The latest installment in the ongoing series of photography eating itself comes courtesy of the consistently innovative and extremely prolific German duo of Oliver Sieber and Katja Stuke (confusingly known as Böhm Kobayashi). They have just released their latest Ant!foto publication in the form of a Manifesto newspaper. The paper includes contributions from a bunch of photo types from across the spectrum of which my favourite would have to be Jeffrey Ladd's list of demands/wishes/grievances. There is also a website (how could there not be) which allowed you to contribute your two photographic cents to a Visual Manifesto event organised with Markus Schaden at the Dusseldorf PhotoWeekend but sadly it is now too late and you have missed your opportunity to enter the Ant!foto Hall of Fame. If you are interested in all the navel-gazing and existential self-interrogation that photography has been getting into of late (and yes, I am actually interested), then this Manifesto is worth checking out.
I wrote about Romka magazine over on the eyecurious Tumblr some time ago, but I will confess to never having picked up a paper copy before, so the latest issue (#7) is the first I have been able to flick through. The conceit is a simple one, "favorite pictures and the stories that lie behind them" by pros and amateurs alike. No book reviews, no interviews, no ads... no excess fat. The result is a kind of crowd-sourced collective photo-album, which makes it sound terrible when it is really quite good. Romka simply does what it says on the tin: it presents a series of single images by photographers (that might be Roger Ballen or it might be Sachi "the builder who lives in a pink house in New Orleans"), each accompanied by a short text explaining what that image means to them. It is a very simple recipe, and like many simple recipes it is hard to get right, but when it works it is rather delicious. Although it follows a fairly strict formula it doesn't feel formulaic because of its democratic, all-inclusive approach to images and because it helps to reveal some of the myriad reasons why photographs matter so much to people. This simple formula also makes it refreshingly different to most other photography magazines out there.
I have done a lot of wondering (to myself and sometimes out loud) about whether the photo album has become irrelevant today given the changes in the way that we make and look at photographs... Romka makes me think that there is life in it yet.
Romka magazine, Issue #7, November 2012, edition of 1,500.
For its latest issue (#71), Source magazine is asking the question, "What is conceptual photography?" To go along with the mag they have produced three short talking-head videos exploring this question with a handful of artists and critics. The importance of the "concept" in contemporary photography has always interested me. In the photo-world, the question regularly pops up about why "straight" photography isn't taken seriously by the art world. Those in the straight photography corner often appear to see conceptual photography as impure in some way, as if it were not what photography is really about. Without wanting to spark off another one of these debates, it seems to me that concept is indeed considered paramount in Western art photography today (in my experience, this is not at all the case in Japan, where "serious" photography can still very much be about wandering around with a camera and taking pictures). For example, I'm often struck by young photographers struggling to hang an ill-fitting artist statement with some big ideas in it over the shoulders of work that is clearly not conceptual in the slightest... presumably because they have been taught to do so in art school. Wherever you stand on this question (or however delightfully far away you stand from it) these videos provide an interesting look at how photography became so excited about concepts and what the hell "conceptual photography" is even supposed to mean in the first place.
My most recent trip to Japan in October happily coincided with Naoya Hatakeyama's first retrospective at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of his work – and there is quite a lot of it – so I was curious to see how this exhibition, entitled Natural Stories, would be put together. The exhibition has now closed in Tokyo but opens at the Huis Marseille in Amsterdam today until the end of February 2012. To coincide with Natural Stories, Hatakeyama also released his latest book, Ciel Tombé, which I included on my best books of 2011 list, so I thought I would discuss them together here.
I will admit to being a little surprised at the selection of work in Natural Stories. Although there are ten different bodies of work in the exhibition, none of Hatakeyama's work on Tokyo (Underground, River, Maquettes/Light...) was included. However, in the curator's text on the exhibition she is quick to explain that this was a conscious decision given that Hatakeyama already had several solo exhibitions in Japan including a 2007 show at the Museum of Modern Art in Kamakura & Hayama which took the city as its theme. With that in mind the exhibition's focus on the natural landscape makes sense.
The title Natural Stories is an intriguing one. I think it works best in french (Histoires naturelles), which I believe is the language in which the title was originally given. In french 'histoire' can mean both history or a story. The title evokes Natural History, stories about nature, and perhaps even a history of nature itself. The essay by the French writer Philippe Forest in the exhibition catalogue explores these notions in detail so I won't dwell on them any further, but the title evokes the very different considerations that inform Hatakeyama's photographic approach to the landscape. His landscapes are never 'just' landscapes: they are always the reflection or the echo of something else. For instance, although it depicts the limestone mines, the series Lime Hills deals with the transformation of the natural landscape to feed the insatiable growth of the city of Tokyo.
Although it is almost never directly present in this exhibition, the city is never very far away. In the series Ciel Tombé Hatakeyama explored the Parisian catacombs and their underground 'fallen skies' (ciel tombé). This series is the subject of Hatakeyama's latest book, Ciel Tombé (Super Labo, 2011). For this book Hatakeyama has deviated from the standard photobook formula and asked the French author Sylvie Germain to contribute a short story based on his photographs . I won't go into detail about this book as this post is already overly long, but I will say this: I first saw the work from Ciel Tombé a few years ago at a gallery in Tokyo. Several months later I had the opportunity to read Sylvie Germain's deliciously strange and unsettling text. I had not seen any of the images since that first viewing, but as I read through the story the images appeared in my mind as if I had only just seen them. For the moment the book only exists in a deluxe edition of 200 which includes a print, a book of Hatakeyama's photographs and another book containing Sylvie Germain's text in French, English and Japanese, but there is word of a second edition in the making.
Returning to Natural Stories, for me the final two rooms of the exhibition were the highlight. The first of these rooms (pictured at the top of this post) contained Hatakeyama's most recent work on his hometown of Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, one of the many towns destroyed in the tsunami of 11 March 2011. Although very little time has passed, Hatakeyama decided to include a series of photographs in the exhibition that he took in the wake of the disaster. Many images have been produced of the aftermath of the tsunami, but most of these fail to connect beyond conveying the scale of the physical destruction. What stands out about Hatakeyama's images is how matter of fact they feel. He has photographed these landscapes with the same unflinching precision, intelligence and quietness tinged with nostalgia as any other landscape. His photographs strike me as the most natural possible response to the disaster, but they must have been incredibly difficult to make given the deeply personal and tragic nature of the subject. These images are presented on three adjacent walls in the space, while on the fourth a slideshow of images taken between 2008-2010 in his native region is presented in the guise of a framed photograph.
The final room contains the companion series Blast and A Bird. Both series have been exhibited and published in the past, but for this exhibition Hatakeyama also chose to present Blast as a stop-motion video projected on a huge wall in the space. These photographs have a potent mix of beauty and brutal force which is heightened even further when animated in this way. It is an overwhelming end to the exhibition and one which resonates long after you leave the space.
I have just done a short guest post over on the fototazo blog. fototazo has asked a group of 50 curators, gallery owners, blog writers, photographers, academics and others actively engaged in photography to pick two photographers that deserve (more) recognition - the underknown, the under-respected as well as not-appreciated-enough favorites. For my guest post, I selected Marie Quéau and Erik van der Weijde. Check out the post here.