multiple planes of opulent nature and 'wilderness'. Rousseau often emphasized the wild with predatory animals such as a tiger strutting towards the foreground of the image. In States's photographs, the men's bodies partially visible through trees and bushes signify the predatory dimension in cruising. Rather than nature, it is the sexual transgression, the promiscuity and perhaps the randomness of this encounter (between strangers but also between the photographer and his subjects) that signifies the 'wild' in States's photographs.

Pine Tree Grope, from the series Cruising © Chad States

While complicating a distinction between voyeurism and exhibitionism, States's photographs also collapse a clear distinction between the private and the public. The parks and woodlands in the photographs are, by definition, public spaces. Yet partial nudity or vague allusions to sex constitute an activity more commonly associated with a private setting. In other words, if States's photographs are provocative, I would argue that it is not as much what they depict, but rather, it is that they collapse the assumed boundaries between a private act literally performed in public.

Here, States's work has more in common with the paintings of Édouard Manet. Particularly Manet's influential painting The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe), which depicts a female nude and a scantily dressed female bather on a picnic with two fully dressed men, can be seen to similarly interrogate the juxtaposition between the private with the public. With this body of work, States is clearly pushing against historical, social and cultural norms associated with sexuality and gender. States does not completely inverse these norms as much as he questions them via the photograph.

Marco Bohr is a photographer, writer and founder of

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Unseen Teaser

Unseen is a new international photography fair focused on undiscovered photography talent and unseen work by established photographers. The inaugural 2012 edition will take place in Amsterdam from 19-23 September. Find out more at

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

On Display

On Display © Alberto Ferretto
Fabrica and &Foam: Still Lights series

On Display, plate cabinet (Kirsty Minns, UK)

It's a peculiarly English thing, it seems, to hang plates up on a wall. I've never seen the sense in it myself, but apparently plenty of people are quite happy to treat them as objets d'art rather than objets d'eating.

An Englishwoman herself, Kirsty Minns chose to create On Display for the Still Lights collection in reference to this odd national characteristic. However, perhaps in reaction to some of the more rococo designs you often find on the walls of some English homes, On Display is more geometric and, dare I say, quite hip.

On Display © Alberto Ferretto

Above all, On Display is an interpretation of the technique of contre-jour, whereby a subject is photographed against the light source, creating a dark silhouette and a halo of light at the subject's edges. Minns achieves this effect by using powerful strip lighting (provided by project partner Philips) to produce a cool, silvery glow behind and around On Display's oak casing, which itself follows the proportions of a standard 10x15 photographic print. There is hanging space inside for twelve dinner plates, although you might not notice them at first. Each plate has its own unique set of platinum glaze stripes that, when aligned with the laser-cut gaps in the steel sliding doors, effectively camouflage them inside. It has taken precise measuring, along with plate numbering and positioning, to ensure they are all hung in the correct order and angle.
On Display © Alberto Ferretto

I may have been missing the point but I had to ask. Could these plates, in fact, be used for dining? Minns assured me they could, being all coated with standard ceramic glaze. Good to know, I thought. So now you can turn your dinner party into a parlour game as you all try to figure out how to put them all back in the right place.

On Display © Alberto Ferretto

Jonathan Crawford

You can see On Display and the other products in the series Still Lights at &Foam until 21 October 2012.

Monday, 27 August 2012

The Rise of iPad Photography

iPad photographers © Karin Bareman

It's probably beyond dispute that most photography museums consider it part of their task to educate their audience about the history of photography. However, some of them do so in a rather direct way. The Fotomuseum in Antwerp for example has an entire exhibition gallery dedicated to this purpose. By using the concept of four different kinds of gazes, it illustrates key moments in the history of photography by using acquisitions of its own permanent collection. The National Media Museum in Bradford does something similar with its Kodak Gallery, but its focus lies more on consumer photography.

Nonetheless, once you have seen one such gallery, you have seen them all. There are certain key references that come back everywhere: cameras obscuras are mentioned, as is the first photo by Niepce, the near simultaneous invention of the daguerrotype by Daguerre and the calotype by Fox Talbot; then comes the first war picture by Roger Fenton, the arrival of cartes de visite, and the images of the galloping horse by Eadweard Muybridge; the popularization of the media is analysed, especially after the arrival of the Kodak Brownie thanks to George Eastman; the production of the Leica camera deserves a mention, as does the founding of Magnum, the continuing development and refinement of various black-and-white films and printing papers, the start of colour photography, the first polaroid camera; and to skip a few stages, it ends with the arrival of digital photography.

It is fascinating to see that exhibitions like these tend to be really technological in nature. The message is clear. The machine came first. Or the film, or the paper, or whatever. But not the artist. Or the subject matter. Everything is presented with simple and straight timelines. A perfect linear development is established. Causes and effects are demonstrated. Never mind that history never works in such a neat fashion and that reality is always much more messy than the graphs used to represent it. The photographs themselves, and the photographers who produced them, tend to get subsumed in such a narrative. One can know the dates and developments by heart, and still have no idea of what kind of photography the defining practitioners of the medium have shot since Niepce.

Incomplete as I consider such an exhibition, and indeed question whether a complete overview of photography as a medium can actually be represented via an exhibition, I wonder whether future galleries will include a technological development that has come to my attention recently. Whilst walking down the streets of Nice one early evening this summer, I nearly bumped into a woman talking to her iPad. She was pointing it at the scene in front of her and describing her last night on holiday. Startled, I had not quite grasped until that moment that the iPad was of course capable of recording still and moving images. Dismissing her though as a bit of an oddball for using an iPad instead of a normal camera, I walked on. However, in the next few days I came across quite a few tourists walking around with an iPad in hand, occasionally holding them up and taking pictures of the sights.

In the last decade, photography for the masses has really changed beyond recognition. Indeed, about eight years ago I would still occasionally and happily sell a consumer film camera to a customer during my time working in a camera store. But with the ongoing and rapid developments in digital photography, every month would see a new consumer camera model which would not only be smaller, but also contain better sensors, boost more pixels, more zoom, and more possibilities. More and more people would be seen photographing by holding the camera at arm's length. They would judge the composition of the image by means of an LCD screen, rather than looking through a viewfinder. Indeed, with later models the viewfinder would disappear completely. More and more people would snap away with abandon, because digital photographs 'cost nothing' as opposed to having 35 mm film developed and printed. This had dire consequences for photography stores and printing labs, but especially for the film and paper producers of old. Agfa went bust and had to reinvent itself, Polaroid went down the same road, and even that eternal bastion of consumer photography Kodak has since gone bankrupt.

Meanwhile, the development of consumer digital photo cameras parallelled the transition of mobile phones from functional and brick-size devices to smaller and sleeker models, providing more and more possibilities. Indeed, at some point it seemed that the mobile phone had virtually taken over from consumer cameras. This happened because of their increasing capacities to film and photograph, and their possibilities for instant publication via social media apps. Despite the enhanced capabilities of digital cameras and phones for producing pictures of decent quality in comparison to the consumer film cameras of old, people would simply point, shoot, and publish without paying much attention to the actual result however.

But now there is the iPad, and people have started using it to take photographs. I cannot quite fathom why it seems so strange to me. The arm's-length-posture is still there, as is the composition by use of the LCD screen. But whereas a mobile phone at least still more or less resembled the latest models of consumer digital camera in size and appearance, the iPad cannot be mistaken for anything else but an iPad. It almost seems like 8x10 film cameras have been given a portable and user-friendly form. Indeed, the size of the iPad closely mirrors large format film.[1] Almost every professional photographer using a large format camera praises its enhanced depth of field, the sharpness of the details in the resulting image, and the need for careful composition. I am idly wondering whether the iPad will do something similar for consumer photography.

And of course the iPad can double as an album, a picture frame and a projection screen, which is something cameras have never been capable of, and mobile phones not quite. Swiss artists Rico and Michael have been quick off the mark to exploit these features in their work Double Extension Beauty Tubes. Combining more than a thousand pictures they have shot into an archive portraying the Facebook generation, they simply and essentially present a slideshow of photographs. This has been done by photographers as long as slide projectors have been in existence. Paul Fusco for example presented his series Funeral Train as a slide show. So did Jacob Holdt with his American Pictures, and later Nan Goldin with The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. But rather than whipping out a white projection screen and a slide projector, Rico and Michael use a device that can now double up as a camera. I am therefore really curious to see if and how this technological development will impact the medium in general.

Karin Bareman

[1] The most recent version of the iPad measures 9.50" x 7.3",

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Some Limits of Representation

It is a compelling paradox, when effectively exploited, that while photographs can seem to capture reality, they do not.

In a series of landscape photographs taken between 2004 and 2006, artist Clifford Ross created what might be the largest, highest resolution images ever made.  In an interview, while Ross acknowledges that "photography has always been a lie to some extent," nonetheless he states his goals for the work as including "creating a 'you are there' experience for the viewer," to "capture as much reality as possible in one exposure," and to "give the viewer more power, because the viewers have the choice to look wherever they want, just as they would if they were in front of the scene."

Mountain IV © Clifford Ross

I find these images compelling, not because I think they have achieved the goals of the artist, but because I think that they haven't and can't.  Standing in front of Mountain IV, I raise my head to take in the full expanse of sky and my eyes are met by a frame bordering the edge of a picture.  Evidently, I am not "there."  To speak of capturing experience with a photograph is not only to ignore that experience is more than just visual but also to deny that experience is located squarely, inalterably in time.  Ross has tried to create an experience for the viewer in front of a representation, one that would reproduce his own experience at a place.  This idea, although commonly espoused by viewers and practitioners alike, to me is rather odd.  Following it through, would the ultimate representation of a place be an exact, physical recreation of that place?  How close to real can you get before you decide to just get in your car and see it yourself?  There is an incredible and captivating amount of detail in these images.  What intrigues me is the fact that in spite of this, maybe even because of this, they are utterly, impressively unlike reality.

Installation view of Michael Heizer's 'Actual Size' © courtesy LACMA

Michael Heizer's exhibition "Actual Size" consists of a dozen or so very large, very grainy photographs of boulders.  In many of these photographs a single person stands at the base of a boulder holding a sign that quantifies the boulder's size- height and width measurements in feet, or, estimates of mass in tons.  What is implied is that the boulders in the photographs are equivalent in size to the boulders themselves.  I do not know whether or not it was with a sense of irony that Heizer titled this work, but it is the irony and humor that I appreciate most.  Opposite to what the title suggests, it is precisely the distance between the thing itself and its representation that gives this work its power.

For how exactly are these prints the "actual size" of these boulders?  Let's back up.  All representations are a distortion of space and this begins with what we see with our eyes.  So compelling is our sense of sight as a reproduction of space that we forget to recognize it as such; we imagine that what we see is what is; it is rather that what we see is an interpretation of what is around us- an interpretation defined and determined by usefulness.  Photographs are two-dimensional representations modeled on human vision.  A two-dimensional print makes space intelligible but cannot, by definition, accurately represent the actual size of a three-dimensional object.  At the site of these boulders the objects themselves can be walked around and vantage point is not constant.  In a print, vantage point is fixed, and depth can only be implied.  We feel it vividly and yet, it does not exist.  If, in a print, the height of an object from point A to point B is represented accurately, then the width of that object from point C to point D, unless the object is completely flat, cannot be accurate.  For all of the above reasons I might suggest, playfully, the alternative titles: "Seemingly Actual Apparent Size from a Single Vantage Point," or, "Approximate Actual Size with the Exception of Depth and Mass and Disregarding Lens Distortion."

Much of the above critique is centered around the kind of language that is frequently employed to talk about photographs.  But it goes deeper than that.  Commonly used language such as "capturing reality" or even "take a picture"- as if a picture is an object or a commodity even before it becomes a print, an object capable of containing a moment- such language reveals a set of views about what photography is and does that is flawed.  It is obvious that prints are not "real," however, it is significant that we talk about them as though they are.  The phenomenon I am describing goes to the heart of what makes many of the most interesting images powerful as images.  In the case of Heizer's photographs, we delight in being told that they are the "actual size" of the boulders they represent, and submit to this fiction to the point where we almost feel the presence of massive objects, despite the fact that we are looking at images on the surface of paper just millimeters thick.  We allow ourselves to be fooled, wittingly or not, and we enjoy it.

Chris Engman (Foam Magazine #24/Talent)

Mountain IV, by Clifford Ross, is part of the exhibition "In Focus: Picturing Landscape" on view at The Getty though October 7.  Michael Heizer's Actual Size can be seen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art though September 9.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A Summer Treat

Untitled 01 © Stephen Frailey

It took me the whole summer to figure out how bold or naive I was being, to think I could write about my favorite photographs.  This only started because first, I want to share this work so badly, but second, I also kind of don't want to share it.  It probably is a mutual feeling for anyone who ever had a really good secret recipe you wanted to keep under your mattress.  However, it's not hard to admit what a huge privilege it is to share this work with you.

Untitled 02 © Stephen Frailey

Thanks to a dear friend who found this book a few years ago, I came to know Stephen Frailey's work. Perhaps these are documents of creations by an undercover scientist, I thought.  Or maybe they are excerpts from a secret industrial catalogue. They may just be a collection of objects we find in dreams.  Without too much information on the images presented in the book, my interest only deepened and an affection has  developed for the work, as much of it has remained mysterious.

Untitled 03 © Stephen Frailey

The works presented here are my post-discovery-of-the-book-from-an-alley-cat (I'll leave it up to you to find the book. Rumour has it there is place that begins with "Dash" and ends in "wood", that had carried it).  These images were sent to me a couple summers ago from the artist.  I didn't ask him a single question regarding the work, hoping for myself to stay curious. Still along the same lines as the past body of work presented in his book, these specific images have a slight reminiscence of a set on an empty stage to me.  They are strong and charming, with a witty balance between the prominent structure and the playful cut-outs.  How delightful would it be to see them as sculpture?  the objects seem to be treated delicately, but with great respect. The photographer behind the camera must be working alone in a quiet room enjoying the pleasantries of solitude.
Untitled 04 © Stephen Frailey

Offering me a photographic glossary in this visual dictionary I discover each meaning has strange new definitions.  I only yearn to see more and more as the summer continues.

Untitled 05 © Stephen Frailey

Ina Jang (Foam Magazine #28/Talent)

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Festival Treasures

3 Shots, Lowlands © Christina Smallenbroek

Festival season in Holland reached its high point last weekend with Lowlands in Biddinghuizen. The hottest Lowlands ever was amazing. Covered in sunscreen, sand and maybe a little sweat, I sauntered from shade to shade, I mean gig to gig, enjoying every second of it. Festivals are more popular than ever. Is it the music, the atmosphere, the bubble or the collective experience? Whatever it is, it works. Tickets are sold out months in advance, way before any line-up is confirmed and the anticipation dominates many conversations. What's your 'to see' wish list? Which campsite are you on? What to wear?!

For Dutch standards Lowlands is quite a wholesale festival.  55.000 visitors, seven campsites, eleven performance tents and lots of lines - you are never alone at Lowlands. And although the collective experience and enthusiasm is fantastic, I think the individual experience matters the most. Your own friends, that unique moment in the India (when everybody was at Alpha) and drinking warm beers in front of your tent. That's what I love about Lowlands. And because you tend to forget some parts and want to keep the feeling as long as possible, I also tried to capture it. Although  I am not the most gifted photographer (understatement) I do want to capture my personal Lowlands. And not just the clichéd images of the entrance towers or raised arms at a performance.

Foam Lab, the annual work experience program of Foam, gives festival fanatics the tools and platform to capture their own personal festival feeling. With their smartphone photography competition, 3 Shots, they challenge festival visitors to capture their own personal hidden treasures in a series of three pictures. Coming from the idea that you always have your camera equipped phone with you, this is the ultimate festival camera. Fast, easy and with apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic, your (and my) mediocre photos are enhanced in a matter of seconds. And if you don't use your apps every 2 seconds, the battery will actually last quite long.
I still think I'll keep my photos to myself though. But if you feel like sharing your festival treasures please do! If the envious looks and some Facebook likes won't do it for you, the tickets for Lowlands 2013 might win you over.

For inspiration and tips from the smartphone and festival photography  pros, check out the theme film:

Entries so far can be found at and send in your own 3 Shots series until August 26 via

Eva Bremer

Monday, 20 August 2012

Ongoing Table

Ongoing Table © Alberto Ferretto

Fabrica and &Foam: Still Lights series

Ongoing Table, dining table (David Peñuela, Spain)

The dinner party. A test of your skill in hospitality, cooking and conversation. It's easy when you're all out in a bar. A couple of beers and some nachos and everyone's happy. But with a dinner party, you have to pull out a few more stops. Actually cook something. Spruce up the place. Wear a shirt with a collar. And entertain, for heaven's sake. It's not easy. I've tried it a few times and mostly come up short. When you start to see the guests stabbing the table between their fingers with the fish knife, you know you've lost them.

Ongoing Table © Alberto Ferretto

David Peñuela's beautiful dining table no doubt would have saved me on those occasions. Inspired by still life flower arrangements, Ongoing Table uses an integrated screen to display a series of languid, colourful animations that feed your eyes while you fill your stomach.

The concept's starting point was a series of images of flowers taken from above by fellow Fabrica student, Alberto Ferretto. Peñuela, an interaction designer and developer, then used a triangulation algorithm (listen to me, it sounds like I know what that means) to convert those images into reduced digital forms. These were animated to drop away and then reform over the space of an hour. This digital life cycle repeats every hour with a new floral arrangement for as long as you like (or your dinner party lasts). The display is hidden underneath a reflective smoked glass panel so you could even casually switch the animation on half way through your starters for that extra gasp value from your diners (watch out they don't choke).

Ongoing Table © Alberto Ferretto

It's a solution that fits neatly within the Still Lights collection. The relationship between subject, light and frame is entirely natural. Even the colour of the orange power cord, with its association to energy, ties in well with the idea of giving life to stillness. Penuela has also created unique table mats to finish off the theme. The set of six, when placed together, form a still of one of the animated floral arrangements. Now I'm no expert, but if all this doesn't get your dinner party going, then it really is time to call it a day and order pizza.

Jonathan Crawford

You can see Ongoing Table and the other products in the series Still Lights at &Foam until 21 October 2012.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The World in London

World in London, Olympics project installation, Victoria Park, London 2012 © Caroline Malloy

Commissions come in various forms of course, but portrait commissions at least usually come with the name (or names) of the sitter attached.  A commission from The Photographer’s Gallery in London arrived in the studio last year with only one criteria attached: your chosen sitter must live in London, but have been born in one of the countries which qualified for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

World in London, Olympics project installation, Victoria Park, London 2012 © Caroline Malloy

The World in London was conceived by The Photographers’ Gallery in London of as a major public-art project. The Photographers’ Gallery team set out to commission 204 photographic portraits of 204 Londoners, each originating from one of the nations competing at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The resulting works were intended to be displayed in site-specific venues across the city and in doing so, celebrate the multi-cultural nature of the capital.

Vanuatu, Kiribati, Benin. San Marino, Montenegro, Benin. Aruba and Swaziland. Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. Guam, Nauru and Andorra.

World in London, Olympics project installation, Victoria Park, London 2012 © Caroline Malloy

A list of the countries remaining to be photographed for the project came through by email. A quick check on Google Stats provided an analysis of who – according to the census - lived where in which area of London. The statistics graphics cannot, of course, make visible the rich patterns of migration that have helped make London what it is today (it was the photographer’s job to do this).
Communities from ever corner of the globe have populated different parts of London - and grown and flourished to varying degrees - since the beginning of the census. The project hoped to catch all of these communities.

World in London, Olympics project installation, Victoria Park, London 2012 © Caroline Malloy

My own personal search for a subject ended happily. I was fortunate enough to meet and photograph Becky Toma, a 12 year-old of born in Romania and now living in Bromley, a suburb of South London. She loved Ballroom dancing and was photographed in her local dance school, set within in a modest, well-used community centre in the south of London.

World in London, Olympics project installation, Victoria Park, London 2012 © Caroline Malloy

For me it was a fitting end to this project – the research ended not in a spectacular setting in the city but in a local community hall, where the residents themselves provided the spectacle.

Rebecca Toma, London 2012 © Wendy McMurdo

Wendy McMurdo

In addition to the outdoor exhibition, The World in London images will be presented on the dedicated website offering access to the personal stories behind each portrait. at

Exhibition Dates: The World in London
Victoria Park: 27 July - 12 August 2012
Park House: 27 July - 30 August 2012
Venues: Victoria Park, E3; Park House, 453 - 497 Oxford Street, London

Many thanks to Stefanie Braun, Senior Curator, The Photographers’ Gallery, London and to Caroline Malloy for the installation shots of The World in London project.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Black Hole

I can remember mine vividly: sitting in front of my tent on a French camping site, starring into a big black void. I was sweating, and not because of the abundant sunshine, but out of fear: what in gods name am I going to do in September?!

That summer I graduated and for the first time in my life the month September had no meaning anymore. Until then it meant the start of a new year at school. Five years of high school, then 3 years of vocational education and five years higher education. So the last thirteen years September was always a start of something. Now, sitting there in front of that tent, there was nothing there. It made me dizzy, fearful and a little bit sick… My life was over! I was completely hospitalized on education and had no idea how to organize myself outside that context. It felt like I had to reinvent myself al over again.

After the summer all the drama was gone and I started working in a computer wholesale shop to make ends meet. Not the most exiting job you can think of, but I can still bubble wrap a pallet of boxes in under ten seconds… After three months, the newspaper of the university called if I want to work for them and things started rolling.

Every time when I tell my students the story above, I more or less get the same reactions: 'that was in the old days, it's not going to happen to me' or similar words of that order. And every time I meet those students two or three years later they say: 'you know what, you were right! It did happen to me!' I'm sure every student that commits his or her life to the intense period of higher education for a full four years, is going to experience some form of cold turkey in the period after that. Maybe a little, maybe some more, but those years at the academy are a bit like drugs; you get hooked and it takes time to detox. For some people it comes naturally and the period at the academy sort of flows seamlessly into the period after that with exhibitions and assignments. Maybe they were asked at the graduation show to join a gallery or some other fortune came along that made the transition easier.

But I think for most alumni the period directly after the graduation comes with bumps and hills and feels unnatural and difficult. During the last year of study many academies start programs and give courses to ease this transition, but I'm curious if that really make things better after graduation.

So please feel free to share your experiences of the black hole (or lack thereof) below!

The irony now of course is that I'm totally hooked again and more than a little addicted. When Jonathan emailed me for this column, my first reaction in my head was: 'hey, I'm on vacation now!' Oh dear, time for rehab…

Robert Philip is a photographer and course leader at the Utrecht School of the Arts.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Great Unreal

01 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

About midway through Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs's mysterious picture book The Great Unreal, resulting from a couple of fantastic road trips (an inexhaustible inspiration for great literature, cinema and photobooks alike) through the United States, there is a black & white photograph taken in a nondescript back corner of Las Vegas, possibly the greatest of unreal cities. In the upper right corner, a billboard can be seen hovering above a one-story building and a baby palm tree, announcing an exhibition called Ansel Adams: America at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, and next to the text showing one of Adams's grandiose photographs of the rugged American West.

02 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

I don't know whether Onorato & Krebs included this image on purpose, either ironically winking at the long tradition of serious and majestic American landscape photography or paying homage to the master (perhaps it's just there by happenstance). As pretty much everything that Adams stood for is inverted by Onorato & Krebs idiosyncratic, humorous, personal, and adventurous approach to translating the vast grandeur of the American desert into photographs and photomontages.

03 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

One's never sure about what one is looking at. Why are those power cables diverging from the poles as if to form a cobweb? Why are these tyres rolling down a hill? Why is there a fake road running in circles? Onorato & Krebs's version of America, devoid of people, seems to be on the verge of entering an eerie nightmare dreamed by daylight. It sometimes reminds me of Captain Beefheart's America of the late 1960s, when he is singing, in his very distinquishable growly voice: "The dust blows forward 'n dust blows back. / And the wind blows black thru the sky. / And the smokestack blows up in sun's eye. / What am I gonna die?"

04 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

The American landscape continues to be an inspiration to filmmakers and photographers. A recent example is the landscape photography of Matthew Brandt who soaks his prints in the water of the very lakes that he photographed, thereby literally converging the iconic with the indexical.

05 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

A similar concept was subtly and beautifully executed by Witho Worms in his book Cette Montagne, C'est Moi, in which photographs of coal mountains are printed on paper prepared with carbon ground from coal of the mountains depicted. Though both Brandt's and Worms's landscapes are of a somewhat gloomy character, they aren't as troublesome and alarming as the awkwardly assembled American landscapes of our fabulous Swiss duo (Swiss do duos well, we shouldn't forget that another Swiss whose photographic views of America turned out to be so influential, Robert Frank, formed an informal duo with Jack Kerouac. Kerouac couldn't have written On the Road without Frank, who drove him around the country.)
06 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Of all possible Americas, Europeans tend to imagine them a little less optimistic than Americans have done so often. The Frenchman François Reichenbach driven by a boundless curiosity went on a road trip through the U.S. He concentrated his experiences and findings into a wonderful film of both admiration and gentle critique (L'Amerique insolite, 1960). The Americans with all their funny inventions created a different world on this planet. "Do they themselves see America as we see it," asks Reichenbach, "[…] These frozen landscapes. Do they still smell this wilderness? Or do they share the impression that those vast horizons are still waiting for something? The invasion of Martians or the return of pioneers?"
07 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Strange things can happen in America and even stranger things happen when its houses and landscapes are confronted by the playful camera-eyes-and-hands of Onorato & Krebs.

08 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs
09 from the series 'The Great Unreal' © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Taco Hidde Bakker

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

On Reality, Gear Fetishism and Photography as Communication

Black Bulb 2, 2009 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

For us 80's born young whippersnappers at Foam Lab, I thought the exhibition which would most resonate with me surely would be Rico & Michael's multimedia slugfest in Foam 3H upstairs, Double Extension Beauty Tubes, an installation in which one is battered with a fast cycle of various portraits of young people from different subcultures, shown on ten iPads arranged in a circle in a dark room, and accompanied by popular music from said subcultures.

Book Cam, 2011 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

It was however not that exhibition, but Onorato and Krebs's Light of Other Days which most appealed to me. Onorato & Krebs are something of a mysterious couple. The merit of their work is not always immediately evident. But as I considered their photographs and read about them more, a number of things dawned on me.

Cameraman 2, Polaroid, 2005 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Though they make no use of Photoshop or other digital trickery, they express the extent to which light can be captured in ways that produce imagery which may seem manipulated to us. On the other hand, they can capture things just the way they are, and have them seem more unreal than ever. Many photos in their book The Great Unreal exemplify this by expressing that what is perceived as reality has not become (by grace of digital manipulation), but has in fact always been relative. This doesn't go to say that all is relative, as the tired post-modern moan too often sounds, but it does remind us that things may be made to appear as such. This resonates with me because it is a reality that I am (or rather, force myself to be) aware of every second of the day as I am peppered with various manipulated media, such as re-touched billboards, biased news, auto-tuned music and whatnot.

Also, their images are not their ends, they are their means. The means by which they communicate, as has become commonplace in a society which uploads 3000 photos to Facebook every second. As a part of a visually developed generation, this feel intuitive to me. The assemblage of photos in the first room of their exhibition in Foam is seemingly random, but invokes the associative and layered nature of thought as expressed by artists who think in streams of images. Just like the combinations and links between thoughts made in one's mind may seem hard to explain to others, the cluster of photographs of plastic knights armor alongside undefinable shapes and food sculptures make a intuitive kind of sense when thought of as a reflection of a visual thought process.

Rotation 1, 2011 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Taiyo and Niko also seem to want to strip their art of unnecessary ballast. They mock gear fetishism which so often pervades new photography as seen in their book As Long As It Photographs / It Must Be A Camera. Turtles, stacks of tomes on photography theory, woodworked totems, Onorato and Krebs seem to view photography purely as the capture of light, thus anything that can be made to capture light would seem appropriate as a camera. Their use of direct positives mirrors this sentiment; to capture the light as directly as possible. The new Nokia cellphones may come with 42 megapixel cameras, the latest Canon 5D Mark III may baffle one in so many new and inventive ways, but there in the second room of the exhibition sits a turtle shell turned into camera to remind you: as long as it photographs, it must be a camera.

In the same way the whole exhibition is there to remind us: even though we may sometimes think everything has already been done, we have not by far reached the outer limits of what photography is, does or can be. And I hope we won't any time soon.

Foam Lab 2012

Monday, 6 August 2012

Little House on the Pumpkin

Book Cam 2011 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Swiss photographers Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs have gone global with recent exhibitions of their work in Moscow, Milan, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, Melbourne, Copenhagen and Zürich. The Great Unreal, published in 2009 by Patrick Frey, is now in its second edition. As Long As It Photographs, It Must Be A Camera, self-published by the artists in 2011, was sold out in a matter of months.

Curiously, this international recognition is not matched by equal amounts of in-depth writing about their work. This has been the case ever since they started collaborating nine years ago. When first posting about their work on my blog Mrs. Deane in 2007, it was already hard to find reviews. Only a manifesto, written by the artists themselves, turned up in the search results. 1

"Photography is the medium, which once was equal to truth. The ultimate, collective truth, later a rather personal, subjective truth, and finally, in the stage of perfect manipulation through digital technologies, truth just lies within the intention of the creator. So everyone can claim truth for himself. Our truth rises from the belief in the photographic moment. The camera lens is the unmistakable eye. The light traces on negative film deliver proof of its judgment. This belief is opening the door to a new, exciting little world full of wonders. It allows us to be explorers beyond the ordinary. To have fun while transforming weird ideas mingled from childhood dreams, TV commercials, daily newspapers and art history lessons into visual sensations that become a part of our jigsaw puzzle reality." 2

Black Bulb 2 2009 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

In December 2009, when reviewing The Great Unreal, the ongoing silence compelled me to remark that "however hard I scoured the web, I found only prefab press releases, blog posts, pointers or even tweets and Facebook announcements, but not one article that discussed their work - let alone the new book - in depth."

The artists were at an equal loss as I was to explain why there seems to be no place within the traditional critical discourse to discuss the photographs themselves. If the inability to seriously "look" at their work is not just incidental, but symptomatic, then why not take this as a lead to follow?

Surely, it is a fascinating digression to cover all the conversation pieces surrounding the work, i.e. the technical processes, the decline of analogue photography, the nature of their collaboration, their mind-twisting American road trip, the comments on online photo forums populated by camera enthusiasts, how they liked Moscow or what their next project will be about. But in the end, even if you would know all that went into the making of a particular photograph, the mystery of the little house on the pumpkin will be untouched.

"I think these photos might appeal to a wider audience because they're humorous. You must find them funny, too?" "Yes, we're having good fun. It's hard to say where they come from. We're curious, trying to experiment with different things. Often ideas or photographs seem funny at first sight, but if you think about them for a while they might also reveal a darker side. Humour often has a bitter taste hidden somewhere. This is where it gets interesting". - from an interview conducted by Dan Abbe for American Photo Magazine, March 2012
Cameraman 2 Polaroid  2005 © Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

At the same time, there is consensus about one thing. Onorato & Krebs have the Russian public giggling. In Switzerland, "viewers experience particular pleasure when the photographers thus reveal their playful approach to reality and fiction" 4, and the readers of Photo Eye blog 5 are reassured that "Onorato & Krebs really aren't out to disturb, but to humour and create a dialogue about self-reliance and creativity."6 In short, everybody is in stitches, and isn't laughter a notoriously slippery thing to talk about? So does that excuse the reviewer? Hardly.

"Laughter can, and should be extensively and "earnestly" applied [...]. Contrast, surprises, unexpected conclusions, which are among the most important causes producing laughter, awaken and sharpen our intellectual processes and thereby enable us to notice many things which otherwise might easily have escaped our attention. For instance, queer and ludicrous comparisons and resemblances, or the comical combination of facts which are different and heterogeneous, emphasize the common characteristics in things that are otherwise dissimilar, and the similarities in those which in other respects are quite different. They give us new perspectives, enable us to discover the curious relationship existing between various groups of facts, thereby sharpening our faculty of observation, and bringing new ideas to birth in us; in short, they render our intellectual mechanism more active and more alert." - Roberto Assagioli (1888 - 1974)

Humour helps the viewer engage with a body of work that is highly intuitive in origin, disjointed in appearance, and largely associative in nature. There is no real rhyme or reason in the images that make up a particular series, yet somehow it makes perfect sense to pair a photograph of a toy harness with a lemon on stilts. Were I to explain that, I'd be fumbling for words. Our spontaneous response tends to be nonverbal. Are the kind of truths encountered in the work of Onorato & Krebs the ones that in no way can be translated back into speech? Maybe we can only adequately answer in images?

" […] the first boomerang effects of science's great triumphs have made themselves felt in a crisis within the natural sciences themselves. The trouble concerns the fact that 'the truths' of the modern scientific world view, though they can be demonstrated in mathematical formulas and proved technologically, will not longer lend themselves to normal expression in speech and thoughts [...]" - Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 1958

It struck me that we might be witnessing a generation that has acquired unprecedented levels of visual literacy, in the process of inventing new ways to communicate using not words, but - mostly photographic - images, and perhaps unwittingly help shape a truly visual "language". Nearly 175 years of photography has given the world trillions of photographs, to which a staggering 6 billion are added each month on Facebook alone 7. Inevitably this will affect future generations in ways unimaginable.

"... the way designers (and everybody else, for that matter) form images in their mind's eye, manipulating and evaluating ideas before, during and after externalising them, constitutes a cognitive system comparable with but different from, the verbal language system. Indeed we believe that human beings have an innate capacity for cognitive modelling, and its expression through sketching, drawing, construction, acting out and so on, that is fundamental to human thought." - L. B. Archer, "Whatever Became of Design Methodology?", 1979

Rotation 1 2011 C Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs

Hannah Arendt was concerned that "where the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being". If speech and politics are indeed closely linked, then might not the emergence of a complex and diffuse, yet popular visual language change the nature of the decision processes that define our politics? We already had a taste of what that could mean from the Occupy Wall Street protest movements, with their lack of clear tenets, their horizontal organizational structure, or their endless procedures to arrive at consensus during meetings.

We might be witnesses of an End of an Era 8, and not merely the era of analogue photography, however lamentable, but an era where spoken and written language dominate communication. Unexpectedly, we find artists like Onorato & Krebs, who are the essential tinkerers needed during the construction phase of this new language, at the forefront of what could turn into a political movement, even though the work itself bears not a single reference to contemporary politics.

"Their black and white photographs explore the narrative potential of still lifes. The artists are interested in the causal and associative linkage of objects, as well as in their photographic mise-en-scène." - exhibition text, Aargauer Kunsthaus, 2009

Through their work the light of other days, those bygone and those yet to come, reaches us. For this series Onorato & Krebs took their cues from scientific photography of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Harman direct positive paper, with its harsh contrast, long exposure times and flat blacks, lent itself perfectly for conjuring up an era where magic and wonder were still part of the scientific discourse. In a series of experiments, the artists explored the possibilities of this paper to capture time, letting it accumulate light and movement in a way that film cannot.

The reference to early scientific photography - a freebie of the new direct positive paper - was not merely happenstance. It was called for, exactly because the uncontrolled experiment, the one that still has place for the magic and wonder to seep in through the cracks, played such a significant role then, as it plays now, and plays this not only in the practice of Onorato & Krebs, but in that of numerous contemporary photographers and visual artists engaged in a development that spans our globe. For Light of Other Days, Onorato & Krebs created a lab setting as a convincing and metaphor rich alibi to do what they set out to do in their manifest: "transform weird ideas [...] into visual sensations that become a part of our jigsaw puzzle reality."

However appealing the resulting photographs are, they are merely results, the 'scientific' evidence, which has as its only raison d'etre that it was a part - and often the only remaining or visible part - of the experiment. Central to Onorato & Krebs' work is the experiment itself as a place, a stage, a theatre, a time-space continuum where they, the technicians, can invite things to happen 'beyond the ordinary.' How different is that from the scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider, who are waiting for similarly unexpected and potentially inexplicable test results?

Hester Keijser

2 This text seems to have been taken offline.
3 "Swiss humour is hardly one of the country's most popular exports. But the [duo] have made a breakthrough in Moscow. Russian visitors giggle as they pass by the duo's clever collages. Onorato and Krebs: the future of comedy? "- Emmanuel Grynszpan, in La Lettre de La Photographie, April 13, 2012.
4 Peter Stohler, in an essay for the Swiss Design Award 2011.
6 Anton Dolezal, in a review of As long as it photographs, It must be a camera on the Photo-Eye blog.
7 Source:
8 End of an Era was the title of a recent solo exhibition of Onorato & Krebs at Galeria Riccardo Crespi in Milan, Italy.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Nail Meets Bookshelf

Nail Meets Bookshelf, Still Lights © Alberto Ferretto

Fabrica and &Foam: Still Lights series

Nail Meets Bookshelf, bookshelf (David Raffoul, Lebanon)

Nail Meets Bookshelf is an elegant display solution for pocket books (the ones on famous photographers by Thames & Hudson are particularly appropriate). The shelf is just short of two metres long so you could probably show off an A-Z of all the big names.

Nail Meets Bookshelf, Still Lights © Alberto Ferretto

Recalling the high shelves often seen in Mediterranean homes, what is unusual about this one, as designer David Raffoul explained, is that it pivots at one end, so its natural position is actually vertical. What holds it horizontal is a large wooden peg at the opposite end. It's all part of the thinking behind the entire collection, Still Lights, which has imagined objects that function around the three elements of subject, frame and light.

For Nail Meets Bookshelf, Raffoul has taken the pocket book as his subject and the shelf as his frame. Illumination is supplied by a hidden strip LED running along the length of the shelf. Provided by Philips, it is a way (if you needed one) to display the books in an even better light. A striking purple cord stitched into the shelf upright adds an extra bit of jazz and the large wooden peg becomes a simple device to, literally, hold the entire concept together.

Nail Meets Bookshelf, Still Lights © Alberto Ferretto

In a clever piece of brand extension, Raffoul has also imagined the peg as a stand-alone object for hanging your coat or hat. So if you can't afford to buy this unique piece of design, you can at least walk away with something that came from something that was a unique piece of design. Just make sure you've got a nice coat.

You can see Nail Meets Bookshelf and the other products in the series Still Lights at &Foam until 21 October 2012.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

In Splendid Isolation

A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008) © Ken Schles

I just got my copy of the new issue of FOAM Magazine, "Ref."

"The summer issue of Foam Magazine reflects deeply on relationships between photography and reference. Ref. presents eight portfolios which [sic] refer each in their own way to other photos, a specific visual style or language, or to stereotypical visual elements that we recognize from other photographic genres. They are all portfolios that recognize that nothing exists in splendid isolation," says the introduction.

A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008) © Ken Schles

Consciousness forms within a dynamic social order. Simply stated, we learn from and internalize our circumstances. As social beings, we compare and contrast what we think we know with what others believe and understand and what experience provides. We don't invent the truth of our being. That truth just is. But we do give focus to chosen aspects of our experience, which, more often than not, are reflections of shared concerns and questions. And we communicate our inquiries. Our responses are fully bounded by culture and in relation to culture. They reflect upon the social order of things. We are bound to operate within our shared cultural reality. Perhaps this is achingly self-evident: I participate in a world. I reflect upon that world and I do it in a way that I hope others will understand. In society there really is no such thing as "splendid isolation." Except, perhaps, in death. Splendid isolation is outside of intelligence, outside of communication, outside of social being. When I try to conceive of what splendid isolation truly implies, it doesn't seem splendid at all.

A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008) © Ken Schles

In 1998 I published a book (A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads, White Press, 2008). In that book I explored my almost sudden realization that the corpus of my work was deeply influenced by and was inseparable from my understanding of canons of photographic work. In that book I chose a sequence of images to highlight that revelation and wrote about that fact as well.

A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008) © Ken Schles

Born into the world, out of the chaos of form and light, we struggle to assign a hierarchical order to what our eyes take in. As we start to organize and prioritize what we see before us, we begin to separate forms, identify them and assign meaning. As we begin to experience the world, we experience what we think to be our own personal world-a world we have already begun to set meaning to. But the meanings we apply are not our wholly our own, they are what we have been taught, explicitly and implicitly. As we start to perceive the ways of the world, we acquaint ourselves with the explicit and implicit histories contained within everything we encounter. We learn about the present and past simultaneously, one informing the other-for even in small ways the history of a thing is integral to understanding the thing itself. Precedent is formative. The universe, and all it contains, reflects a concrete line of causality, which marks and streaks the present. Inevitably, as we acquire more knowledge, our understanding of the world and what it contains changes. At times, these new conceptions conflict with what we thought to be true. As we identify aspects of "what is" and reject others, we use our mental processes to evaluate differences. At times rational and other times irrational, we invent new paradigms to model the new realities we create, encounter and come to recognize. Eventually, we redefine our past by placing emphasis on events and issues that shed light on current conceptions, issues and concerns. We make adjustments to our outlook. And we understand the world a little differently each and every time we gaze at it, for, in an ongoing process, our understanding of what is and what was is in a state of constant transformation. We, by necessity [and practicality], change our conception of a constantly changing world. Arthur Schlesinger writes,

"The present incessantly recreates, reinvents, the past. In this sense, all history, as Benedetto Croce said, is contemporary history. It is these permutations of consciousness that make history so endlessly fascinating an intellectual adventure. "The one duty we owe to history," said Oscar Wilde, "is to rewrite it."

A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008) © Ken Schles

To be a photographer-and to work with images, is to engage in an ongoing thought experiment. By projecting an image of what is and what has recently been, photographs both define and challenge notions of the present and the past. They present an ideation of the world. In concert with and in opposition to other examples of language and culture, photographs concretize notions, ideas and images about what it is to be alive in the place and time of their creation. And with that we can take heart as we move into the future-as we engage in a discourse on the world.

A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008) © Ken Schles

Both individually and collectively, with nearly seven billion facets that comprise our human world, we point to and parse our experience: Seven billion human mirrors reflecting upon a seemingly infinite number of questions and concerns. Most of those reflections are pure regurgitation and repetition. And it is simply arrogance to suppose that it should be otherwise. For how else could we learn or pass on our legacy if we didn't repeat what we beheld? The challenge is not in our references, but how we synthesize our references, reject the things that lack purpose and move forward in a meaningful way.

A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008) © Ken Schles

Again, from my book, A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads (White Press, 2008)

T.S. Eliot expressed a belief that:
"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."

A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008) © Ken Schles

Here is a simple truth: we reflect ideas that influence us. What we love-our fixations and our obsessions-all are to be seen in the things we do and can be found in the things we create.

A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008) © Ken Schles

Most times we don't realize the depth or extent of the references we make when we communicate. We are tied to the world and will happily, unaware, make reference to it until we no longer can do so. And it will be then, and only then, when we are relegated and compelled-because of senescence or death-to an incommunicable nonexistence in an eternal and splendid isolation. In which case, no utterance or reference will be heard, and in fact, no utterance or reference will be made.

Here is a link to my book about reference: A New History of Photography: The World Outside and the Images In Our Heads (White Press, 2008).

Ken Schles (Foam Magazine #5/Near)