Thursday, February 28, 2019

Photobook Reviews are All Positive

Well, it's not quite right to say that all photobook reviews are positive. Almost all of them are, though. Colberg reviewed Mosse's Incoming somewhat negatively, I think. To what extent he was simply reacting to the success of Mosse's project is unclear.

What does seem to be true is that little photobooks, the bread and butter of the occasionally rapacious small-publishing-house industry, are almost invariably well received by the people who review them. Possibly because the only people who review these things are on the inside of that incestuous little universe, but that's just speculation.

Let's take a look at HORIZONT reviewed on the always-hilarious American Suburb X, which review you can read here.

I won't bother with the whole review, except to note that the reviewer seems to like this singularly unlikeable book, and to poke at a few of the more absurd lines.

This sort of space doesn’t respond readily to the camera’s propensity for order, and Ashkin’s photographs play on its strange, disorienting quality, looking up past the tops of buildings, peering out from behind knots of vegetation, gazing dully at the ground.

As far as I can discern, none of the cameras I own have any propensity for order. Perhaps the author means that photographers and photography do, with using the word "camera" metonymically? In that case I suggest that she needs to get out more. Frankly, there is a great deal of Serious Art as well as vernacular photography that looks a lot like this hot mess.

There’s a kind of deadpan anarchy about places like these, patchworked together out of remnants and interstices that capitalist development can’t easily assimilate.

While I have to admire the author's touching naivete about what capitalism can or cannot easily assimilate, this whole sentence is nonsense. It's just ugly cement buildings and generalized urban stuff. Eastern Europe has a lot of ugly cement, I am informed. There's a fair bit of this in the USA, actually. Some of those buildings remind by of UMass, Amherst.

And so on, on and on. I should at this point direct you to some remarks and some work I find myself coming back to from time to time: Vernacular Enigma. These pictures are much the same sort of thing, but are all shot in the USA, so much for the specialness of East Berlin.

To be honest, on roughly alternate days I am convinced that American Suburb X (ASX) is actually a joke, a sort of extended performance art piece. Sadly, on all the other days I realize that this sort of gibberish is all too prevalent, and that ASX is just another manifestation of the same stuff masquerading as serious writing.

Actually, I have just remembered another negative photobook review, also from ASX: SHIT but to be honest this seems to be mostly rage at the book's author, and the largest complaint from the reviewer is about someone else's analysis of the book as having something to do with homosexuality.

Ok so maybe not all photobook reviews are positive. It just seems like I keep running a lot of lazy little positive plugs.


  1. Replies
    1. Yeah, I know, right? I thought she was talking about me for a moment.

  2. Well, that's how most of Germany's cities look like. For example, the region where I live, the Ruhrgebiet, is a conglomerate of about a dozen cities with roughly 5 million inhabitants in total. Up to the 18th century, it was mostly a mostly rural landscape between the rivers Rhein, Ruhr, Emscher and Lippe. Development of the region took off as the industrial revolution made mining of the local coal deposits profitable. Shortly after came the steel mills with their huge demand for fuel. The cities grew with the industry, but in a chaotic, unordered way - pictures from that time resemble photographs of China between 1960 and 1990. It was chaotic sprawl of worker's housing around the coal mines and steel mills, which were often in the very center of the towns. During WWII, the allied bombers turned most of it into rubble; after the war, houses were rebuilt from the rubble, without consideration for aesthetical architecture. "Urban development" of the 60s and 70s, with its aim to make cities suitable for car traffic and its brutalitic concrete architecture just completed the mess. The coal mines and steel mills went kaputt, leaving the cities broke and the land scarred. Still, between these run-down cities, there are rural spots with farms and fields and copses - and the spoil heaps just look lovely with their cover of birches!

    Yes, this is how it looks like. But does it really look THAT bland and ugly, as in the discussed book-?

    Best, Thomas

    1. I went to grad school at Wesleyan University, which is a small annoying school in Connecticut. It's got old (by US standards) stone and brick buildings, all covered with ivy, vast green lawns and so on. It is a very beautiful campus.

      But off to one side, the art school buildings are a collection of brutalist things. Truly horrible. I could go there with a camera, get down low, underexpose by 2/3 of a stop, and make a bunch of photos that would fit right in to HORIZONT.

      This shit is everywhere, I think ;)

      Of course if I did that on the Wesleyan campus, I would be misrepresenting things enormously. It is possible, I guess (and perhaps you intend to confirm) that Michael Ashkin is in fact telling us the truth of East Berlin, that it does in fact "feel" like this.

      I don't think that makes it very special, though. There's plenty of places that "feel" like that.

      Ashkin's book is, I think, a "process" book, one that is more about the way the pictures were made than about the pictures or the subjects. The review even suggests, although it's unclear, that Ashkin might have made only one trip. These could be photos all from a single day of snapping as he walked back from the end of the tram line to downtown.

      Ashkin, I note, is not a photographer. He seems to specialize in fairly simple to execute conceptual pieces, and this seems to be more or the same.

    2. Exactly, such places - whose appearance result from disorganized sprawl and decay - can probably be found in a lot of cities in the western hemisphere. But Ashkin's work only shows "how they look like", as revealed by a superficial glance. The pictures do not reveal anything beyond the obvious, there is no sense of place, no hidden beauty, no soul in them, the work is shallow.

      In contrast, I've seen work by eastern european photographers which also deals with the run-down aesthetic of their environment, but at the same time is full of tender beauty, of soul. Unfortunately, I haven't got any links at hand.

    3. I think I'm maybe too sentimental on this point, but anyways:

      Many photographers seem to be working within a framework of nihilism, because it's easy and it sells.

      Work that is tender and hopeful is difficult to do, unpopular, and I increasingly think is *objectively* *better*. I understand why I would prefer work that is, shall we say, imbued with love. I do not understand why it would necessarily be objectively better, but I cannot shake the idea that it simply is.

  3. Allow me to come to the defense of American Suburb X. True, it is primarily a collection of art criticism, so examples of pretentious gibberish abound.. But I’ve found things worth reading mixed among the post-deconstructionist ranting. And I think that they do a nice job of blending the contemporary with the old masters. (That is, if we consider Robert Frank to be an old master.)

    The crit crowd has set the bar pretty low, but I think that ASX does pretty well among its mangy peer group.

    1. The history of ASX is interesting. Apparently it started out more or less as an archive? And it still has bewilderingly good material buried in it.

      It has the look of a web site that was partially recovered from a horrendous database crash/conversion. Stuff is dated all weird (their review of Metropole dates from 3 years before the book was published), they use the @ symbol for copyright persistently which is extremely peculiar, and there is a fair amount of stuff that simply doesn't seem to work at all.

      There are a number of layout and design choices which seem to be wilfully bad (they go to some effort to fuck up the spacing on pull quotes, rendering them difficult to read, for instance.)

      To be fair, even their contemporary criticism is merely silly, not an unreadable maze of jargon.

      But sure, they're far from the worst site on the photography internet!

      They're still not exactly putting their best foot forward, though.

  4. ASX: Thanks for sharing -- first I'd seen this. The idea of it being a joke occurred to me too. The most eyes-glazing-over inducing writing I've seen, except maybe this comment.

    1. Obviously you have not experimented with the writings of Daniel Campbell Blight ;) A quick Google search away!

    2. The newer stuff on ASX is demented garbage, if you dig though, there's some really good, insightful interviews, and quite a few photographers you may not have heard tell of that are deffo worth looking at.