Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Steve McCurry: Afghanistan

Many of the pictures in this tome I remember having admired during an exhibition at the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich in 2015. As always when looking at Steve McCurry's photographs I marveled at the incredibly intense colours that made the pictures look fantastic and somewhat unreal, fairy-tale like.

Afghanistan is a large format tome (hardcover, 26,7 x 37 cm, 256 pages) – Cologne-based publisher Taschen understands better than most of its competitors that photo books are much more impressive when they come in large format – and that presents stunning portraits, awe-inspiring landscapes, moving scenes as well as compositions that are testimony to the photographer's extraordinary eye.
Bamiyan, 2006 @ Steve McCurry

It goes without saying that what we see in photographs largely depends on what we bring to them. So what do I associate with Afghanistan? What immediately comes to mind is what I've recently heard on TV – that the country is known as the graveyard of empires for many of the world's powers have tried and failed to conquer Afghanistan. Apart from the power struggles, I think of grandiose landscapes and a harsh climate. What I also bring to these images is a willingness to be visually introduced to an unknown world.

What above all strikes me when spending time with Steve McCurry's Afghanistan is the sensation that this is a very old culture – you can see that especially in the eyes and the postures of the people portrayed. They radiate something that goes beyond their immediate presence, they seem to represent not only ancient history but something eternal.

Apart from places of worship, hardly any buildings appear intact. This is certainly due to the ongoing wars that, to the outsider, seem a permanent feature of this country but one also wonders whether Afghans – as the Indian intellectual U.R. Ananthamurty once remarked about Indian writers – are living  "simultaneously in the 12th and 21st centuries, and in every century in between." Steve McCurry's photographs, that often resemble paintings, reinforce this impression.
Kabul, 2003 @ Steve McCurry

In his highly informative afterword William Dalrymple points to the great diversity of racial types. "The genes of one hundred different races meet here and intermingle." And he adds: "As bewitchingly rugged as the Afghans themselves is the formidable landscape that produced them."

Eighty percent are illiterate, I learn. "Yet they are a proud people, eyes levelled straight, in contempt as much as in curiosity: These are the faces, both male and female, that peer so defiantely from Steve McCurry's magnificent Afghan portraits."

Since Steve McCurry has been coming to Afghanistan for over thirty years, he also has had ample opportunity to record the tragedy of Afghanistan's modern wars and this collection isn't short of the ubiquitous violence of the country.

William Dalrymple's text  perfectly complements Steve McCurry's "utterly original" shots. On the one hand because it refers to the photographs in this book (and this is amazingly rare in photo books), on the other hand because the writer shares his own relationship with Afghanistan – especially the story of his latest arrival at Herat airport is wonderfully telling.
Mazar-e Sharif, 1991 @ Steve McCurry

Afghanistan is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary country.

Steve McCurry
English, German, French
Taschen, Cologne 2017

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Human Cost of Agrotoxins

This tome documents the catastrophic consequences of inconsiderate use of agrotoxins by Monsanto in the Northeast of Argentina over twenty years, mainly congenital malformations. But there are also other kinds of sufferings that are not readily visible: miscarriages and cancer, as photojournalist Pablo E. Piovano, born 1981, states.

Unsurprisingly, most media rarely write about it. "Silence was what made most noise. So I decided to go out and document on my own to know what was happening to the health of the people living in the fumigated villages", writes Pablo E. Piovano.

In other words: "The Human Cost of Agrotoxins" is classic documentary and this means: to go out into the world, confront yourself with what is out there   and then tell us about it. 

For the full review, please see

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Foreign Correspondents: The Art of Guessing

When they arrived in Phnom Penh they discovered that there had been a revolution in Thailand. As Times correspondent, Robert was desperate. He read the French newspapers in Phnom Penh, translated the article on the revolution, rewrote it and cabled it to London. As the story was going out he remebered that the French correspondent in Bangkok was a friend of ours and totally unreliable –given to wild exaggeration and catastrophic conclusions.
"Did you cancel the cable?" I asked fearfully.
"No," said Robert, "but I added a shaky postscript: PLEASE CHECK."

Thus do the headlines in Southeast Asia originate. Formerly I had a touching faith in the veracity of our better newspapers, now I read everything from that dim area with tongue in cheek. The respectable format of the London and New York Times impresses me no longer. Behind the authoritative columns I have my memories of the wild and bewildered correspondents in the mad countries in which no Westerner knows or understands what is really happening. Robert spoke fluent Thai and knows more about Thailand than anyone I ever met out there, but in times of stress the Thai were not given to conversation and most of Robert's stories were educated guesses.

Carol Hollinger
Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Edward Weston 1886-1958


This beautifully done book of photography by Edward Weston was edited by Manfred Heiting and comes with an essay by Terence Pitts and with a (very brief, comprising merely half a page) portrait by Ansel Adams who wrote among other things: "Edward suffers no sense of personal insecurity in his work; he required no support through 'explanations,' justifications or interpretations ... I would prefer to join Edward in avoiding verbal or written definitions of creative work. Who can talk or write about the Bach Partitas? You just play them or listen to them." And this is exactly what I did after having read that.
Edward Weston with Seneca View Camera 
Copyright: Collection Center of Creative Photography 
© 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of RegentsPhoto: Tina Modotti, 1924

Edward Weston was the son of a doctor, his mother died when he was five, his formal education ended before high school. "I cannot believe I learned anything of value in school, unless it be the will to rebel," he later wrote according to Terence Pitts who writes about the life and art of the photographer in an interesting text entitled "Uncompromising Passion".

Before spending time with this book, I was only familiar with Weston's Nudes and his relationship with Tina Modotti, an Italian immigrant to the United States who had acted in several silent movies in Hollywood and who would eventually become a photographer herself. Their time in Mexico had quite an impact on Weston. "In his daybooks he described street life in Mexico as 'sharp clashes of contrasting extremes ... vital, intense, black and white, never gray'. By contrast, Glendale, California, now seemed 'drab, spiritless, a uniform gray – peopled by exploiters who have raped a fair land."

Eggs and Slicer, 1930
Copyright: Collection Center of Creative Photography 
© 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents

Edward Weston believed that photography must take a different avenue than the other arts. "The camera should be used for recording a life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh." And so he also photographed shells and sliced vegetables. "Weston made many of the photographs that are now recognized as among the most important: photographs of a gleaming white chambered nautilus shell set in a dark, ambiguous space; pairs of shells tucked into each other; and sensous bell peppers."

Many of his photographs are razor-sharp, and quite some taken from up close. His credo from later years can be felt or so it seems. "I am no longer trying to 'express myself,' to impose my own personality on nature, but without prejudice, without falsification, to become identified with nature, to see or know things as they are, their very essence, so that what I record is not an interpretation   my idea of what nature should be   but a revelation, a piercing of the smoke screen ..."

Nude, 1936 Copyright: Collection Center of Creative Photography
 © 1981 Center for Creative Photography, Arizona Board of Regents
My favourite pics in this tome show dunes, landscapes and the ones that present views of the Armco Steel mill in Ohio. Weston felt that the artist had to respond to "the architecture of the age, good or bad  showing it in new and fascinating ways", as he had written in his daybooks. Stieglitz, whom he showed his portfolio of prints, was not enchanted. "Instead of destroying or disillusioning me he has given me more confidence and sureness    and finer aesthetic understanding of my medium", Weston wrote to his friend Johan Hagemeyer." In other words, his ego seemed to match the one of Stieglitz.

Edward Weston
Essay by Terence Pitts
With a Portrait by Ansel Adams
Edited by Manfred Heiting
Taschen, Cologne 2017

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Best of LensCulture

“How to discover the best practitioners worldwide amidst our image-filled cultures of the 21st century?”, Jim Casper, the Editor-in-Chief of LensCulture, asks in his introduction. “Our editorial team scours the globe – attending festivals, portfolio reviews, exhibitions and graduation shows – in search of new and developing talents. And each year, we organize four annual photography awards to extend our reach even further.” In addition, LensCulture sends out its calls for entries in 15 languages, uses social media and taps into photography newtworks all over the world. In other words, the LensCulture team is undoubtedly very active.

But what are the criteria for great talent? “LensCulture draws on the expertise of an international panel of jury members for each award. These jurors are active and influential in the world of photography. Thanks to their experience, they are adept at identifying photographers who are doing something special in their work. You can be assured that the 161 photographers you will discover in these pages are among the best of the best.” In other words, there are no criteria given and explained respectively.
It might of course very well be that this not exactly illuminating self-promotion – trust us, we are the experts, Jim Casper is basically saying – is well deserved. Although to claim expertise without elaborating on the criteria employed is pretty common, I do find it not exactly convincing.
On the other hand: It is indeed difficult to define relevant criteria for judging pictures. The protagonist of Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” ... 
For the full review, see