Sunday, 30 January 2011

Indian Moments

Copyright @ Hans Durrer

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

On Seeing

Like all painters, he suggests, he felt he knew instinctively what science was then in the process of discovering: that the eye was an entirely passive collector of visual stimuli, and that "seeing" was a learned activity that went on in different, discrete parts of the brain – the imaginative piecework of collating form, and colour, and light into an understandable vision of the world, one you constantly made up as you went along.

Tim Adams: Sargy Mann: the blind painter of Peckham
The Observer, 21 November 2010

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The Cruel Radiance

My first reaction to this book was that I felt irresistibly drawn to its cover, I simply couldn't take my eyes off this girl. It took me quite some time to realise that the author's name had been put next to the girl's face - not exactly a thoughtful approach, I'd say. For Susie Linfield did not take this photograph, it was taken by an unknown photographer at the Tuol Sleng torture center and shows an unidentified child prisoner of the Khmer Rouge, photographed before execution, the date is unknown. I can't recall another photo (except the one of Kim Phuc) that left me so deeply moved. To me, this photograph is the best argument against critics who hold that we have become so numbed by the floods of images from war zones that they have lost the power to move us.

Susie Linfield, director of the cultural reporting and criticism programme at New York University, begins her beautifully written book with "A little history of photography, or, why do photography critics hate photography?" What does she mean by that? "It's hard to resist the thought that a very large number of photography critics - including the most influential ones - don't really like photographs, or the act of looking at them, at all."

There is no doubt that photographs, first and foremost, trigger emotions yet when reading the works of, say, Susan Sontag, Walter Benjamin or Siegfried Kracauer we learn hardly anything about their emotions. "Photographs, Kracauer insisted, fight contemplation; even if the new photojournalism was practised by thoughtful people, or political radicals, or intellectuals - which it sometimes was - it did not appeal to the intellect, and was therefore highly suspect." That, to me, was a real eye-opener. Never before had it been clearer to me why photo critics (with the notable exception of John Szarkowski and John Berger) have mostly left me cold - they fear emotions, they prefer to ponder stuff that has not much to do with photos (that are merely used as illustrations). It also dawned on me why the historians and art historians who write about photography have never appealed to me - their texts mostly do not need photographs to look at.

Most critics, Linfield argues, "have made it easy for us to deconstruct images but almost impossible to see them; they have crippled our capacity to grasp what John Berger called 'the thereness of the world.' And it is just that - the texture, the fullness of the world outside ourselves - into which we need to delve. Photographs can help us do that." I couldn't agree more.

Moreover, photography "was the great democratic medium" (anybody can take good photos) and thus it "could stir intense anxieties" - and it did, and very probably still does, for what "experts" fear the most is that their field of expertise all of a sudden ceases to exist. If interpreting photographs were about sharing emotions, where would that leave the context-specialists? They would have to give way to writers like Susie Linfied who commented on a photo by Teun Voeten that "shows a girl who, the caption told us, is named Memuna Mansarah. She was then three years old and was living in a refugee camp in Freetown. Memuna has plump cheeks, short fuzzy hair, and large, lively black eyes. She wears a clean, frilly, sleeveless white dress that contrasts sharply, and quite beautifully, with her deep-black skin; her left ear sports a shiny little earring. Memuna clutches a large piece of soft bread in her tiny left hand with its tiny, perfect fingernails. Her right arm has been hacked off just above the elbow by her compatriots in the so-called Revolutionary United Front (RUF). What should have been her plump, smooth arm is now a short, shocking stump. Memuna's expression is not entirely easy to discern (...) I have looked at Memuna's photograph many times, thought about it, described it to friends, and now I'm writing about it; but I'm not at all sure how to do these things, much less how to do them right. My thoughts and feelings about this photograph have changed in various ways over time, but the more that happens, the more an underlying desolation - my helplessness before Memuna - becomes ever harder to escape."

That, to me, is how photographs ought to be described for I'm interested in what the photograph is doing to the observer, I want to learn what (s)he sees, thinks, and feels when in the process of looking.

In the second chapter ("photojournalism and human rights") I came across another eye-opener (there are many more in this tome and I won't of course mention them all): "Officials in Stalin's prisons, and Pol Pot's too, photographed some of their prisoners before they were executed; in both instances, meticulous records were kept. These photographs are among the most important, and worst, documents of the twentieth century. And while these prison pictures are not, obviously, examples of typical photojournalism, they reveal the great strengths and weaknesses of photographs of suffering. They were taken by perpetrators, yet they speak for the victims and are on the side of the victims. They sabotage their own intent; they are scalding self-accusations; they twist in upon themselves. But they also epitomize, in especially cruel ways, the inability of photographs to save the people they depict."

Part two ("places") deals with Holocaust photographs ("Primo Levi got it right far more than Susan Sontag. It is not that the dead have nothing to tell us, show us, teach us; it is that we have trouble listening, seeing, learning."), the visual documentation of China's Cultural Revolution, the photographic record of the eleven-year civil war in Sierra Leone, and with "Abu Ghraib and the Jihad". Errol Morris has argued that "... all alone ... shorn of context, without captions - a photograph is neither true nor false ...". I must admit that I used to believe just that but Linfield taught me otherwise: "Yet the Abu Ghraib prove just the opposite", she writes for "as Gourevitch admits, 'Without the photographs there would have been no scandal.' And this is because people know - even after forty years of postmodern theory and two decades of Photoshop - that photographs record something that happened." And that, of course, tells us also something about the relevance of postmodern theory.

Part three ("people") portrays Robert Capa, James Nachtwey, and Gilles Peress, who, Linfield claims, could understand "that a photograph is objective and subjective, found and made, dead and alive, withholding and revealing." Indeed. And this is precisely why photography interests me: it teaches me not only to look at the world with different eyes, it teaches me something about life.

This book is far more than an eloquent and convincing tome on photography and political violence (yes, of course, it is that too) for Susie Linfield not only gives us an informed view on what she sees, she also tells us what she felt when looking at photographs. In so doing she lets us take part in her personal process of seeing. And this, in essence, is an invitation to share her experience. In texts on photography, that is not only rare, that is pretty unique, I'd say. And what's more: it is helpful.

Susie Linfield
The Cruel Radiance
Photography and Political Violence
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 2010

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


Können uns Bilder von Kriegsopfern eigentlich überhaupt noch rühren? Oder hat uns die Bilderflut mittlerweile immun gemacht gegen Fotoaufnahmen vom Leiden anderer? Wer sich Zeit nimmt, sich mit Fotos auseinanderzusetzen (sie immer mal wieder, und in verschiedenen Stimmungen, anguckt, sie an sich heranlässt, sich über sie Gedanken macht), weiss, dass es auch in Zeiten, in denen wir mit Bildern zugeschüttet werden, immer wieder Aufnahmen gibt, die uns erreichen, sowohl aesthetisch als auch emotional.

Fotos betrachten ist eine persönliche Sache. Was man in Fotos sieht und in sie hineinliest, hängt unter anderem davon ab, wie und wo man erzogen wurde, und in welcher Zeit man aufgewachsen ist. Anders gesagt: wer zur Zeit des Vietnamkrieges gross geworden ist, wird vermutlich Till Mayers eindrückliche Aufnahmen von Truong Thi Thuy (sie brachte vier Kinder mit Missbildungen durch Agent Orange zur Welt) und ihrer Familie mit anderen Augen ansehen als jemand, der noch nie davon gehört hat, dass amerikanische Bomber jahrelang Gift über die Dörfer versprühten, so dass auch heute noch junge Frauen Angst haben, missgebildete Kinder auf die Welt zu bringen (Am Rande: Mayer schreibt, ganz als ob an die Beweisführungsideologie der Juristen glaubt, dass es sich bei Truong Thi Thuys Kindern um "mutmassliche"{!?!?}Agent Orange-Opfer handle.). Den Fotos ist eine einfühlsame Geschichte beigegeben, doch leider fehlt, was fast allen Fotobüchern fehlt: Informationen darüber, wie die Bilder entstanden sind.

"abseits der Schlachtfelder" dokumentiert Schicksale aus elf Ländern. Neben Vietnam sind es Äthiopien, Deutschland, der Irak, Japan, Kambodscha, Myanmar, die palästinensischen Autonomiegebiete, Sierra Leone, die Ukraine sowie die USA.

Die USA? Deutschland? Japan? Ja, die USA, denn da gibt es zum Beispiel den Vietnam-Veteranen Barry Romo, in dessen Kopf der Krieg bis heute nicht zu Ende gegangen ist. Und ja, Deutschland, wo etwa der durch den Zweiten Weltkrieg zum Kriegswaisen gewordene Andreas Kerner lebt, dessen Vater in Kriegsgefangenschaft starb. "Der Verlust schmerzt ihn noch heute", erfahren wir und die Bilder bestätigen dies. Und ja, Japan, wo bis heute Überlebende der Atombombe an Krebs sterben. Auch Sadae Kasoaka hat so ihre Eltern verloren.

Es gehört zu den Eigenarten von Fotobüchern, die sich der Darstellung der Realität verschrieben haben, diese in schwarz/weiss darzustellen, obwohl doch so recht eigentlich die Wirklichkeit farbig ist. "Abseits der Schlachtfelder" macht hier keine Ausnahme. Leider? Schwer zu sagen, es hat sich eben so eingebürgert, man hat sich daran gewöhnt ... und ist nicht immer glücklich damit.

Es spricht sehr für dieses Buch, dass es uns die sogenannten "Kollateralschäden" der Kriege vor Augen führt. Es spricht weiter für diesen schmalen Band, dass er mit einem guten gestalterischen Auge, mit Gespür und Intelligenz hergestellt worden ist. Dazu kommt, dass die Auseinandersetzung mit diesen Bildern und Geschichten nicht nur lohnt, sondern geradezu geboten ist.

Till Mayer
Abseits der Schlachtfelder
Erich Weiss Verlag, Bamberg 2010

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Eadweard Muybridge

While studying for a postgraduate degree at the School for Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies in Cardiff, I attended a modul called "Unterstanding Pictures" by Daniel Meadows, a lecturer, who despite many years of teaching, hadn't lost his infectious enthusiasm: he got me hooked on photography. One of the photographers Daniel was talking about was Eadweard Muybridge, born 1830 in Kingston-upon-Thames, who, in 1855, moved to the American West Coast. With the influential Californian Leland Stanford (1824-1893), Muybridge shared a passion for horses. As editor Hans Christian Adam in his wonderfully eloquent introduction ('Muybridge and Motion Photography') penned:
"At the time, there was a vehement debate among racing aficionados as to whether, at some point, all four hooves of a galloping horse are off the ground. Many painters had depicted this, but the human eye is incapable of actually seeing the moment. Artists had taken up the subject and in some cases indulged in boundless exaggeration. 'The accepted method of drawing a galloping horse in those days (...) was to straighten out the legs fore and aft to the utmost limit, the result being that before the horse could recover his stride he would fall flat to the ground.'"

In June 1872, Stanford hired Muybridge "to take instantaneous photographs at a racecourse in Sacramento of the famous racehorse Occident, the fastest trotter in the world, and to establish whether the supposed simultaneous lifting of all four hooves off the ground did actually take place. The event was to be documented by the camera, because it was believed in the 19th century that the camera cannot lie and that a photograph, by virtue of its advanced technology, had validity as evidence. Muybridge was able to prove, after numerous attempts, by a series of photographed sequences, probably in 1872 but certainly at the latest in April 1873, that a galloping horse does indeed for an instant lift all four hooves simultaneously and lose contact with the ground."

Muybridge was not only a rather eccentric character but also a murderer. Soon after the trial that acquitted him - that he killed the lover of his wife was seen by a Californian jury as a pardonable act - he took off for a photo expedition to Panama and Guatemala. Later on he continued the motion studies in Palo Alto.

"The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs", a heavy tome (almost 4 kilos) of 804 pages, shows 781 plates of human and animal movements - walking, trotting, running etc. - is a most impressive work that includes not only a chronology of the life and work of Eadweard Muybridge but also the criticism of the folio collection.

By the way, when looking at these photographs, I've started to understand - in quite unprecedented ways - that photographs do indeed allow us to see time, if we take the time needed to contemplate what photos show us, that is.

Hans Christian Adam (Ed.)
Eadweard Muybridge
The Human and Animal Locomotion Photographs
Taschen, Cologne 2010

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Zurich, 31.12.2010

Copyright @ Blazenka Kostolna

Sunday, 9 January 2011

On Commonalities

Despite the — sometimes seemingly profound — differences between cultures and values, there is no such thing as an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche, as much as there is no European society, no American mind, no Western psyche. The same opinions, the same love for certain books or for certain music, can be found all over the world. Moreover, there appears to be a common consciousness existing alongside, or underneath, the cultural values, as Sri Ramakrishna taught,

"which is our own ground and so in consciousness we are one; insofar as you identify yourself with the consciousness that moves and lives in your body, you've identified with what you share with me. And on the other hand, if you fix on yourself, and your tradition, and believe you've got it, then you're removed yourself from the rest of mankind (Campbell, 1990: 64)."

Moreover, the author Arthur Koestler, in the words of Holbrook (1981: 92), observed that,

"our religious and scientific modes of knowing are often indistinguishable, and support each other. To put it more strongly, objectively viewed these two traditions [Greek versus Chinese] pretend to respectively specialize in spirituality-mysticism and rationality-science but, actually, neither does either well enough, and, as indicated above, the two are basically identical. They differ chiefly in their practical relations to the human society over which they divide their influences and which they divide."

Joseph Campbell, who researched mythology in various cultures, "deems the meaning of all hero myths not just similar but identical: 'As we are told in the Vedas: 'Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names'.'" (Segal, 1990: 33).

Could it then be that there exists a deep layer of the unconscious that Jung called the collective unconscious, a term that is used "in recognition of the fact that there is a common humanity built into our nervous system out of which our imagination works" (Campbell, 1990: 122)? Very likely for how would one otherwise explain that the same mythological motifs seem to appear everywhere?

For the full text go here

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

White People & Black Money

The Great Socialist himself is said to have embezzled one billion rupees from the Darkness, and transferred that money into a bank account in a small, beautiful country in Europe full of white people and black money.

Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger