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Thursday, June 8, 2023

Political Photo Books

Most of the Serious Artist photobooks are political. Probably most Serious Art aims to be political. Political, that is, broadly construed: who has power, how do they use it; who lacks power, and why they ought to have it.

A political statement, in general, will in the first place remark on how things are now, the present state of affairs, but as a rule will add on to that any number of things. It may propose that a different state of affairs is desirable (or, sometimes, not desirable.) It may propose that someone or other should not have power (usually, whoever has power now should not have it, but sometimes it is the aspirant who shouldn't.) The proposal that someone ought not to have power involves usually some combination of coherent argument, and straightforward character attacks.

Roughly, we can consider political statements to rely on, at least, these three things: testimony as to the past and present, speculation about the future, and caricature.

Thus it is that we come across a fundamental problem with the political photobook.

A photograph testifies to that-which-was. That is its fundamental operation. It shows us something from, necessarily, the past, and offers itself as proof that whatever it was, was so. You can do other things with photographs, to be sure, but at that point you are arguing with the fundamental mode of the form.

In particular, photographs don't want to speculate, and they don't want to caricature.

We see this most plainly in photographs of divisive political figures. The very same photo is seen as proof of so-and-so's venal nature, or as proof of their essentially good character, depending on the party affiliation of the viewer. A proper caricature leaves no such room for interpretation. Attempts to "read" photos as caricature invariably fail, because they do nothing more than reveal the political alignment of the reader.

This leaves us with only one facet of the political. The photograph testifies, like nothing else testifies, to that-which-was, and this is certainly a vital component of a strong political statement. The photograph leaves it right there, however. No speculation, no caricature.

Sometimes this is enough, perhaps.

Robert Frank's The Americans manages something political, despite being literally nothing more than mute testimony. It offers no speculation, no prognostication, no proposals. It caricatures nothing. It doesn't assign blame. It simply testifies, and somehow that succeeds, after a fashion.

Whatever happens to the photo book form, and I do believe in the form, it must accept that the photograph begins and ends with the testimony of that-which-was.

You cannot take a picture of a forest and claim that it supports the thesis that Nazis are bad. Well, you can, but it's stupid and makes no sense to do that. Nazis were and are bad! To be sure! But a photograph of a forest is not evidence in support of that, any more than my shoes are, or a fried egg is. If you've gotten some grants and are inside the White Cube, you can claim anything and get away with it, including (probably) that a fried egg is an anti-fascist slogan. This, however, doesn't mean you're right, it just means you're in the Cube.

If we are to be serious, rather than Serious, it behooves us to see what the medium actually does and to use that, or defy that, according the the needs of whatever we're trying to accomplish. Defy away, if you like, but know what it is you are doing. If you want to try to caricature with photography, give it a shot, but know that you're arguing with the medium.


  1. The character attack angle is interesting. It works! We are a judgemental species. We hate to think, it's too much like work. Character attacks deliver the dopamine and in a nutshell, that's what it means to be human. We are better than.

    Attempts to render this wonderful power into photo book form are at best quixotic.

    Under the most terrible conditions, some visual artists have done a plausible job (thinking specifically of Ecce Homo by George Grosz, a brilliant caricaturist). There are no equivalents in photography. OK Martin Parr.

    There seems to be an expectation or requirement that photography can 'change the world.' No. Video can, social media can, deep fakes can.

    If you want to be a force for good, find something else and good luck.

  2. I really liked this post and the one before that! I already had similar thoughts. It's not only that the pictures are often nothing to write home about, but the "political message" is also often rather shallow. For instance, take Colbert's book - I guess that if here in Germany you asked AfD supporters what they thought about facism, 99 of 100 would agree that it was a bad thing.

    I also believe that in the current day and age, if you just bring a camera or your phone to your local neighborhood, and photograph whatever you find interesting, that this is already a political act. Because this is the first step beyond that fabricated plastic world the media and the internet wants to cocoon us in. Producing some small things from your pictures (prints, zines, books) to share with others is political since it defeats the logic of consumerism.

    The revolution will not be televized!

  3. Welcome back. I think I'm going to keep repeating the comment I made on two previous posts until the awesomeness of its wisdom sinks in ;) That is:

    "It troubles me that art-school students -- rarely the most academically-inclined people -- are being encouraged to regard themselves as essentially "thinkers", not makers. To present a half-baked thesis in illustration form is not the same thing as writing a half-baked thesis (I know, I've written two).

    Someone who is good at taking photographs or painting is not thereby gifted with philosophical or sociological insight, and should not be expected to demonstrate anything more than exceptional visual acuity, which is an inchoate sort of knowledge and gift enough, but different in kind."