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Friday, May 15, 2020


There's this ongoing project with the usual suspects, where Brad Feuerhelm is curating up a dozen zines by a dozen artists, around some gibberish in which he remarks, I swear to god, that Bleak House is Dickensian in the most literal sense. As a result I have a deplorable tendency lately to measure everything in terms of how literally it is (or is not) Dickensian, and then I laugh like an idiot and nobody knows what the hell I am on about. "Curatorially speaking, this cheese is not very Dickensian, in the most literal sense" is rather fun to say.

Anyways. His project is also called "Bleak House" and it is apparently Dickensian because it is serialized. Because Dickens was the first and only person to serialize a longer form work, until now. As of this writing two of the twelve zines are available for download: Brad's, and Jörg's. I will note that Katrin Koenning is also on the list, and I rather look forward to hers. But as of now, we just have the two.

Let us look specifically at Jörg's contribution. I honestly don't know where to start except Jesus H. Christ it's awful, of course it it. Jörg may have lost his way a bit as a critic, but his criticism is Nobel-worthy next to his photography.

We see that the photo I pointed out from his newsletter, here, is not an exception. What Jörg wants to photograph is very very specific: buildings seen through a screen of leafless trees, with a fence somewhere in frame, and some non-descript empty space in the foreground. Every single photo follows this same template. Every single photo is smashed to the same bleak grey, whatever the light actually was.

A few of the photos have a stump or sawn-off tree limb, exposing a circular face. This may or may not mean something and frankly, who cares if it does?

Feuerhelm sequenced these things, I guess, and his sequencing is ludicrous. It boils down to "well, this one looks a bit like that one" repeated until boredom is replaced by an urgent desire for death. To be fair, he hasn't got anything to work with here, but still.

Anyways, all of this is rather beside the point. Jörg's little zine here, like so much of contemporary photobook making, lacks what I am at the mo' thinking of as movement.

You could also think of this as an arc in the sense of a story or a piece of music. It could be a literal story: a set of related events related in some coherent order. It could be a flow of emotional evolution. It could be a theme stated, concealed, and then restated. Or even restated in a new way, gasp! Something. My most recent little zine is precisely an experiment in movement.

In the first place, movement gives us something to look at as we flip through the thing. It's just nice. It's a kind of engagement, it invites the possibility of surprise and keeps us going to see well, what's next? Jörg's photos may drive us forward, but after a while it's only to see if he can possibly just give us the same goddamned photo again, or if his nerve is going to crack. See also Paul Graham's Mother.

Jörg's nerve does not crack. He is all-in.

In more formal, one might even say theoretical terms, Keith A. Smith describes visual books in terms of a notional composite picture, in the sense that the visual components of such a book should add up to something new.

I submit to you that without motion, the composite cannot much vary from the individual photo. Jörg's book is the same goddamned picture, over and over. It's the same materials, presented in the same way, with the same formal relationships, the same tonality, the same mood, over and over. It's like a tuba player who can't even manage OOM-PAH OOM-PAH OOM-PAH but instead insists on simply OOMP OOMP OOMP endlessly. There's certainly no motion in Jörg's zine, and as a result any single photo would stand in perfectly well for the whole.

The only point of a zine full of these godawful things is, as far as I can tell, to make it clear that this thing isn't an accident. Yep. He really means it. Look, here's another one, and another one, and oh god it's full of stars. Well, not stars exactly, they more closely resemble turds.

I suppose I have to allow that perhaps you could in theory make a composite picture (i.e. a book) that differs from the individual pictures without movement as such. Perhaps one could, somehow in a static way, reveal the composite piece by piece? Smith himself has a book which is a single enormous nude, broken up into something like 25 sub-rectangles, each sub-rectangle printed full bleed on a spread. With 25 copies of the book, one can lay them out 5x5 and see the whole thing at once.

You could argue that Smith's book has movement anyways, the motion being a sort of raster-style scan of a larger picture. Probably there's some sort of spectrum here, or two alternative but equally valid viewpoints. In either case, I can't say that I think Smith's book works very well here, it strikes me as an experiment in form. Still, as a theoretical construct, I have to allow that it could be a thing.

I'm pretty confident that a lot of photobook makers, if cornered, would claim to be attempting much the same notion. Brad's contribution to "Bleak House" has this shape, to my eye. Variety without motion. Not convinced there's a composite result, though, other than the usual German-Art/wannabee gloom. But at least there might be a composite result, no?

Regardless of the success or failure here, I at least like movement better. At the very least, it is suited to the book form, which traditionally carries exactly this kind of motion. A story, an argument, an evolution of mood. The books I am happiest with have movement, often but not always driven by text. Text is linear, forward-moving, so including it will invariably create a forward-moving front-to-back motion, and that's a good thing.

If you're going to go to the trouble of putting more than one photo in a book, think about maybe more OOM-PAH and less OOMP. Go crazy and throw in a TEEDLE-EEDLE-EEE now and then to check if the reader is awake.


  1. Self-styled Éminence grise of the photo MFA set.

  2. You know, the guy needs your kind of truth, unfortunately his book will be made and it's probably too late to heed your advice

  3. Jorg's got another review up. To summarize: "Germany is a shithole country, but that just goes to prove my point."

    Yep, he's all in.

    1. Yeah. On the one hand, he's clearly been reading me, because he nods toward "Ok, the town probably has some nice bits too, we're just not being shown them" but then there's that weird diversion to how much he hates soccer.

      Also, while he's not wrong about architecture, in broad strokes, he has a sort of bizarre notion that nobody could possibly love coming home to a dwelling that has small windows and a tree out front. In part he's talking about the mood Berges in trying to create here, and in part he's talking about his own fairly effete and narrow minded attitudes, and since he's unwilling to comb them apart for us, it's impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.