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.
Tokyo is not an easy place to get to grips with, especially for those of us who are used to the structure and scale of most European cities. Its multi-layered sprawl and labyrinthine underground transport network can make it feel like a never-ending maze. Like the city itself, Tokyo's art scene can feel impenetrable to an outsider. The fluctuations of the art world make it difficult to keep up with the art landscape in any big city, but Tokyo more than most as the contemporary art market is not as developed and established as in the US or Europe. This doesn't mean fewer galleries, but rather more of them and a constant ebb and flow of relocations, openings, and closures too. As a regular visitor to the city over the last decade, I still feel as if I have only seen the tip of the art scene iceberg. Galleries are often small, tiny even, and difficult to find, rarely at street level but tucked away in a basement or on the 4th floor of an anonymous building in a non-descript neighbourhood. Part of the charm if you're gallery hopping, but if you actually have to get to a meeting, it can be a little more stressful. I often rely on Tokyo Art Beat, a kind of online art events guide (in both Japanese and English) including exhibition reviews that tells you what is on in Tokyo. A very useful tool, in its attempt to be comprehensive it also ends up being a little overwhelming and is probably more useful when you know what you are looking for.
Thankfully there is now another online English-language resource to turn to. Art Space Tokyo has existed as a physical book since 2008, but it has now been launched on digital platforms and as a website including three major sections: spaces, interviews and essays, as well as a timeline of some of the major art events in Tokyo over the last 60+ years. Rather than going for a comprehensive picture of the Tokyo art scene, Art Space Tokyo limits itself to a couple of handfuls of spaces and art world 'players', providing the essential info but also going into some depth and analysing current trends. The essays included also tackle interesting questions such as the nature of Japanese street art or the state of art journalism and criticism in Japan, making this much more than a guidebook to the Tokyo art world. The authors, Ashley Rawlings and Craig Mod, have also clearly given a lot of thought to translating all the content from a paper book to digital platforms (iPad, Kindle) and to a website. They have been generous too, putting up the entire contents of the book online for free, even holding on to Nobumasa Takahashi's great illustrations, rather than treating the site as a sneak preview promotional tool. This one is bound to come in handy on my next visit to Tokyo.
If I had to choose a single word to describe Nina Poppe's book Ama it would be 'modest.' It is not a 'clever' book, nor a powerful one. It is quiet and does little to promote itself (the book's open spine design which does not allow for text guarantees that it will be all but forgotten on a bookshelf). This modesty runs throughout every aspect of the book, from the subject matter to Poppe's photographic approach to her subject, and even to the book's size and design. In many ways it is a very ordinary photobook: a simple, straightforward documentation of the life of a small community. These unassuming, unfussy qualities could make it easy to overlook, and yet I think they are what make Ama one of the better recent photobooks of its kind.
Ama takes its title from the Japanese word given to these female divers. The book centres on a particular community of women abalone divers on the island of Ise-shima in Japan. Poppe has photographed these older women (they appear to all be in their 60s or 70s) as they prepare for and emerge from their dives, and go about the business of daily life. There are no photographs of the dives themselves. Instead Poppe has come up with the elegant solution of reproducing a spread of an ama mid-dive from Fosco Maraini's 1963 book The Island of the Fisherwomen, one of the books inspired her to undertake this project. The image is printed on a different, thinner, light blue paper stock which differentiates it from Poppe's pictures. The same device is used at the end of the book with an accordion fold on the same paper, featuring spreads from several other books through which she presumably researched the ama. I found this to be an elegant way of introducing what it was that attracted her to the subject in the first place and to share her love for the photobook.
In addition to the ritual of the dive, Ama reveals the physical environment of the island, giving a sense of an extremely simple lifestyle turned towards nature. Although it opens with a saying from the Ise-shima region which states that, "A woman who cannot feed a man is worthless," there isn't a single picture of a man in the book. Their absence gives this proverb an almost ironic quality, as the men seem irrelevant in the world of these women. Aside from the ama, the only other people that appear are children and young women. Their portraits seem to act as a contrast to the divers, raising the question of how different the lives of these different generations are. I couldn't help but wonder if any of these young girls were in any way interested in the tradition of the ama, or indeed could even become divers themselves one day, or whether the women pictured here would be amongst the last to dive in this way.
While this all may sound rather nostalgic or melodramatic, this isn't the sense that comes through in these photographs. These images are not romantic or lyrical. Instead, Poppe has built up a simple portrait of the ama and their island, one suffused with affection, warmth and respect, but which refrains from inscribing them in some form of mythology. This restraint is another of the book's great strengths for me.
Japan remains a fascinating photographic subject for the West and one which has a potent exotic aroma. Much of the work that I see by foreign photographers on Japan seems to be unable to get beyond a search for the exotic other, a search for a series of clichés or preconceived ideas rather than an attempt to photograph what is there. I was struck by the fact that Poppe, a young German woman, avoided this trap so assuredly. The result is that Ama does not feel like the book of an outsider, but rather a work with an open mind.
Jon Rafman is a Canadian artist and filmmaker based in Montreal. He recently gave a talk about his work entitled “In Search of the Virtual Sublime” at the Gaité Lyrique, a new space devoted to digital culture in Paris. I met up with Jon in a café near the Jardin du Luxembourg to discuss Google Street View, street photography, the cyberflâneur and what the future looks like.
How did you start working in the digital space?
After I graduated I discovered a community of artists on the social bookmarking site del.icio.us. It really felt that an incredible artistic dialogue was taking place informally: a new vernacular was being formed online. There was so much energy to it. The dialogue was so exciting, mixing humour and irony, critique and celebration. Del.icio.us was the platform on which I really started working with the Internet. At this point Facebook and Tumblr have pretty much replaced it.
I had known about early net art but I was never attracted to its glitchy aesthetic. So when I discovered this community I felt like I had found what I had been searching for all through art school. Del.icio.us led me to various different collectives like Paintfx. That is the period when I started my Google Street View project.
The project started out as PDF books. And then I started to print out the images just like photographs. I experimented with the printing for a while and eventually decided to print the images as large format C-prints. In 2009 the art blog Art Fag City asked me to write an essay, and that was when the project really took off, but I already had a huge archive of material by that stage. The 9-eyes tumblr blog came directly out of that. I had already been working with Google Street View (GSV) for one or two years when I created 9-eyes.
What was your process to find the locations and images that you used?
At first it was just long, arduous surf sessions. I went to places I wanted to visit, mainly in America (GSV had not been launched in many countries at the time), but not in a systematic way. As the project grew, I learned certain tricks. For example the best place to go for images is to check where the Google cars are and to follow those. Otherwise, Google may have removed any ‘anomalies’, which often make the most interesting images.
Once the project went viral I started getting tons of submissions from people. Some of these I used directly and some would act as a departure point to search for images.
What were you looking for specifically?
I was working a bit like a street photographer: keeping an open mind and responding to my intuition. The process was really about editing down. The entire project is a process of subtraction: since everything has already been captured on GSV, it is about editing down until you find the core, essential moments. I think it could be considered as a major editing project.
Are there any online GSV communities or forums that you use to find images?
There is a forum for pretty much anything you can think of. There is a forum where people only collect images of prostitutes, some of which I used in 9-eyes. I don’t like fetishizing labour. I don’t want to play up the amount of time I spend finding these images. This can become a kind of artistic crutch. The greatest works of art for me can be a single gesture that took very little time at all.
Even though this project is inherently time consuming, I don’t want that to be its central focus. It could easily have become an endurance piece, a kind of artistic marathon. If I had an algorithm to find all these amazing images, I think I would be equally as happy.
Take Duchamp’s ready-mades: they changed art. If everything can be art, then what is art? I see that as the healthiest state for art to be in: questioning its very nature.
How conscious were you of specific street photographers’ styles when taking these images?
I was very aware of photographic history when working on this project. I really believe that photography was the medium of the twentieth century, because of the ambiguity surrounding the question of whether it was or was not art, due to photography’s mechanical nature. I saw GSV in some way as the ultimate conclusion of the medium of photography: the world being constantly photographed from every perspective all the time. As if photography had become an indifferent, neutral god observing the world.
The perception of reality associated with photography is very modern. In the past, representations in the form of images were always imbued with a certain magical quality. The photograph shows a world that is empty of that. It is just a reflection of the surface of things. In that way the photograph is the perfect embodiment of our perception of the modern world. More than specific photographic history, I was thinking of photography from a philosophical point of view.
Most of your work deals with digital media of some kind. Do you consider yourself to be a digital artist?
For a while the term “Internet-aware” was used in relation to artists working with the Internet. Nobody was happy with the term, or with “net artists” which felt too ghettoising. In the same way, many people do not feel comfortable with the term “new media artist”, because it implies a kind of fetishisation of new technology.
I would prefer to be recognised simply as an artist. Unless you are very specific to a medium, which I’m not, I don’t think it is necessary to add these labels. I’m fine with championing net art, but I don’t want to be wedded to it forever.
Take Elad Lassry for example. He is one of the most successful young photographers that I know, and in some way I think that is because he doesn’t position his work as photography but as art. I have a lot of respect for those ‘purists’ that are attached to the formal qualities of their medium, but I don’t want to be associated too closely with a particular medium as I’m interested in exploring many different approaches.
There are other artists, including Michael Wolf and Doug Rickard, who have worked with Google Street View. Do you see GSV as a territory where there is only room for one or do you see it as a vast territory that more and more artists are likely to explore?
GSV is in the zeitgeist and it is a vast territory to explore. In a way I’m surprised that there haven’t been more artists working with it. We all have different methods of working. For example, Michael Wolf photographs the screen to make his images, whereas I think that Doug Rickard removes all traces of Google from the images: the symbols, the Google copyright. My process is more akin to the ready-made.
You have also referred to the flâneur in relation to your work. How does this term that is generally associated with nineteenth century art in Paris relate to your practice?
I’m very interested in the notion of the flâneur. The lack of history in this new post-internet age is making it harder to have a sense of self. The Internet has already become so ubiquitous, that it is now a banal part of our reality.
In Internet years things are forgotten so quickly. The importance of history in building a sense of self is one of the main themes running through my work. Many of my projects focus on very marginal sub-cultures such as gaming (ed. Codes of Honor, for example). They feel the lack of a sense of self acutely because their culture can die out any day. The game is everything to them but from one the day to the next the culture of that game becomes obsolete.
The reason I tie in the flâneur is because I want to find the connection between the cyberflâneur and the flâneur of the Parisian arcades of the late nineteenth century. On one level the comparison is absurd, but on another level it is very apt. In the same way that Internet cultures die off, so did the arcades of Paris.
People talk about how the Internet age is so new, and the idea that technology has changed everything. I think it is very important to see that many of these things existed in different forms in the past. For instance, the information overload that is thought of as defining the Internet era dates back to early modern times and the emergence of the modern city.
The NYTimes recently published an article by Evgeny Morosovabout the death of the cyberflâneur. Morosov makes the point that in the age of social media, web surfing is essentially over, that the information we get from the Internet is essentially pre-digested. Do you agree with that view?
People often ask me what the future is going to look like… I’m not really sure why… maybe simply because I work with new technologies.
In the past we relied on dystopian and utopian views of the future. The future was thought of as fundamentally different from the present. Today, there is a sense that the future is going to be a lot more banal, that we are already living in the future (like with the phone that you are recording this conversation with), that the future is going to be more of the same… more apps and technologies that are designed to mediate and ‘improve’ our experience of reality. It is essentially a more Facebook-like future. This is very different from the early Internet, which was more like an exploration of a vast unknown territory.
Note: Jon Rafman's latest exhibition, MMXII BNPJ, opens at American Medium in New York on May 5.
The road trip is one of the primal photographic gestures. It has given rise to some of the most celebrated series of photographs as well as to countless clichéd and forgettable pictures. Thanks to—or maybe even because of—Robert Frank's ten thousand mile drive across America which led to The Americans, it also feels like a quintessentially American exercise. The term also has an epic quality: it conjures up the idea of a seemingly never-ending journey. With his book SP 67, the Italian photographer Roberto Schena has played with the mythology of the road trip to explore a short (13km) stretch of road running through the mountains in northern Italy.
The books cover sets the mood: the landscape is wintry and barren and the air seems to be heavy with moisture. This is a book that is all about atmosphere. Although its title and endpapers (a reproduction of a map of this mountain road) seem to place importance on the particular location that Schena has chosen for this project, its subtitle, La strada della tramontana scura (The road of the dark north wind), is more revelatory of its nature. The book is structured like a drive from East to West along the SP 67, one almost entirely shrouded in a thick fog which only allows for glimpses of the surrounding landscape.
Most of the images in SP 67 are technically landscape photographs, but they reveal very little... the odd curve in the road... the foliage that surrounds it... always obscured by the incessant fog. This unsettling visual backdrop is punctuated by the odd animal apparition. This is what gives the book its rhythm: a pig running along a ridge on the horizon, a closeup of a horse's head, a goat or some dogs picked out of the darkness by the car's headlights. This creates the sense that this world belongs to animals rather than to men. This road seems to run through a parallel universe, a place that we recognise but where space and time are distorted and unfamiliar (another reviewer compared Schena's world to that of a Murakami novel).
While Schena has undeniably created a heavily atmospheric world with this work, I found it to be a little too impenetrable. SP 67 is a slippery book that left me with a lingering sense of frustration. Like a dream that you awake from feeling unsettled, but, no matter how hard you try, you just cannot remember.
Roberto Schena, SP 67 (Rome: Punctum, 112 pages, 51 colour plates, 2012).
Rating: Worth a look