Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Swiss Sun

The sun is coming up, we say. But is it?
As always, it depends.
From my window - I live in Eastern Switzerland - I can see how it starts to lighten the top of a nearby mountain, then the sunlight slowly spreads downwards until the whole mountain and the low lying plain bask in it.
In other words, where I am the sun is not coming up, it is coming down.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Katja Snozzi

Copyright @ Katja Snozzi

Das Bild entstand während einer buddhistischen Gebetsstunde; es zeigt ein Mädchen aus Thailand, das in einem SOS-Kinderdorf lebt.

Die Fotografin Katja Snozzi hat über 30 Jahre lang die Welt bereist. Vor kurzem hat sie dem Tages-Anzeiger dazu ein Interview gegeben. Auf die Frage, wie es damals als Frau war, meinte sie: „Problemlos! Bei den männlichen Kollegen war ich immer voll akzeptiert und hatte auch in heikleren Ländern nie Probleme. Man muss einfach offen auf die Menschen zugehen.“
Das ganze Interview findet sich hier

Katja Snozzis Aussstellung
ist im Palazzo Casorella in Locarno zu sehen.
Sie dauert vom 29. Juli bis zum 21. August.
Öffnungszeiten: 10–12 Uhr / 14–17 Uhr.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Sibylle Bergemann

© Sybille Bergemann/ostkreuz
Hatje Cantz Verlag

I must admit that I do have quite some reservations when it comes to polaroids by professional photographers for, in my view, polaroids are almost by definition the kind of pics everybody's equally good or bad at. Photography's mechanical nature is never more apparent than in polaroids and it is difficult if not impossible to see a difference between a mediocre polaroid by Walker Evans or by some amateur photographer.

This said, let me hasten to state that I do find Sibylle Bergemann's polaroids extraordinary. They seem like paintings to me, I do not tire to look at them – they radiate a poetic quality. Also, I believe it is the first time that I look at polaroids not as ordinary and rather unremarkable snapshots but as carefully crafted compositions. There might be many reasons for this but one of them surely is Sibylle Bergemann's "good eye".

The topics vary – portraits, a pair a high heels, a door, a table, sun umbrellas at a beach etc. etc.; two of the shots are in black and white. Many of the scenes seem to be from movies, others show portraits of costumed handicapped actors and again others, well, actually, it is not so terribly relevant what Sibylle Bergemann shows us but how she does it. So how does she do it then? No idea, really, but I can tell you what her polaroids do to me – they make me feel what I see.

© Sybille Bergemann/ostkreuz
Hatje Cantz Verlag

What the Polaroid offers is „the blending of layers, the lack of defined borders, the bluriness“, as Jutta Voigt in her informative and beautifully crafted introduction states. And this is precisely what Sibylle Bergemann appears to have been fond of. „When I take one hundred pictures on a topic, for which the blurry image conveys the greatest truth, then I simply offer the blurry photograph“, she once said in an interview.

Most photo books come with texts that have nothing to do with the pictures shown. Jutta Voigt's text (in English as well as in German) is one of the rare exceptions. This is how it begins:
„The moment was not enough for her, it had to be eternity. Or at least a wink of eternity. Bergemann's images are here to remain. Even the Polaroids, which are said to fade the moment the light of the world touches them. The photograph of the nightly streetcar in Lisbon. Muted colors emanating intensity. The red upholstery is reflected on a street wet with rain in a foreign city, a solitary man sits alone in a rail car – it has the look of a film scene or perhaps the photographer's memory of the subway between Pankow and Thälmannplatz during the time of the Berlin Wall – there the upholstery was also red leather, and the handrails made of brass; in remembrance, yesterday comes into contact with today. Susan Sontag described photographs as 'transmuting, in an instant, present into past.'“

This book is a gem: intriguing pictures accompanied by convincing writing.

Sibylle Bergemann
Die Polaroids / The Polaroids
Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern 2011

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Eva Gabrielsson & Stieg Larsson

Writers do not lead interesting lives, they sit at home and write. Moreover, what they want to say they usually say in their books. So why then would I bother to read a book about the life of Stieg Larsson, the author of the fabulously successful Millenium Trilogy, by his partner, Eva Gabrielsson? Because of these words Larsson once said to her: ''To exact revenge for yourself or your friends is not only a right, it's an absolute duty.'' I was curious to learn what made him think like that.

I loved The Millenium Trilogy, it transported me into a world that I felt was as real as imagination can be. And, I especially loved Lisbeth Salander and her ways of exacting revenge. Why is that? In our present climate of understanding (psychologists and social workes have to make a living) revenge has acquired a very bad name, it has become largely a dirty word. Often for good reasons, just think of honour killings and the like. What however has been overlooked is that revenge (as moral justice) is sometimes necessary – and this is what The Millenium Trilogy, in my reading, is largely about.

Gabrielsson, who later became an architect, and Larsson met at a meeting in support of the Front National de Libération in Vietnam in Umea; at that time they led the life of political activists, they wanted to change the world. Larsson failed the entrance exam for a journalism school yet eventually obtained his baccalaureate degree and earned a living doing odd jobs before joining TT, a big Swedish news agency, where he became an expert on right-wing Swedish extremism. He worked twenty years for TT but was never given a regular journalist's job because his bosses thought that „Stieg Larsson cannot write“.

For Larsson, according to Gabrielsson, writing The Millenium Trilogy was like therapy. ''He was describing Sweden the way it was and the way he saw the country: the scandals, the oppression of women, the friends he cherished and wished to honor.'' We also learn that some of the characters had been modeled after real people although not necessarily after the ones who believed they recognised themselves. I thought it especially interesting that Lisbeth Salander might take after Pippi Longstocking for „the main thing about Pippi is that she has her own ideas about right and wrong – and she lives by them, no matter what the law or adults say.“

Larsson died before The Millenium Trilogy was published, it so far sold more than 50 million books. Since Sweden has no automatic right of inheritance provision for common-law spouses, we get to hear quite a bit about the battle over the inheritence between Gabrielsson on the one side, and Larsson's father and brother on the other. We however also get informed about things that we might deem not terribly relevant in regards to the trilogy yet that I thought absolutely fascinating - the fact, for instance, that the Stockholm archipelago comprises 24,000 islands.

In sum: A good read for aficionados of The Millenium Trilogy.

Eva Gabrielsson with Marie-Françoise Colombani
„There Are Things I Want You to Know“ About Stieg Larson And Me
Seven Stories Press, New York 2011

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Intercultural Interactions

The only certainty, when interacting across cultures, is that there will be misunderstandings. Therefore, learning about the host country as much as possible seems crucially important. That however does not seem to be enough for, as Cushner and Brislin (in: Intercultural Interactions: a practical guide, 1996: 21) state, “there seems to be little correlation between the mere accumulation of information and people’s subsequent ability to function effectively in another context”, which is why it is even more important to understand oneself – one’s abilities, limits, weak and strong points; moreover, openness and willingness to learn (that includes the willingness to be changed) are required – for the Socratic-maxim ‘Know Thyself’ seems key to successful intercultural interactions. Yet in order to get to know oneself, one often needs to leave home and embark on foreign shores – that may seem like a circle, but a vicious one it is not: quite the contrary.

Hans Durrer
Ways of Perception. On Visual and Intercultural Communication
White Lotus Press, Bangkok, 2006
ISBN 974-4800-92-5

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

50 Photo Icons

Copyright @ Taschen

Bilder erzählen keine Geschichten, wir brauchen Bildlegenden, also Worte, die uns erklären, was wir sehen, weil wir sonst nur sehen, was wir schon wissen. Wir können nämlich nur er-kennen, was wir kennen, wie das Goethe einmal gesagt haben soll.

Entscheidend beim Bilder-Lesen ist also die Information zum Bild, denn diese, und nicht etwa das Bild, bestimmt unser Sehen. Hans-Michael Koetzle nennt es „die Geschichte hinter den Bildern“ und das ist nicht nur unglücklich gewählt, sondern falsch und müsste richtiger heissen: Die Geschichten hinter dem Bild (oder den Bildern), denn es gibt davon immer mehrere, und zwar zu jedem Bild.

Dennoch: Schön, dass es dieses Buch gibt, denn Foto-Bücher, denen erklärende, den Kontext herstellende Texte beigegeben sind, gibt es erstaunlich wenige. Obwohl, die meisten Bilder und Texte in diesem Band sind bereits erschienen, ebenfalls bei Taschen (im Jahre 2002 steht in meinem Photo Icons Band 2 zu lesen). Ich erwähne dies deshalb, weil man sich gewünscht hätte, die bereits publizierten Texte wären à jour geführt worden. Ich denke da etwa an den Text über Robert Capas spanischen Loyalisten. Ich verweise hierzu auf die vor einigen Jahren bekannt gewordenen Aussagen der Fotografin Hansel Mieth, einer Freundin Capas, von denen man hier gar nichts liest. Näheres dazu findet man in meinem Buch Inszenierte Wahrheiten

Copyright @ Taschen

Aufschlussreich ist auch, was Koetzle zu Thomas Hoepkers „Blick von Williamsburg, Brooklyn, auf Manhattan, am 11. September 2001“ zusammengetragen hat: er erzählt uns von den Umständen des Zustandekommens dieses Bildes. Das ist verdienstvoll, doch leider erfahren wir von der sehr kontrovers geführten Diskussion über das Bild so ziemlich gar nichts. So schrieb zum Beispiel Walter Sipser, der rechts aussen auf dem Bild („eine Gruppe ausgelassener Jugendlicher“, nimmt Koetzle da wahr) zu sehen ist: „Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw ...“

Copyright @ Taschen

So sehr ich die vielfältigen Informationen zu den Bildern, die der Autor liefert, schätze, je länger ich mich mit dem Buch beschäftigte, desto skeptischer wurde ich. Mit einigen der Bilder hatte ich mich nämlich bereits selber (und eingehend) beschäftigt – und fand dann Koetzles Akzentsetzung nicht immer überzeugend. Auch begann ich mich zu fragen, ob die Auswahl (Sandy Skoglund? Bettina Rheims?) wirklich geglückt war. Doch so recht eigentlich sind das Details. Entscheidend sind nämlich möglichst vielfältige Informationen zu den Bildern – und die liefert der Autor.

Im Vorwort weist Koetzle auch auf John Szarkowskis „Looking at Photographs“ hin, doch eigentlich nur, um zu sagen, der vorliegende Band gehe über dessen feuilletonistischen Ansatz hinaus. Nun ja, die beiden Bände haben dermassen wenig miteinander zu tun (wenn man's recht bedenkt: überhaupt nichts), dass diese Aussage einigermassen erstaunt.
Copyright @ Taschen

Summa summarum: Trotz der Einwände überzeugt dieses Buch nicht zuletzt, weil sowohl Porträts, Landschaften, Akte und Momentaufnahmen berücksichtigt worden sind. Sich damit zu beschäftigen, lohnt, wenn wir uns immer vor Augen halten, dass die Kontexte, die Hans-Michael Koetzle hier beschreibt, obzwar breit recherchiert, gleichwohl nur eine mögliche Variante der Geschichte hinter dem Bild darstellen, denn Kontext, und dies kann nicht genug betont werden, ist auch immer konstruiert. Doch eben selten so um Fakten bemüht, informativ und anregend wie in diesem schön gemachten Band.

Hans-Michael Koetzle
50 Photo Icons
Die Geschichte hinter den Bildern
Taschen, Köln 2011

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Secret Language

„Language is a means of communication, but a good deal of language use is deliberately obscure if not actually encrypted in some form of cipher or code. This book explores the reasons for obscurity and secrecy, and touches on some of the fascinating beliefs that underlie the contraints of using language freely“ promises the author of „Secret Language“, Barry J. Blake, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at La Trobe University. So, does he live up to his promise? He does, he does, with lots of fascinating examples yet it nevertheless strikes one as a bit ironic that a secret language (the one employed by linguists) is introduced to elaborate on secret language.

Do you know what an anagram is? It is „a word made up of the letters of another word, so that reside is an anagram of desire and vice versa“ Blake lets us know. I especially warm to astronomers that anagrams to moon starers and to Meg, the arch tartar and that great charmer that both anagram to Margaret Thatcher. And then there are palindromes (words that read the same in either direction – madam, peep etc.), semordnilaps, acronyms, acrostics etc. etc. – linguistics is a secret language indeed. In fact, every discipline (law, medicine etc.) invents its own language – not because it is necessary (as the usual claim goes) but to protect itself.

Blake's „Secret Language“ is about word games, ambiguity and solving riddles, ciphers and codes used by governments, hidden meanings in the Bible, words to avoid, texts of power etc. etc.

Ever wondered what „scuba“ stands for? It is derived from „self-contained underwater breathing apparatus“. Did you know that in Chinese culture the number 4 is considered unlucky? In Mandarin, depending on the pronounciation, it can mean four or death. Ever heard of the Jewish practice to change the name of a dangerously ill person? Or, that „in many parts of the world there are strict rules governing conduct towards in-laws“? Or, ever asked yourself what language was used by God, Adam, Eve, and the serpent?

One of my favourite sections is „Oxymora and Other Contradictions“. Since it is brief, let me quote it in its entirety:

„The oxymoron is a traditional rhetorical device in which the modifier in a construction appears to contradict the modified, and the listener or reader has to try and resolve the anomaly. In a typical example an adjective appears to contradict a noun, as in democratic tyrant. English contains a number of lexicalized examples such as bitter sweet, deafening silence, hasten slowly, and perhaps timeless moment, which has some currency in the media. There is an unwitting irony in some phrases used in advertising and the media such as essential luxury and instant classic, but most oxymora are deliberate attempts at irony. Sometimes the irony is only apparent when a phrase is listed with other oxymora. For instance, there does not usually seem to be anything incongruous about the term political science, but when it is given in a list of oxymora, one can see a certain irony. Other examples often presented in an ironic sense include business ethics, honest politician, and government efficiency.

Great, isn't it?

Barry J. Blake
Secret Language
Codes, Tricks, Spies, Thieves, and Symbols
Oxford University Press, Oxford 2011

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Das Kloster Disentis

Das ist doch Bruder Lukas, schiesst es mir beim Betrachten dieses hervorragend gelungenen Umschlagfotos durch den Kopf. Das kann unmöglich sein, korrigiere ich mich sofort, denn so wie auf dem Foto sah der damals, vor gut fünfundvierzig Jahren aus, als ich selber in Disentis Klosterschüler war. Doch er ist es.

Ich habe gemischte Erinnerungen an meine drei Disentiser Jahre, die nicht so guten überwiegen: ich litt unter Heimweh, fand die Berge und das Kloster bedrückend. Mein heutiger Blick auf das Klostergebäude (durch die Linse des Fotografen Giorgio von Arb) ist hingegen durchaus wohlwollend und die eindrücklichen Aufnahmen von Arbs lassen mich eine Spiritualität erahnen, mit der ich das Disentiser Klosterleben bisher nicht in Verbindung gebracht habe. Das spricht sehr für diese Bilder, ja ein grösseres Lob kann ich ihnen kaum machen, denn sie bringen es fertig (sicher, auch weil ich dazu bereit bin) die noch aktuellen Disentis-Bilder in meinem Kopf (in einem Fernsehbeitrag: der Abt beim Gleitschirmfliegen) in den Hintergrund zu drängen und mir das „ora et labora“ der Benediktiner vor Augen zu führen.

Einige der Klosterbewohner werden auch in Worten vorgestellt. Die gut geschriebenen Texte stammen von Erwin Koch und machen auch sprachlich klar, wie unterschiedlich die einzelnen Bewohner sind. Von Bruder Urs Probst, 57, dem Finanzverwalter, Pförtner und Sekretär des Abts, erfahren wir, dass er den Wunsch hat, einmal Lokführer zu sein. Und dass ihm „das ewig Gleiche“ (das Gebet um 5 Uhr 30, 7 Uhr 30, 11 Uhr 45, 18 Uhr, 20 Uhr) Halt gebe und Flügel verleihe. Abt Daniel Schönbächler, 68, Lehrer und Persönlichkeitsentwickler, lässt unter anderem wissen, dass der Benediktiner sein Gelübde nicht auf den Orden, sondern auf sein Kloster ablegt: „Einmal Disentiser, immer Disentiser.“ Ganz zum Wohlgefallen von Bruder Gerhard Alig, 41, Bäcker, Konventbruder und Zeremoniar, der meint: „Hier bin ich, hier bleibe ich. Das ist das Schöne am Benediktinischen. Zeit seines Lebens bleibt man Mönch seines Klosters, hüpft nicht durch die Gegend wie die Kapuziner.“

An einige der Porträtierten erinnere ich mich, die meisten sind mir jedoch fremd. Diejenigen, an die ich mich erinnere, zeigen mir Fotograf und Autor anders, als ich sie bisher wahrgenommen habe: älter und hinfälliger natürlich, aber auch humorvoller, gelassener, ja ergebener. Indem meine Augen ihr Älterwerden registrieren, werde ich mir auch meines eigenen bewusst.

Doch nicht nur Mönche und Brüder werden porträtiert. Es finden sich in diesem eindrücklichen Werk auch Aufnahmen vom Internatsleben (gemischte Klassen, die Schule wird von einer Rektorin geleitet– das war zu meiner Zeit noch anders), einer Bauplatzbegehung, vom Hochfest, von Prozessionen etc. etc. und ein ganz wunderbarer Schnappschuss (mit der etwas eigenartigen Legende: Dorfkinder im Altarraum), der zwei Erstkommunikantinnen zeigt, die eine gähnend, die andere sich womöglich fragend, was es da zu fotografieren gibt.

Es ist dies ein in vielfältigem Sinne wesentliches Buch. Weil es einem bewusst macht, dass wirkliche Freiheit in der Beschränkung zu finden ist; weil es uns die Vergänglichkeit vor Augen führt, weil es uns darauf aufmerksam macht, dass das Klosterleben keineswegs fad und farblos ist. „Im Kloster ist jeder Tag anders – obwohl im Kloster jeder Tag gleich ist“, sagt Bruder Magnus Bosshard, 69, ein ehemaliger Werber. Diese Wahrheit glaubt man beim Betrachten dieses schönen Bandes zu spüren.

Ein Buch über die Welt
Das Kloster Disentis
Fotografie Giorgio von Arb
Text Erwin Koch
Benteli, Bern-Sulgen-Zürich 2010

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Catherine Opie

It was the cover photo that triggered my interest in this book. After having gone through it several times, it is still this cover photograph to which I'm returning again and again.

It was taken, I learn, on 20 January 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn in as the forty-fourth president of the United States. 1,5 million Americans had come to Washington DC to witness the event. The woman on the photo – it took me some time to realise that there are also other people to see – must have been one of them. We are not told who she is.

Concentrating on the other people on this pic (that continues on the back cover and is also shown inside the book) let me wonder what my eyes were showing me: two of them were dressed as if expecting rain, one has his/her mouth and nose covered with a cloth. The text accompanying the image (in fact, all the images of the inauguration) said that „people stood for hours in twenty-degree weather, waiting for the ceremony to begin. Festooned with images of Obama, people openly shared their excitement with tears and embraces.“ While this has probably been that way, the pictures displayed here do not show it. To me, these people looked rather tense and apprehensive.

„I think that's another thing I'm trying to say in the work: we are a collective force. We have real moments of political difference – I'm not trying for some completely utopian 'can't we all just get along' moment – but I'm interested in the possibility of this energy, and how we might be able to hone that energy in a different way“ Catherine Opie is quoted on the back cover. Does she succeed in visualising this idea? Well, she shows different collective forces (from the Tea Party Movement to the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival) that are united by a common cause/interest – I do not think that this translates her idea into convincing images.

The book is published in conjunction with the exhibition „Catherine Opie: Empty and Full“ at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (15 April – 5 September 2011) and accompanied by a foreword by Jill Medvedow and features a discussion between the artist and the ICA/Boston Chief Curator Helen Molesworth.

„When I tell people that I'm working on a show with Cathy Opie, almost everyone responds: 'Oh, she's tough,' or 'Those are hard pictures'. True enough. She certainly has made a series of now iconic images that document her involvement in an SM leather scene“. This is how Helen Molesworth begins her introduction and I automatically thought this is a mistake, this is a text for a different book. Yet I was wrong, it is isn't – for Opie's Self Portrait/Pervert („a picture of her sitting with a leather hood over her face, the word pervert cut into her chest in a florid script, and dozens of needles inserted at regular intervals up her arms“, as Molesworth describes it) can also be found in this tome as well as pictures of sunrises and sunsets taken aboard a Korean container ship.

I spent quite some time with these sunrises (that are placed at the beginning of the book) and sunsets (that can be found at the end). My first reaction was: now, these are really nothing special at all. Yet the longer I contemplated them, the more I realised that they did not show me how the sea on this journey from Busan in Korea to Long Beach in California looked like but how Opie made it look like. As Anna Stothart, Curatorial Assistant at ICA/Boston penned: „Opie placed her camera on a tripod and aimed it in the direction of the sun. As the ship tilted to the right and then to the left, she would wait for the horizon line to enter her viewfinder, and when the boat was level, she would click the shutter.“ This information made my perception of these seemingly unremarkable shots change: I began to include my idea of the before and after the shots and thus imagined the process of how they were taken – and then came to see very special moments.

Catherine Opie: Empty and Full

Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern 2011