Curran Hatleberg – An Interview

Curran Hatleberg River's Dream

by Luca Fiore

Snakes, alligators, dogs, bees. And then woods, wrecked cars, bodies of water, domino games, watermelons. Curran Hatleberg’s is a rosary of objects, perspectives and situations in which the animal and plant worlds often intermingle seamlessly, as if were only chance that earned them a shot – and thus the photographer’s attention. River’s Dream (TBW Books, 2022), the volume signed by the 40-year-old U.S. artist, which was among the finalists of the Paris Photo-Aperture PhotoBook Awards, the most prestigious prize in photography publishing, is the result of a whole decade of wandering in the southern United States, between Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Presented in 2019 at the Whitney Biennial in New York, it is conceived as a chapter in a single project on contemporary America: an attempt to gauge the country’s pulse in these years of turbulent transition. In the previous instalment, Lost Coast (TBW, 2016), Hatleberg immersed himself in the atmosphere of the northern California town of Eureka, where the majestic beauty of the redwoods of Redwood National Park coexist with the social unease of deep America. “In River’s Dream I try to approach these places from a particular perspective, which is that of individuals, of families, of community,” Hatleberg tells Il Foglio. “I longed to go to Florida in search of the paths off the beaten track. I was not interested in the Florida of Miami beaches or Disney World, or that ends up in the newspapers. I knew nothing about that state, and I was curious to understand what happens in normal places and in everyday life. And I wanted to do it in the middle of summer, when the humidity is unbearable, to better immerse myself in the atmosphere of those places.”

Hatleberg visited Florida for a couple of years, returning to see the same families he had met by chance to spend time with them. “I even lived for several months with some of them and became part of their daily routine. These are people I met while photographing: they were as interesting to me as I was to them. And there was a spark. It was a kind of magnetism, an unspoken connection.” This close relationship allowed Hatleberg to enter the world of these people, to access their moments of intimacy and vulnerability. A deep relationship that grew out of complete strangeness. “I relied on them, as collaborators, subjects and guides,” he explains. Hatleberg is not afraid to use the word “friendship” to describe this relationship. The volume opens with a blank page that reads, “This book is dedicated to the Huggers.” The artist explains, “The Huggers are ‘those who embrace,’ but they are also the Hugger family, one of the families I have grown most attached to.”

It is thus a book about friendship, but also about summer: “The heat forces people to be outdoors. And the photo opportunities are endless. People go out on the streets just to walk, letting themselves go out into the world without any planned thoughts. In those temperatures, you take off your shirts, your skin is laid bare. Crime increases. Waves of moisture wash over the landscape, driving weeds out of the concrete.” After his experience in Florida, the photographer landed an artist residency in Galveston, a coastal city in East Texas, which also allowed him to spend periods in Louisiana and Mississippi. “The weather there was incredible, too: you had wet clothes on all day long. It’s the swamp where snakes and alligators live; whose images recur throughout the book, as do those of the families who hosted me.” Places, seasons, people. Hatleberg records and documents. But there are no captions or notes in the book to associate the images with the circumstances in which they were taken. This is not an oversight, but a conscious choice. “When, by showing a photograph, one answers too many questions about who, what, where, and why, you close off many of the possible interpretations. If immediately after looking at an image you read the caption and think ‘oh, it’s Florida,’ the game is already over, the imaginary is already circumscribed. Whereas in this way the viewer has a chance to dream. And the hypotheses of interpretation are neither confirmed nor denied. It’s a kind of ambiguity that I really like.”

It is no coincidence that Hatleberg’s photography was chosen by Paul Graham for the group show “But Still, It Turns,” presented at the International Centre of Photography in New York and the Rencontres d’Arles, in which the British photographer put forward a new generation of artists who have restored vitality to the tradition of photography based on life “as it is.” It is, in different nuances depending on the author, a lyrical documentary, in which reality is represented without technical distortions, but without deluding oneself or claiming to be objective, but rather winking at the narrative of fiction. River’s Dream begins with an image of a ruined house, whose white door is dotted with red, black and yellow spray spots. The next picture is dotted, however, with a swarm of bees around two slices of watermelon. In the subsequent image, two more slices of watermelon are leaning against a yellow-painted wooden windowsill, and in the background is a sign that reads “Pure Honey.” We turn the page and find a man in a yellow T-shirt who, with a scowl, sports a beard of bees around his chin. The following photograph shows a family at the side of the road around a table eating slices of watermelon. The browsing continues with three men around a small table playing dominoes. In the next shot, the framing is close up and you can make out the domino pieces positioned like a snake. Turning the page, there is a photograph of a little girl, sitting amid piles of rubble, holding a snake. Hatleberg explains, “It’s a sequence of images that proceeds according to the logic of a dream. Later in the sequence, more images of snakes appear. One in a tank, the other in an inflatable pool. If you think about it, even the river that gives the book its title proceeds in loops and resembles a snake.” These are not metaphors or symbols, although it is difficult to separate an animal like the snake from a symbolic connotation, but recurring themes, like melodic lines in a piece of music. A score built by counterpoint, in which recurring images are woven into a visual flow that has little or no narrative, but much that is poetically atmospheric. Hatleberg’s is a work about the humidity, the water, the river, the life that comes alive in these regions unfamiliar to those born and raised on the East Coast’s big cities. “These are places neglected by more than just media attention. They’re places you’ll never hear about except that, for one reason or another, you’re forced to go there. America is a really big country, but probably 70 percent of it is more like these places than big cities like New York, Miami or Los Angeles. If there’s a standard, it should be looked for here, even if it’s the part of the United States you know the least about.” Hatleberg explains that, especially at this time, in such a polarized country where division dominates, photography is a great excuse to bring people from different worlds together and give them an opportunity to share something. “While working on this book,” the photographer says, “I had someone say to me, ‘I’ve never met an artist or someone from the left. But you’re nice, you’re okay.’ Ultimately, looking at it as it is, it is more what we have in common than what sets us apart. I think people are good by nature. At the heart of work like this, there is probably the belief that it’s possible to understand the meaning of family and community. Maybe that sounds trivial, but it’s probably not so obvious: people can be together even if they are different. And this I was able to see thanks to my work as a photographer.”

It’s as if Hatleberg’s documentary approach brings him closer to a specific subject and theme. In this case, the South: unfamiliar and foreign to a man born in Washington DC and a Yale graduate. But it is the logic of the dream that carries forward the lyrical argument of the conversation. Yet each shot is an image that stands on its own, capable of communicating even in isolation from the final sequence. Many of these photographs convey a mysterious charm, difficult to decipher. A skewed, off-axis beauty. Lester Bangs would have called it “grungy.” “Yes, I desire to show beautiful things. That’s where I want to get to. But what I prefer is to make an image that thrives on the friction between extremes: happiness and sadness. Hope and despair. It happens that you find yourself in really tough situations, socially or personally, but something appears inside the frame that opens up a possibility.” The photographer suggests looking at the ending of his book: there is a sequence of images showing a middle-aged, red-haired woman. She is sitting at a table by a river. In front of her are empty bottles. Some full of water, some of beer. She looks at the arm of a person outside the frame, on which a praying mantis has rested. “It was an ordinary day in an ordinary situation. It looked like it was going to rain. Then this beautiful insect comes out of nowhere, like a small miracle. It’s on such occasions, when the everyday flirts with the sublime, that life becomes exciting.”

Speaking of small miracles, in 2020, shortly after taking the last photo in this book, Hatleberg’s first child was born. He was registered at the registry office as River. This is not a key to River’s Dream, but something the artist greatly cares about. “The whole time I was working on this book, he didn’t exist yet. My son had not yet been born. Now, looking back on it, though, it’s like I went through these vivid, intense, beautiful experiences as if in a dream. The dialogues I had in the places I ended up, the excitement of not knowing where photography would take me at the end of the day, and trying to find the most visually appropriate way to communicate all this. And today I think that, in a way, the first person I wanted to share what I saw and experienced with was him, my son. Even though I didn’t know him yet. And today I imagine him as having participated in this impossible dialogue. And what you now see in the book, ultimately, is also his dream of what was happening to me.”

Il Foglio, 5 November 2022

© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW
© Curran Hatleberg, Courtesy of the artist and TBW

Alec Soth – An Interview

Alec Soth A Pound of Pictures

by Luca Fiore

Vince Aletti, a leading photography critic, wrote in the New Yorker that Alec Soth is the most influential photographer of the last twenty years. He may be exaggerating, but the consensus around Soth’s work is beyond question. Not only is he a member of the world’s most prestigious agency, Magnum, and his photos appear in the major American and international press, but his books are considered best sellers. The first editions are collector’s items with unaffordable prices, but in recent years his English publisher has begun to reprint them, making them accessible to an increasingly wider audience. He used to keep a widely followed blog; he now posts mini lectures on Youtube, and has just opened a profile on Tik Tok. And, so far, he hasn’t yet fallen into ridicule.

But it is precisely the form of the book, and he himself confirms this, that contains within it the soul of his work. Soth is not really a photojournalist; rather, he is an heir to the American tradition of “poetic documentary,” whose patron saints, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, succeeded not only in recounting the soul and contradictions of a country, but in sparking the flame of poetry that ignites the world of things by portraying nothing other than what was in front of them.

Soth’s latest work, “A Pound of Picture” (MACK, 2022), was born out of failure. His original idea was to retrace the route taken by the train carrying Abraham Lincoln’s corpse from Washington, D.C., to his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, in 1865. On that occasion millions of Americans flocked to see the convoy carrying the body of the assassinated president. Among them was poet Walt Whitman, who for the occasion wrote the elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” in which he asks, “O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?/ To adorn the burial-house of him I love?”

“I was thinking about the Civil War,” he tells Il Foglio, “What the United States is experiencing today is something close to it. I live in Minneapolis, a mile from where George Floyd was killed. And I’ve seen a lot of tension over the years. It would be an exaggeration to say that Lincoln’s assassination reunified the country, but it’s certain that if he hadn’t been killed, his legacy would not have been the same. Today he’s an esteemed figure, for different reasons, by Democrats and Republicans. I wished to reflect on that period and that circumstance that, in some ways, was a way out in a moment of stalemate. But it was an abstract idea and the project foundered and turned into something completely different.”

“A Pound of Pictures,” as Soth intended it, is a reflection on the photographic medium, and little of the “Lincoln Project” remains, such as the image of a bust of the President in a car secured with a seatbelt. The book opens with a photo of a cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is sunset, and in the center of the image, amid the tombstones, a person can be seen with his back to a photographer. The man is Ed Panar, an artist friend of his. The two, Soth says, are discussing the idea of a stereotypical image. The cemetery is one such example. But for Panar, there are no clichés in photography and he is not afraid to take pictures of the place. That is how this photograph was born: the two of them go to a cemetery together, and the former immortalizes the latter in order to understand how one can look at the world without too many superstructures and prejudices. The last photograph in the book, however, is an image taken inside the author’s car. In the foreground is the steering wheel, on which a typed ticket is attached. It was the first picture taken at the end of the first lockdown. Soth recounts that at first he felt he had forgotten how to take pictures. As an aid he decided to reread the advice that Allen Ginsberg used to give photography students in the workshop he held with Robert Frank. And he kept them with him while working. The first two lines read, “Ordinary mind included eternal perceptions.” The last says, “Candor ends paranoia.” In between then are images that in one way or another are related to the world of photography, including portraits of Duane Michals, Sophie Calle, Nancy Rexroth, as well as the darkroom of legendary printer Sid Kaplan and Nan Goldin’s bed, on which two works by Peter Hujar stand out.

“One of the issues that is talked about so much today is that there are too many images in the world,” Soth explains. “At different times in my career I have had to wrestle with this idea. But at some point I thought it’s like complaining that there are too many flowers. Why does one, even today, take the trouble to photograph flowers even though, probably, the fate of those images is to end up, sooner or later, in the trash? According to me it’s because, in some way, they testify to the recognition of a beauty. And for me that, for some years now, is becoming important, rather than stressing the negative aspects. For me, now, it is about celebrating what is there. Because that, after all, gives the possibility of a connection between people.” That was also the goal of the project on Abraham Lincoln: to find connection in a fragmented world. “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about that. Perhaps underneath the surface of this work there’s also that. If I think about one of the sources I go back to, Walt Whitman, he was like that, whatever he did: from writing poetry to nursing during the Civil War. In him there is a desire to connect with people.”

“A Pound of Picture” was also included in another book released this year, “Gathered Leaves Annotated,” which gathers all five major long-term projects Soth has done since 2004. The volume, printed on newsprint, also features “Sleeping by the Mississippi,” “Niagara,” “Broken Manual” and “Songbook.” It consists of seven hundred pages in which the books are reproduced in their entirety, including their covers, but to which the author has added handwritten comments, placed captions alongside the photos that were originally placed at the end, and added – in the margins – discarded images that seemed more appropriate to him today. Beyond the curiosities, more or less interesting, leafing through such a book means to immerse yourself in a great account of America of the last two decades. What America is, then, is very difficult to say. “As I realized with the failure of the Lincoln project, I’m not the kind of photographer who goes and tells you what his country looks like,” Soth explains. “For me it’s more about the process, how things happen as you make them. Sure, my books talk about America and say something about it, but I couldn’t really say what. Ours is too big, articulate and complex a country, full of nuances. But one thing I think I’ve realized is that every time I go out to photograph America I end up learning something I didn’t know before, because things were not the way I thought they were.” To explain what that means, Soth takes an image from his latest book as an example. It is of a shirtless black boy in the middle of a tall-grass meadow, bending down to pick a flower with pink petals. “I was in Pittsburgh to photograph Buddhist temples. I arrived at one of them and found that the place was closed. I stopped the car in the neighborhood, and it was a poor area, inhabited by African Americans. I noticed a young couple. They were beautiful. I asked if I could photograph them. She said no. He agreed. After I had taken the photos, I exchanged small talk with them and found out that he usually attends the nearby Vietnamese Buddhist temple. And I couldn’t really imagine a guy like that as a temple-goer. It was like finding something I wasn’t looking for. Does that say anything about America? I don’t know. It certainly says something different than what I thought before.” A note in the book says, among other things, “Photography doesn’t just force me to leave the house, it forces me to leave my head (briefly).”

Reviewing Soth’s books, which alternate between portraits and interior shots, landscapes and still lifes, one often has the impression of being moved. The themes addressed are challenging: dreaming (“Sleeping by the Mississipi”), love (“Niagara”), living outside the box (“Broken Manual”), the religious dimension in the Midwest (“Songbook”). If asked if there was a turning point in conceiving his images, Soth returns to a photograph featured in “Niagara”: it is a portrait of Melissa on her wedding day. She sits outside an anonymous building in her wedding dress. “She had just gotten married in a motel chapel. I took pictures of the couple, then asked to take a portrait of just her. While editing my first book, I realized that my photographs included too many elements. So for “Niagara,” I was trying to work by subtraction. On that occasion, it’s as if I asked myself: can I make a photograph about love that has only one person as its subject? She sat down and took on a much more reflective expression. It was the beginning of a new way of thinking about the work.” The story of this portrait, Soth continues, does not end there: “After years, I sometimes go back to meet or photograph particular people again. I looked for information about Melissa and, on Facebook, found photos of her second wedding. Now looking at this image I can’t help but think about the time that separated the two marriages. Her gaze today seems to be that of a woman thinking about the future.” The idea that you can depict a subject – love, for example – on which light cannot rest and which does not imprint film is one of the paradoxes that has always characterized photography. “I just opened a Tik Tok profile and started experimenting. For example, I filmed myself thinking about the most different things: funny, violent, sad. And I was asking users if they understood what was going on in my head. It doesn’t work. We don’t know what the bride from earlier was thinking about. Maybe what she was going to eat at her wedding lunch. We’re the ones who fill that void. And we do it depending on who we are and when we do it. It’s the viewer who gives meaning to the image, if they want to.”

In this regard, conditioning the way we read images are often the words that are associated with them. Dorothea Lange said that “all photographs – not only those that are so called ‘documentary’, and every photograph really is documentary and belongs in some place, has a place in history – can be fortified by words.” And Soth uses them a lot. Poems, usually. His books have titles that nod to Walt Whitman or quote verses from Wallace Stevens. But not only. Flipping through “Gathered Leaves Annotated,” for example, one comes across a short text that closes “Songbook” and, which, perhaps, can illuminate the rest of his work as well. It is a quote from Eugène Ionesco that says: “The truest society, the authentic human community, is extra-social – a wider and deeper society, that which is revealed by our common anxieties, our desires, our secret nostalgias. The whole history of the world has been governed by nostalgias and anxieties, which political action does no more than reflect and interpret, very imperfectly. No society has been able to abolish human sadness, no political system can deliver us from the pain of living, from our fear of death, our thirst for the absolute. It is the human condition that directs the social condition, not vice versa.”

Il Foglio, 22 July 2022

Alec Soth, ‘Stuart. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Alec Soth, ‘White Bear Lake, Minnesota’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Alec Soth, ‘Megan. Belle Island, Detroit, Michigan’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Alec Soth, ‘Julie. Austin, Texas’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
Alec Soth, ‘Julie. Austin, Texas’, from A Pound of Pictures (MACK, 2022). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.

Vincenzo Castella – An Interview

Vincenzo Castella

by Luca Fiore

In 1984, Luigi Ghirri wrote that Vincenzo Castella – then 32 years old – was one of the most important figures of the “new Italian photography.” This was a generation, the Scandiano-based artist explained, whose approach to photography was neutral and impersonal. The “death of the author” was the unifying element of the new trend, which followed the example of Walker Evans: silence, rigor and simplicity.

Almost forty years have passed and Castella has shed the role of the young promise to assume that of the master. His work has evolved, but without betraying the convictions that had founded the poetics of his beginnings. “Every new photograph should be looked at as a new fact,” says Castella. “Not as a variant, nor as a reproduction, or even as a reality or its opposite. The photographic act is neither convenient nor functional; but it is a subtle, elusive and infallible gesture.”

At the turn of the 70s and 80s, Castella’s lens rested on urban landscapes, the interiors of houses or shops, industrial areas and glimpses of archaeological ruins. Color images were made with large-format plates, capable of accurately recording even the smallest details. “Everything seems to be guided by a skilful direction, which discreetly indicates, emphasizes, leads the path of our gaze,” Ghirri writes when looking at these images by Castella. “Not to force our vision but to better make visible the theatre sets of the world.”

In the following decades, Castella focused on the fabric of the city shot from above: Milan, Naples, Turin, Athens, Amsterdam, Cologne. “What I have tried to do is to convey the continuous intensity of the urban machine, which develops a life beyond the concern of the person who designed it,” he explains. “My idea of the city is that of a spaceship built elsewhere and dropped into our reality. So I focused on the hooks, the hinges, the connections where you can better see the city; the Italian city especially develops more on lived experience than on urban design.” These are images in which the gaze can get lost in their many details, all rigorously in focus. They demonstrate an effort of precision that is a gesture of affection towards the web of streets and buildings within which the lives of men stir.

The years at the turn of the 2000s, on the other hand, were years of technical experimentation, which led him, among the first in Italy, to scan photographic plates, printing them from files. Within him was the desire to reflect on the nature of digital transformation, which he does not consider a neutral process, along with the curiosity to obtain far from naturalistic chromatic renderings, but more resembling to industrial products: “A particular green that, more than resembling the colour of a meadow, resembled the colour of an Apple screen.”

More recently, Castella’s interest has shifted to art history: Santa Maria Novella in Florence, San Maurizio and Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. His attempt was to return, through peripheral shots, to a poetic reading of architectural spaces or frescoes. This is the case with Leonardo’s Last Supper, where he focuses on the walled-in door that punctuates and wounds the work. The concrete rectangle, which the photographer makes almost disappear into the darkness at the bottom, appears as a metaphor both for Leonardo’s impenetrable masterpiece and for the diaphragm that separates us from ultimate knowledge of the world.

Parallel to this, the artist is also pursuing projects concerning nature. These are close-up photographs, made with nineteenth-century lenses, with an uneven focus. The effect is painterly, now far removed from Evans’ surgical precision. They are often photographs taken in botanical gardens, although they give the impression that they were produced in wild settings. “In such cases I try to raise the temperature of the visual action. Nature allows me to create uneven backdrops of plants in captivity. I’ve almost never photographed a forest,” Castella explains. “I don’t photograph the created or the creator, but something I consider a text, often treated in art history in the peripheries of paintings, in the margins. I am attracted to the color green; it’s a color that is not beautiful, but is ambiguous, which gives you the perception of understanding more. I don’t think it’s by chance that it represents hope in popular culture.”

In his recent “Il libro di Padova” (The Book of Padua), published by Silvana Editoriale, Castella combines these two thematic strands – the art of the past and nature – by proposing a journey that starts from the Botanical Garden, passes through the Venetian city’s main historical buildings, and then returns to its starting point: Goethe’s Palm, Galileo’s desk, the Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel. “It’s a path manual, where you add up what you know and what you don’t know and at the end you get a mysterious mathematical derivative that, somehow, allows you to know something.” Until then, the artist had conceived his work in terms of “parataxis,” that is, the juxtaposition of main, independent and interchangeable sentence-images. In Padua, however, he tried to construct a ‘hypotactic’ text, in which the discourse is articulated by main and subordinate clauses, in order to help the cognitive process.

One of the book’s most intense moments is the page with four photos of the “Martyrdom and Transport of St. Christopher”, Andrea Mantegna’s fresco in the Ovetani Chapel of the Church of the Eremitani. The vertical, panoramic-format images dissect the work in three intervals, somewhat imitating the movement of the gaze that follows, from left to right, the pictorial narrative. This choice allows him on the one hand to include the dimension of the time of observation, and on the other hand to enter into a relationship with the work by going beyond trivial photographic mimesis. The artist includes not only the painting, but also the portion of the wall below it and a section of the floor. “We cannot understand the enormous heritage we have in Italy if we do not extend our field of vision to the place where the works are kept. I’m not interested in denouncing degradation – and that’s not the case in Padua – the point for me is broader observation.” Castella’s images of the Ovetani Chapel have also brought to light the losses sustained by the March 1944 bombing: the work and its wounds, those of time and those inflicted by the hand of man.

For Castella, reality is not what we see. It is better. “Because the visible is made up of what is framed by the lens and is captured on film, but also by what is invisible to the eyes and the camera. I’m not talking about ghosts, but about what – although not seen – we can only get to know through what appears to us.” This is why the artist always tries to work in “negative space,” both from the point of view of his choice of subjects, and his framing. On the one hand, he depicts fragments of cities or works not worn out by the gaze of the mass media, and on the other hand, the widening of shots to capture the outline of the subjects, often also achieved by use of the panoramic format.

Another choice that recurs in Castella’s work is that of the reverse shot. This is the case with the wooden horse in the Great Hall of the Palazzo della Ragione in Padua, which has been shot from behind, capturing only its pedestal and legs at surface level. The space from which the monument is usually observed by the visitor is instead at the edge of the shot. “It’s the work that begins to look at you,” he explains. He had done the same in Florence, when he shot Santa Maria Novella from the apse towards the façade, depicting the iron and wooden back of Giotto’s crucifix in the foreground, which stands out against the backdrop of the black and white stone vaults.

The rhetoric-free attention to a landscape unknown to the collective imagination, which he shared with the “new Italian photography,” now appears transfigured. He still has a good dose of nonconformism within him, for whom the image is both a tool and an end to gain a liberated awareness. Society has changed, which has found new ways to imprison images. He himself has changed, who refused to settle for any singular way of desiring the liberation of the gaze.

Domani, 20th March 2022

Bruno Ceschel – An interview

by Luca Fiore

What interests me most about photography, and in art in general, is the ability to build the future. Artists have the ability to narrate, to make us think about a different, better future. This is the common thread that holds together what I do: books, exhibitions and teaching.” Bruno Ceschel is well aware that photography has made its fortune on its capacity for memory, of resurrecting people, things and events that are no longer there, as Roland Barthes explains when he writes about his search for an image to revive his dead mother. And yet, in Ceschel, a restless visionary, what prevails is the opposite force: art has to push beyond the limits of the known and, as Luigi Ghirri said of Daguerre, to approach the boundary of the “already seen” and at the same time the “never seen”.

In the world of photography publishing Bruno Ceschel is considered the guru of self-publication. In 2010 he founded a cultural project, which later became a publishing house and a series of popular online masterclasses, with a clever and optimistic name: Self Publish, Be Happy!. Since then, if the way in which photographers think and make books has changed, it is also thanks to the enhancement and visibility given to hundreds of independent publications by young artists who were previously overlooked by publishers and curators. The Guardian called Ceschel’s initiative “the vanguard of the self-publishing revolution.” In fact, SPBH was born as an invitation to the new generation of photographers to send in their publications so that they could be included in the collection of self-published books that, last year, was acquired by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris. Three thousand books and fanzines: a “snapshot” of what has sprung up spontaneously in the young community of artists over the last fifteen years.

Ceschel, born in 1976, began his adventure in Treviso, not far from the town where he was born and raised, Orsago, as part of the editorial staff of Colors Magazine, the cult magazine founded in 1991 by designer Tibor Kalman and photographer Oliviero Toscani for the Benetton group. After studying Sociology in Trento and London, he became editor during the period in which Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, two key figures of the new photography, were directing the magazine, projecting it onto the international stage. Three years later he found himself in London, making do with collaborations with Italian newspapers, particularly women’s magazines. But the new turning point came when he was advised to send his CV to Chris Boot, former director of Magnum Photo in New York and London, former editorial director of Phaidon and future executive director of the Aperture Foundation – one of the industry’s master minds. By that time Boot was working on his own, publishing books by Martin Parr, Luc Delahaye, James Mollison and Stephen Gill, among others. This was greatly educative for Ceschel, who began to familiarize himself with the world of photography that matters.

Bruno Ceschel

In 2008 he was asked to curate an exhibition for the Brooklyn Museum, with an Aperture catalog. The exhibition’s theme, at the time, was avant-garde: Contemporary Queer Photography. The project, however, fell through and nothing came of it. “But during those two years in New York, I came into contact with a community of young photographers and artists who were producing work that resonated with my interests. They were using print, books and fanzines and were self-publishers. The Do-It-Yourself culture in the United States is much more deeply rooted than in Europe, and what I was seeing seemed very valuable.” So he decided to launch an open-call, inviting people to send him their work for promotion on his blog. “I proposed an event called Self Publish, Be Happy to the Photographer’s Gallery in London, in which I showcased a selection of these books and organized meetings with the authors. They were works that were not circulating in the mainstream and people had no idea they existed. It was an overwhelming success. The principle was democratic; anyone could send us their work, then we would select what would become part of the collection. Overnight, I suddenly had a house full of books. I received as many as 15 publications a week. People talked about it, word got around. And the Photographer’s Gallery began keeping some of these books in their bookshop.”

Five years later, in 2015, “Self Publish, Be Happy” also became a book published by Aperture with the subheading, “A Do-It-Yourself Photobook Manual and Manifesto.” Ceschel’s introduction begins, “This is not a collection of recently published photography books. It is not a best-of. It is a call to arms, a rallying cry to take part, to act, to share.” The volume features big names, artists who would later become big, and others who have remained in the shadows. We find “The Little Brown Mushroom Dispatch” by Alec Soth and Brad Zellar, a series of publications in newspaper form documenting the American photographer and writer’s travels around the United States. Or “Nude” by Chinese photographer Ren Hang, which collects works that later became particularly famous after the artist’s suicide, printed by a printmaker friend. We also find “Gomorra Girls” by Valerio Spada, which recounts the story of the suburbs of Naples, alternating material from the police dossier on the murder of a fourteen-year-old girl, killed by crossfire in a shootout, and images of the neighborhood where the girl lived. Or “Afronauts” by Spain’s Cristina de Middel, which freely reconstructs, through original documentation of photographs and the artist’s drawings, the story of Zambia’s space programme that dreamed of sending astronauts to Mars in the 1960s.

“Self-publishers have shattered the rules of traditional publishing, which were very much tied to the standards imposed by big names like Taschen and Steidl. They introduced innovations both in terms of the themes that were presented and the form of the book object,” Ceschel explains. “Not only because the artists often came from minority backgrounds and, belonging to underrepresented communities, told stories and themes that were hitherto unexplored, but they had a freedom and unscrupulousness in their use of the publishing medium. The physical appearance of the publication became an integral part of the narrative. The quality of paper, graphics, binding, printing techniques. They were young people who thought about books in a different way. It was an experience that certainly ended up influencing mainstream publishing as well. Today, even if the trend is that of the book “a la Michael Mack”, which is very clean and classic, we see certain experiments in books published even by more established and official entities. The language of the photographic book has changed forever.”

But there is another dimension that, according to Ceschel, has been brought out by this phenomenon. “Traditionally, photography has always been a parallel reality to the world of contemporary art, for various historical reasons, so much so that in museums it has always been considered a thing apart; paradoxically certain institutions have not even collected it. And the same has happened with photobooks, which have remained separate from the history of artists’ books”. In the last fifteen or twenty years, he notes, there has been a fusion of photography and contemporary art. “This phenomenon is not only seen in museums, but also in publishing: all these experiments do not come from nowhere, self-publishers did not invent them, but it is something that has matured from the experiences of the artistic avant-garde. Some scholars believe that the artist’s book is the form that expresses the quintessence of 20th century art because it has the characteristics that shaped the last century: the adoption of the industrial process, conceptual experimentation, the democratic, social and revolutionary impulse.”

And it is no coincidence, Ceschel continues, that many of the artists of the last generation were trained in universities where photography is taught in the Contemporary Art department and not in the Design or Applied Arts departments. “These photographers thus have a different way of thinking. Their mind is different from the previous generation, and that has always attracted me. But not because I am interested in contemporary art itself, but what is being said through it. In the end, what I am looking for – in general, in life – is to confront myself with new ideas. To be able to live better, to understand who I am and where I am. That is why I am always looking for something unprecedented, for what is being told and how it is being told.”

To explain what this means, Ceschel gives the example of his collaboration with artist and activist Carmen Winant, which he says is based on questioning her preconceptions and ideas about gender identity. SPBH published “My Birth,” the book of a project in which Winant collected almost 3 thousand images of women in the period of gestation and childbirth – a completely taboo topic in Western society – which was exhibited in the same year in the exhibition “Being: New Photography 2018” at Moma in New York. “That book had a visceral impact in the community of people I met at museums or fairs. We received so many messages of gratitude for that book. And for me, from a personal point of view, a world opened up that I did not know.” Another of Ceschel’s partnerships is with renowned American poet Claudia Rankine, with whom he collaborates regularly and with whom he is working on The Racial Imaginary Institute Biennale 2022, titled “On Nationalism: Borders and Belonging.” “Her radical work on the political and social construction of the white race has inspired me to embark on an incredible emotional and intellectual journey about my own identity.” Or his friendship with photographer and writer Nicholas Muellner, who explores the potential of the relationship between photography and literature. “He, too, opened up a world to me that was unknown to me. But the moment one gives you the key to enter it, you have the opportunity to discover how much is hidden behind that. These are all relationships that give me tools to open myself up to new ideas. As time goes by, I find that I am increasingly impatient with what gives me the impression of having already been seen and heard.”

It is from this impatience that, in 2018, the idea of organizing an event entitled “Photobook: RESET” at the C/O Berlin museum blossomed. “I had the impression that contemporary photography was not taking seriously certain topics that today, fortunately, have exploded into public debate. Why is it that museums only offer collections of works produced by men? Are there alternative voices to the heterosexual white man? But there were also the challenges posed by the acceleration of technological progress. These were the questions that I had and that I felt that no one was trying to answer seriously.” The idea was to invite photography’s elite – academics, curators, editors, critics, artists, designers – and ask them, rather than an ex-cathedra lecture, to get involved through the workshop format. “I did not expect solutions to be found. These are huge problems that cannot be solved in a weekend. But I wanted that, through very personal work, everyone would go home with a set of new questions to continue to reflect upon.” What have the results been three years later? “I do not like grading colleagues. But Lesley A. Martin of Aperture and Michael Mack came. Are their books now different than before? To some extent, yes. Things are moving along. I am not saying that event was decisive. Some things were already in the air. A lot of ground is still to be covered. But every now and then we see some jolts. Like what happened at Foam, the Museum of Photography in Amsterdam, where Jane’a Johnson, a thirty-year-old African-American, was appointed creative director. She is the first non-Dutch woman to hold that position.”

In recent months, a new chapter in Ceschel’s life has begun. After a decade spent between the United Kingdom and the United States, mostly in London, he returned to Italy and has settled in Milan. “Reaching 40, it seemed like the right time to think about something new. Brexit provided the impetus. London is a place I love and has given me so much. I had incredible opportunities there, but now by returning to my country I hope to bring back my experience and a way of thinking about this work and photography that is probably different. I have not yet found a way to do this. But things have always worked out for me by experimenting in the field. I am not going to change my method. We will see.” In the meantime, four new SPBH books have been released in recent months. Two monographs, “Promise Land” by Gregory Eddi Jones and “Say So” by Whitney Hubbs, and two short essays on topics – as is typical of Ceschel – that are anything but obvious, “Instructional Photographs: Learning How to Live Now” by Carmen Winant and “To Be Determined: Photography and the Future” by Duncan Wooldridge.

Il Foglio, 28th December 2021

“The British Isles” by Jamie Hawkesworth

Jamie Hawkesworth The British Isles

by Luca Fiore

Jamie Hawkesworth is a photographer born in Suffolk, South East England in 1987. In the last decade he has established himself in the world of fashion. He photographed Kate Moss for Vogue, Gisele Bündchen just woken up and without makeup, but also David Hockney for the New York Times Magazine. Mack is about to release a book on his non-commercial work, entitled “The British Isles”. It is, perhaps, the British publisher’s most ambitious release this 2021 and is poised to become a best seller.

Hawkesworth is, without a doubt, a great portraitist. He proved this in 2014 with his first book, “Preston Bus Station,” a volume that featured work done visiting the bus station of the small town in the north of England each day for a month. Teenagers, office workers, laborers, the elderly. The faces of the people of Preston are illuminated by a golden light that enhances their beauty and dignity. That station, a Brutalist giant that recently escaped demolition, as the photographer recounted, “Was the first place where I really looked at light. I began to see, feel and understand its effect, I was becoming sensitive to light. Being patient in such a transitional space began to amplify every detail. Everything became significant. In the continuous motion of people’s days, light became a magnifying glass – a tool to study and appreciate life. A cold circular space became heaven.”

“The British Isles ” appears as a bit of a development, of that extraordinary book, which is now impossible to find; it takes Hawkesworth’s poetics from the limited spaces of a “non-place” to the undefined spaces of the entire country. Here too we find the faces of men and women of different ages, ethnicities and social groups, but the setting is now that of the English landscape. The portraits, all shot in urban contexts, alternate with images of coasts, moors, and the English countryside. The same light rests on the human figure and on nature: warm and golden. And the wild spaces, with large horizons, caress the idea of the sublime and, perhaps, would like to evoke the boundless expanses of feelings and emotional patterns that dwell within the bodies of the protagonists of the portraits.

The photographer’s investigation is not systematic and does not aim to offer a social cross-section of contemporary England, although its title seems to suggest this. What is striking, and that could even be found annoying, is the general feeling of positivity that this overview of faces conveys. No account is given of the deep fractures in the social fabric. The multicultural dimension seems peacefully resolved. Political divergences do not appear. The knot of Brexit is not touched upon. But, as said, it is perhaps the connection between the human and interminable spaces and superhuman silences that develops in the sequence of images. And, if we look closely, another theme that arises, in various forms, and that intersperses the gallery of faces: the enigmatic theme of the house.

This is an important volume also in terms of its size; with its 304 pages, the book constitutes a very demanding sequence of images. And here lies the Achilles’ heel of a work of great charm. The sequence of images, which could have been more selective, presents some lapses; at times it lingers and is more explicit than it should be (too many smiles, for example) or slips into an aesthetic that is more suited to the pages of Vogue than to those of a song about beauty in life.

Il Foglio, 2nd July 2021

Lesley A. Martin – An Interview

New Black Avanguard

by Luca Fiore

They call it the ‘golden age of the photobook’. And we are right in the midst of it. Over the last two decades, photo publishing has experienced a real boom – both quantitatively and qualitatively. In complete contrast to the print market, the interest of authors and the public has only grown. The number of publishers has multiplied and the practice of self-publishing has spread. And the goal of many photographers, rather than exhibiting their work in an exhibition, is above all to see their images take the form of a book.

The onset of this phenomenon was made to coincide with “Fotografía pública. Photography in Print 1919-1939”, the exhibition curated by Horacio Fernández in 1999 at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid – an unprecedented attempt to consider the photographic image from a publishing standpoint. In the meantime, first attempts were made to historicise the phenomenon, giving it a centrality that had never been acknowledged. Andrew Roth started with his “The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century”, published in 2001. This was followed by the three volumes of “The Photobook: A History”, edited by Martin Parr and Gerry Bedgere, published by Phaidon between 2004 and 2014. But the revolution had already begun in the early 1990s, especially with the books designed and produced by the Swiss Martin Keller who, with Scalo Publishers, had shaken up the field with masterpieces such as Richard Billingham’s “Ray’s a Laugh”, in which editorial form and content reached unprecedented standards.

In the late 1990s, Lesley A. Martin became an intern at the Aperture Foundation, the most prestigious photography institution in the United States, founded in 1952 by Ansel Adams, Minor White, Dorothea Lange, Nancy and Beaumont Newhall. Today, having become the creative director of Aperture, having founded and directed The Photobook Review and having established the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award, Martin is the most powerful woman in the world of photobook publishing. A female figure that stands out in an environment dominated by men, even if, after all, it was a lady who produced the first photography book in history: English botanist Anna Atkins, who in 1843 published a collection of images of the algae she was studying. Martin has lived and worked in Japan, but makes use of Italian book printers – her favourite is Trifolio in Verona, which also serves MoMA in New York. This allows her to brush up on her Italian, which she learned in Casal Palocco, between Rome and Ostia, where she lived with her family between the ages of 5 and 13 (her father was employed by Firestone).

Lesley A. Martin

If you ask her what the purpose of publishing a paper book today is, in an age when images are the engine of the digital world, she employs a culinary metaphor: “I love junk food. So do social networks, to which I am as addicted as anyone else. I read books on my smartphone and, for certain content, I think it makes sense. But slow food is something else. The paper book experience manages to bring together images, text and graphics in a way that best conveys the photographer’s intentions.” And it’s also a matter of quality: “For music, vinyl is back in vogue, which has a better sound quality than streaming. The same applies to photographs on paper. It’s true that nowadays most images are created digitally on a screen and it’s changing the way we approach visual storytelling. Some people may be working on discovering new ones, but I have yet to see technologies that can show complex narratives in the way that the traditional book can.”

For Lesley Martin, when it comes to photography exhibitions, however, the matter is entirely different. The metaphor she uses is again musical. “When it was allowed, I loved going to concerts. You listen to live music in a certain place at a certain time. And you can do it with others. But then, back home, I want to listen to the record once, twice, a hundred times. The recording is the ‘canonical’ form of the musician’s work, to which we return as a reference, in contrast to all the variants there may be in a live performance.” In this sense, she explains, the two forms of presentation of the work are complementary and necessary. “There are cases in which, even for books that I have edited, it has happened that, looking at the images on show, I have noticed details that I had not noticed during the editing process. Then, however, the photographers tell me that for them it is the book that matters. But maybe they just say that to me just to please me… [she laughs].”

Aperture is a publisher with a long history and has contributed to building the canon of American photography. Books such as “Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph”, Steven Shore’s “Uncommon Places”, Joel Meyerowitz’s “Cape Light” and Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” are must-haves and best-sellers. But the challenge today, Martin explains, is to revise this canon and fill in the gaps. “We are working hard to right certain wrongs done in the past. The main objective, therefore, is not so much to find the new artist to publish, but to look back and introduce our readers to figures who have so far remained on the margins.” The most important example is Kwame Brathwaite, an African-American photographer who worked in the 1960s and 1970s. Fiercely independent, he set up an agency to distribute his images and only worked with black models. “He made really extraordinary portraits. He was an expression of the Black is Beautiful movement, which is also the title of the book that came out two years ago and was edited by Tanisha C. Ford. We had a travelling exhibition and the book, which cost 50 dollars, was reprinted several times.”

The visibility of black photographers is a topic that, according to Martin, applies to the past as well as the present. “Voices like Brathwaite’s are still there today. And, perhaps, with social networks, they have more tools to make themselves known. But I am very interested in identifying certain phenomena and going to meet them. Thus in 2019 The New Black Vanguard was born, a collection of 15 young black artists from the UK, Nigeria, South Africa and the US.” When you try to point out that it is a very ‘American’ topic, Martin replies, “No, it’s not. So much so that we will take the exhibition that was born from this project to the Arles Festival this summer, but we have asked the curator Antwaun Sargent to add European artists as well. For example, Silvia Rosi, Italian of Togolese origin, will take part.”

In addition to her work with books, Martin is also in charge of the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards, which she helped found in 2012 and which has now become the world’s leading award for photo publishing. It is presented every year at the Paris fair held at the Grand Palais. “It was like a second degree for me. Every year I have the opportunity to look at about a thousand books from all over the world. Of course, I don’t get to look at them all with the same attention, but over time you start to notice patterns, genres, trends, both from the point of view of themes and production choices.” It is not the Prix Nadar, which rewards the best book published in France, but has the ambition of monitoring the global market. The prize awarded to Paris Photos is divided into three categories: best PhotoBook, first PhotoBook and best exhibition catalogue. The short-list consists of 35 books in total, which are exhibited during the week of the Parisian fair attended by 70,000 people each year (“At the end, the books are completely worn out…”). The selection then tours several festivals in eight cities in the United States, Japan, Australia, Lithuania and Ukraine. “This gives great visibility to these books, which usually end up sold out. It is a great opportunity for their authors to take important steps in their careers,” explains Martin. “But above all, the prize serves to give an idea of the higher level at which the game of photography publishing is being played. And, as the rules prohibit the participation of Aperture books, it also allows me to see what standard of quality I should be aiming for in my work.”

Lesley A. Martin’s other creation, born in 2011, is the PhotoBook Review, the magazine that comes out twice a year as a supplement to Aperture, the flagship magazine of the Aperture Foundation. Circulated in 15,000 copies, it is the only trade magazine in print and with international circulation. “It is a fascinating space for debate on the ecology of our world. It is interesting because we try to bring together the various people involved in the production of photobooks: photographers, graphic designers, editors and book printers.” In recent years, Martin has chosen to present monographic issues with guest editors. “They are a plunge into a particular area of interest related to the key themes of our work. This happened, for example, with the issue on the relationship between text and image, which we entrusted to the Italian Federica Chiocchetti, founder of Photocaptionist”.

And how has the publishing world handled this year of the pandemic? “We learned a lot of things. For example, that people still love books, especially if they can’t go to museums and galleries. I myself, not being able to go to Paris Photo or the New York Book Fair, was able to order books I was interested in online. It was beautiful and important. But now we also know how dependent we have become on internet communication. What does this mean? What legacy do we take away from these months?” This is a question that many people are asking themselves, and no one seems to be able to answer it yet. “But I am optimistic because I see many interesting and intelligent people who are working to find new ways forward. I am confident that we can find the right balance between real life and digital life. If only for the fact that the photobook boom would not have happened without the advent of the internet. It would be unimaginable without digital processes, which have lowered production costs and thus consumer prices. Many questions remain open.”

“But Still, It Turns”, the exhibition curated by Paul Graham at the International Center of Photography in New York, which tries to propose a new canon for documentary photography, has been the subject of much debate in photography circles. According to the British photographer – and not only according to him – this type of research has been penalised in museums and galleries in favour of images shot in a studio or heavily modified on a computer. But the issue, according to Martin, is what is meant by “documentary photography”. “I am old school and I love photography because it captures something that is in the world. Between me and reality there is this medium, film. It is something wonderful and poetic. That kind of research, if done well, is the best you can ask of photography. Yes, many photographers, like Graham, feel marginalised by the space given over to more experimental forms. But I think the world is big and there is room for everyone.” Many artists, she explains, are reflecting on that part of our lives that takes place in the digital world. “I think photography made in the analogue world is just as important as photography that investigates digital reality. If we didn’t take both aspects into account, we would have a much poorer understanding of the world.”

Il Foglio, 20th June 2021

Dana Scruggs, Nyadhour, Elevated, Death Valley, California, 2019, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Dana Scruggs
Arielle Bobb-Willis, New Orleans, 2018, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Arielle Bobb-Willis
Daniel Obasi, Moments of Youth, Lagos, Nigeria, 2019, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019) © Daniel Obasi
Nadine Ijewere, Untitled, 2018, from The New Black Vanguard (Aperture, 2019)© Nadine Ijewere, for Garage magazine
©Kwame Brathwaite
©Kwame Brathwaite
©Kwame Brathwaite

“Nothing ancient under the sun” by Luigi Ghirri

Luigi Ghirri niente di antico sotto il sole

The event of the year in the world of Italian photography publishing is the release of a book that does not contain a single image: “Niente di antico sotto il sole – scritti e interviste”[Nothing ancient under the sun – Writings and interviews], by Luigi Ghirri (Quodlibet, €22). What is remarkable is that, despite the fact that the photographer from Modena, who died in 1992, was recognized internationally as one of the masters of the second half of the twentieth century and that this collection is one of the most fascinating books one can read on the subject of photography, the volume had long since become unavailable in Italian. Those who wanted to study Ghirri’s thought had to get the English version published by MACK.

            The original edition, published in 1997 by SEI, which today’s Italian and English editions followed, was edited by Paolo Costantini, who collected and edited the texts, and by Giovanni Chiaramonte, who put forward an anthology of images. The original title, in fact, was: “Niente di antico sotto il sole – Scritti e immagini per un’autobiografia” [Nothing ancient under the sun – Writings and images for an autobiography], in the conviction that Ghirri had written his own story with both words and photographs in equal measure. Instead of having notes to the edition by Chiaramonte and the foreword by Costantini, the Quodlibet volume now proposes the essay that Francesco Zanot has written for MACK.

            This operation attempts to fill a serious gap in the literary landscape and will allow Ghirri’s book to permanently be added to the list of essential texts for those who want to read and understand photography, even if the advice given to booksellers is to insert the volume in the “art essays” section. It belongs there.

            Ghirri’s trajectory, in fact, did not begin in photographic circles, as it did for some of the greats who had preceded him such as Paolo Monti or Mario Giacomelli, but in the contemporary art sphere. And the reflection that emerges from his pages is the result of a debate animated by instances in conceptual art that often questioned, on a theoretical level, the possibility of the image as such. Ghirri himself conceived the practice begun by Daguerre in a problematic way, which he defined as “the enigma of photography”. Since its discovery, “an interminable sequence of questions have come down to our days without a single one of the problems and questions that accompany photography having been answered.” According to Ghirri, Daguerre, “being the first to approach the frontier of the ‘already seen’ and at the same time of the ‘never seen’, sensed that from that moment on the life of the person would be accompanied by this double gaze, by a gap, a sort of halo that would inhabit people and places.” Hence his reference to the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Nothing ancient under the sun”.

            It is an enigma that runs through the photographers he loved, especially American ones: Walker Evans, William Eggleston, Robert Adams. But also young people then still unknown like Vincenzo Castella. It is prose that cites masters of painting, greats of literature, philosophers, and “his” Bob Dylan. But above all there is the question of the meaning of art and life. “What we are given to know, to tell, to represent is but a small stretch mark on the surface of things,” he wrote in 1988. “This awareness is also the desire, perhaps naive, for a return to a state of purity, zero degree vision.” Elsewhere Ghirri uses the expression, “return to the lost original.” Because, he explains, “this feeling of the origin of things is the point from which I start to look into the landscape, knowing that there are no definitive answers, but continuing to question myself, because the answer is contained in the act of continually asking myself the question.”

Il Foglio, 8th June 2021

Michael Mack – An Interview

by Luca Fiore

The photography exhibition of the moment – and the current moment is definitely not insignificant – is “But Still, It Turns,” which opened last February 4 in New York at the International Center of Photography, managed by Englishman David Campany. Curator of the exhibition of the works of eight American and European artists is fellow Englishman, photographer Paul Graham. Galileo’s phrase “Eppur si muove”, which acts as the exhibition’s title, already provides a value judgement on documentary photography, which has fallen into the background after the splendour of the last twenty-thirty years; yet, it’s still vital to the work of those whom Graham defines as photographers interested in life “as it is”. The days of rhetoric about the objectivity of the medium of photography are certainly over. The illusion that film or image sensors can record “the” truth, without technical or cultural filters, seems to have vanished. And yet, there are still those who have not given up and have not lost interest in what Roland Barthes called “intractable reality”. Graham’s choice fell upon Vanessa Winship, Curran Hatleberg, RaMell Ross, Gregory Halpern, Kristine Potter, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Italians Piergiorgio Casotti and Emanuele Brutti. The ambition is to write a true manifesto of a new way of doing photography, which the New York Times has compared to the enterprise undertaken by MoMa in 1967 with “New Documents”, launching three authors – almost unknown then – into history: Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. The most astute observers have noticed that the names involved in the exhibition – Campany, Graham, and two of the artists in the show, Winship and Halpern – are also linked to someone else, similarly an Englishman: Michael Mack, founder of MACK publishing house, which has published work by the other four. If there were a campaign to write a new page in the canon of the history of photography, he would undoubtedly play the role of an authentic Pygmalion.

Michael Mack

Born in London in 1965, Mack worked for 15 years at the court of the German Gerhard Steidl, undisputed king of art and photography publishing. After an interlude of a few years, in which he published under the label Steidl/Mack, he set out on his own in 2010 to set up his own publishing house. “The only regret I have,” he explains, “is that I didn’t have the patience or imagination to come up with a brand name other than my surname.” Known in the industry for his charm, Mack is considered a businessman who knows what he’s doing. His boldest move was his decision to break with Distributed Art Publishers, the American art publishing distribution giant. Today, a direct relationship with bookstores grants him greater profit margins on the retail price. Eleven years later, MACK has perhaps become the most significant organization in the world of photography publishing. In its catalogue, in addition to big names such as Paul Graham, Stephen Shore, Michael Schmidt, it also presents now established artists such as Taryn Simon, Alec Soth, and Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jason Fulford, as well as artists not exclusively related to photography, such as Thomas Demand, Tacita Dean and Torbjørn Rødland.
One of the most surprising things is that among the bestsellers published by MACK, we find two great Italians: Luigi Ghirri, whose complete collection of essays it has published – the only one in the world –, and Guido Guidi, who has produced eight titles with the English publisher. His love affair with Italian photography began in the early 1990s. “I was in Germany and there I came into contact with the German and Swedish tradition. I realised that beyond the canon of photography, which is all American, national stories have incredible depth and richness. They are very sophisticated.” The same thing happened in his discovery of Ghirri’s work: “I had the impression that he was contributing to the definition of the photographic medium as such.” And he still remembers the impression he had the first time he went to Ronta, on the outskirts of Cesena, to Guido Guidi’s studio: “Every box of prints he opened was a finished book. Incredible. It’s a privilege to be able to collaborate with a master like him. He still has an unexplored archive and very clear ideas about how he wants to exhibit his work.” Both Ghirri and Guidi, he explains, are rooted in their world that is Italy. “Even photographers under the big name of Magnum, coming from America and passing through Italy for a few weeks, cannot do what they did.” They are two artists who, in generation and interests, are very similar. But they also have different approaches. “Ghirri is very much influenced by personalities like William Eggleston, who is an absolute genius of the single image. Guidi’s eye, on the other hand, has the ability to penetrate the fabric of his environment and works more often with sequential shots.”

Mack is always on the hunt for talent and new authors. He is also looking for them in Italy. But he doesn’t just come to Italy looking for photographers. His books, in fact, are almost all printed by Italian companies. “Your printers and bookbinders have an extraordinary sensitivity and a special ability to understand what we need. And this allows us to be more daring.” His latest news, decided upon in recent weeks, is that Mack will open an Italian office to better follow work on new projects and to respond to his own great following, including sales, in Italy. “One of our two graphic designers, after months of lockdown in London, asked us to return to Trieste. This offered us the opportunity to open our own operational headquarters.”
When asked if his intention with “But Still, It Turns” really is to contribute to the writing of a new canon of photography, he answers indirectly, but the impression given is that “the short answer” is yes. “It was Paul Graham’s proposal. It is very precise and touches upon two very contemporary issues. The first is that in our time, which is dominated by moralism, privacy laws make it very difficult to create works of art based on photographs taken of people without their consent, like the greats Robert Frank, Gerry Winograd, Lisette Model and Henri Cartier-Bresson did.” The second point, explains Mack, is that in recent years, the museum and gallery world has favoured photography shot in a studio, and has been promoting heavy image manipulation. “Graham, on the other hand, goes back to offering a model of work that takes a part of life – something that actually happened – and turns it into a work of art. Having said that, I have to admit that if you go and look at the books I’ve published so far, it’s actually the kind of photography that I also prefer. My personal taste, out of necessity, greatly influences the type of books I publish. I don’t simply cater to packaging ideas by letting the market decide what works or not. I start with the artists’ thoughts and choose based on my own tastes. Then my tastes don’t always work out.” The flop that still burns him the most dates back to 2005, when he was still collaborating with Steidl. It involved “Jens F,” by New York-based photographer Collier Schorr. “It’s still my favourite book. It had no visibility and we didn’t sell. You can console yourself with those four experts who tell you it was a masterpiece… but it remains a commercial failure.” But the life of photography books is very strange and, over time, they may not improve like wine, but often increase in price – even significantly. The remaining copies of “Jens F” can today be found for sale on the publisher’s website at a thousand pounds each.

But MACK’s policy is not restricted to limited edition art books, even though there are signed Special Editions with numbered photographic prints; the ambition is to reach the general public. “Many publishers in our world today speak to a small fraternity of insiders. We, on the other hand, do produce artists’ books, but we try to do large print runs, keeping prices low and reprinting successful books, because we believe in the democracy of the publishing process.” For Mack, the photography publisher’s job is like that of any other publisher: to offer a platform that facilitates the dissemination of ideas. “We select, package, produce, promote the authors we like and try to get them out there as much as possible.” The point is that it’s not complicated to produce a book that looks good, Mack explains, “the hard thing is to find the form that best fits the content and to be able to circulate the work around the world.”
It may be the sense of challenge, but when selecting projects to produce, the publisher always tries to start from the idea. “I’m not really attracted to the famous name that hides behind its fame. The work that gives you the most stimulation is that with young people who have a fresher approach, and more direct involvement with today’s world.” His implicit reference is to the MACK First Book Award, which grants an artist the publication of their first book. “Then of course, I’ve also produced books by fishing in the archives of great photographers. Also because I end up breaking all the rules that I try to impose upon myself.” Another rule is that the design – the type of printing, the paper, the type of binding – should not overpower the artist’s work. For Mack, everything must be at the service of the idea. “I still see too many photography books that are solipsistic exercises in style. A successful book is an object that the reader holds and feels as something that was made for them. The challenge is to establish a dialogue with the audience. We try to offer content that anticipates people’s needs. In front of a great book, my consciousness meets the explosion of the author’s art. Something new is produced in my body and mind. It becomes an experience.” The success of these types of books, he explains, “is probably due to the fact that they ask you to do the opposite of what you do when you hold a mobile phone.”

The subject of print is important to Mack. “One of the characteristics of the photographic medium is its malleability. It lends itself to countless uses. But I am convinced that the book allows the artist to achieve the ideal presentation of their work. For me – but there are many others who also think so, especially among photographers – the book coincides with the work of art, more so than an exhibition.” Some books simply reproduce a series of photographs. And there would be nothing wrong with that. But the work of art is something else. This becomes clear when we ask Mack what he thinks of texts that accompany books of this genre. “There was a period in the 1980s and 1990s that I call the ‘Sontag-Berger era,’ when every photographer wanted at all costs to have text written by Susan Sontag or John Berger. They are two brilliant writers, but when they worked for photography books they wrote mediocre things.” Unless it’s for an exhibition catalogue, or in other special cases, Mack says that he flatly rejects such texts. “It’s like declaring that the work needs authentication through the name of a great writer, critic or curator telling you how the images should be read. As if they weren’t already able to speak for themselves.” From time to time he also tries to commission texts, asking authors to write about topics tangential to the content of the book, in an attempt to create connections. “I’m embarrassed to say this, but almost half of the texts I’ve commissioned, even from great writers, have turned out to be disappointments. Maybe it’s just me not being able to explain myself, but I can see that the temptation to describe the content of the photographs is too great.”
What about the future? What’s whirls around inside Michael Mack’s head? “Last year, in addition to starting to publish short essays, I began contacting many writers, particularly poets, and musicians. I would like to broaden the field in an attempt to make connections between the various artistic fields. Our field is in danger of becoming a bit of a ghetto; I’d like it to open up and create more exchange. This also means widening our public and being able to introduce authors like Ghirri and Guidi to a wider audience. After all, I’ve always conceived of myself as a publisher of art books, not necessarily only of photography.”

Il Foglio, 10th April 2021

Gregory Halpern – An Interview

by Luca Fiore

Gregory Halpern is one of the new things of American photography. New because he is young (born in Buffalo, NY, in 1977), and new because his images and his books seem to have an extra gear: an energy, vitality and capacity of touching on life’s biggest questions which are hard to find among his peers. He publishes for leading photography publisher, Mack; he was the recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014; in 2016, his penultimate book, ZZYZX, won the award for publication of the year at the Paris Photo-Aperture Photobook Award. From next year, he will be a Nominee Member of Magnum Photo. A few weeks ago, his new work Omaha Sketchbook came out, presented at Paris Photo in early November. It is here, at Europe’s most important photography fair, that we met him. Sitting on the steps of the Grand Palais, amid a coming and going of photographers, collectors and fans, he answers questions posed by those wishing to understand the secret of his images. “Like all my books, Omaha Sketchbook has a central through-line alongside which there are many other concepts. But the book was born with the idea of the average American Midwest male. It is a project that began during George W. Bush’s presidency, and ended in that of Donald Trump. In the meantime, I have moved, had two daughters, and begun to reflect on the idea of masculinity, gender identity, and the stereotypes of the American male, still closely linked to the image of the cowboy. Then, around this group of images, which the book is anchored in, I tried to transmit the sensation one can experience by being in a particular place. Light, landscape, animals, trees. It is in the midst of this flurry of sensations that the images of men return”.

The book looks like an anastatic copy of a sketchbook, where the photographer has posted the contact sheets of the photographs, in 6x7cm format, taken in the Nebraskan cities the author lived in for several months. The small photographs (they are each only 6×7 centimeters) are grouped into short sequences. On each page, there is one, or, at most, two photographs. The color of the paper changes, accompanying the different tones of the photographs: beige, green, red, pink. A trick which stops one yearning for the full-page photograph.

“The theme of masculinity is linked to something personal. In America, and I think in Italy too, though maybe in a different form, vulnerability and weakness are considered negative traits in men, a problem. We educate our young men to be hard, teach them not to show insecurity. I was interested in examining this hardness, to see where it fails. I think that awareness of one’s own weakness enables connections to be created between people. So I looked for the cracks in this hardness”.

Gregory Halpern
Gregory Halpern (photo Luca Fiore)

He indicates the portrait of a young prisoner in an orange jumpsuit, crouched beside the bed in his cell. He has a tattoo on his arm and another on his neck. “He is a prisoner, and may have done something very violent. But he is a kid. He wears his hair back a bit like James Dean. He is a hardman, but here he has a vulnerable expression. This is a bit of a contradiction”. Then he shows me three images of a man with a beard and a wide-brimmed hat, first with a rifle in his hands, then displaying his long hair which reaches his backside. “He’s the same: he has a gun in his hands, he is a hunter, but from behind, he looks like a woman”. Then he pauses over the portrait of an African-American football player: “American football players are men used to physical impact. But look: he seems very vulnerable. He looks like he needs a hug”.

Vulnerability, Halpern explains, is a form of force: “When we are too certain, our errors can lead to wars. We feel threatened by what is different from us, and we feel the need to respond in the same way. Like the US’ reaction to 9/11: Bush was itching to react; today, the entire world is paying the price of that haste. But I think that this totally masculine need of needing to appear tough is the origin of many other problems”.

Yet the book, by Halpern’s own admission, speaks about other themes as well. Though it is difficult to say exactly what. Yes, there is hunting, sport, automobiles, wrestling. But what is that ladder leaning against a fir tree doing there? Where does that lead? And what about those three photos of the same barn, in which the grass of the lawn in front of it appears in three different tones of green? Do they speak of the passing of time? And what about that snake moving menacingly?

Yet it is also a question of style and direction of research. Halpern appears to be completely immersed in the American documentary photography tradition, yet, at the same time, seems to distance himself from it. “It is not easy to explain what is different about my photography compared to the great masters I look up to, Walker Evans and Robert Franck above all. Maybe it’s that I wish to explore situations in which fiction and documentary can co-exist. I don’t know what to call it; maybe “’magical realism’”.

In the summer of 2017 he spent a month between North and South Carolina, during which time there was a total solar eclipse. Explaining that project, Halpern said: “I was fascinated by the idea that the entire nation was looking at the sun, enjoying the apocalyptic excitement of seeing the moon temporarily extinguish our source of life, all of us together”. Those images were published in 2018 in a book titled Confederate Moon. “The eclipse is a phenomenon often studied by photography lovers who, usually, take pretty basic photos. I tried to consider not only what people were seeing in the sky, but also what was happening behind them. I finished the project in little over a month, and I was interested to see what would happen if I put together a series of such contradictory photos. Ultimately, we photographers say that we document reality, but all we do is freeze whatever enters our frame. If you think about it, that is a fiction. So, I tried to include what may not usually be in the frame”.

Made with images taken over a five-year period in Southern California, ZZYXZ (this is not a typo, the title is the name of a village between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, on the border of the Mojave) presents not only landscapes and still lifes, but also portraits of people encountered on the road, and images posed by actors: “it is a mix of documentary and science-fiction”. The book was initially going to be entitled Babylon or Kingdom. It attempts to be, the photographer explains, a journey into a post-apocalyptic future, and, simultaneously, into a biblical past. It opens with the photo of an arm stretched out towards the sky: the hand is open and there are seven stars tattooed on the palm. It is a present-day image of the Apocalypse of St. John: “In his right hand, he held seven stars, a sharp double-edged sword came out of his mouth, and his face resembled the sun shining in all its glory”. Halpern does not consider himself religious; he read the Bible as a work of literature. He explains: “It is a text which I loved. It is such a strange form of story: crazy, apocalyptic, sci-fi. It is strange that this type of narrative, so modern, should be the source of such conservative values. For me, religious art is surprising. I don’t know much about it, but when I went to Italy, I understood that I was more interested in it than in contemporary art. It contains both magic and horror. It is dark. But the beauty of the sun is very important: it points towards heaven. I like the light of magical things, shining in the darkness. Literally and metaphorically”.

Thinking that an image can truly become a metaphor, and speak of the biggest things in life, requires belief in the language of photography. “Yes, life and death. Hope and desperation. And light serves to trigger a certain type of feeling. The light of the sun…it sounds a bit stupid to say it like this, but it is so beautiful…it is so simple, but it is what keeps me going. Seeing the sun balancing in the lens is something magical. I am not religious, but that is the closest thing I can think of to spiritual feeling”.

Before sending ZZYXZ to print, Halpern sent a draft to Robert Adams, one of the fathers of American photography, author of the essential Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. In response, Adams wrote: “Beauty, and its implied promise, are the metaphor which gives art its value. It helps us to rediscover some of our best intuitions, those which encourage us to care”. For Adams, Halpern explains, the search for beauty is not a pursuit of the past. “In the American art schools, its considered something for losers. Adams hates people like Jeff Koons, who bases everything on irony and on business. In that type of art, there is no hope. For him, finding beauty in the world is a form of home and spirituality”. What about for Halpern, a forty-year old liberal? Does beauty still have a value? “Nowadays, it is so easy to have no hope. Ugliness is everywhere. We all know how evil the world, and people, can be. Finding beauty is important. But Adams says that we have to do it without lying. Because some photos of a sunset or a flower lie, and don’t say much”. The next project in the pipeline is a book on Buffalo, his birthplace. It is a project that has been ongoing now for twenty years. It is a difficult piece, because speaking of places where one grew up is to speak of oneself. There is a real risk of working on it for one’s whole life.

“But I decided that I want to finish it. I’ll give myself another year, then I want to publish it in 2021”. It is a project he has been speaking about for a long time. As early as 2010, in a conference in New York, he was dropping hints about the project. Describing it, he said he wished to show the extent to which ruin is “inextricably linked to grace”. Much time has now passed, and today, he says, he cannot recall what he meant on that occasion. It is another theme linked to hope? Why, despite ruin, can there still be hope? “Because if we don’t think like this, all that is left is desperation. I don’t know, maybe that’s the reason for getting up in the morning and carrying on. We all need a reason to start our day. Many feel they are on a precipice, overlooking a disaster. But we must keep believing, even if hope is so fragile. We need it, otherwise we are just animals. Maybe what distinguishes us from animals is the faith that there might be, I don’t know, something greater out there”.

Omaha Sketchbook
Gregory Halpern Omaha Sketchbook
Gregory Halpern Omaha Sketchbook
Gregory Halpern Omaha Sketchbook
gregory halpern ZZYZX
gregory halpern ZZYZX
gregory halpern ZZYZX
gregory halpern ZZYZX
gregory halpern conderate moon
gregory halpern conderate moon

“Family car trouble,” by Gus Powell

family car trouble gus powell

by Luca Fiore

Family Car Trouble, Gus Powell’s latest book, is a photographic novel. It is about family photos taken in the months leading up to the death of his father, Peter, in 2015. At the same time the photographer sees his daughters, Townes and Maude, as they grow up, play and learn about the world. Peter is portrayed in bed or sitting in an armchair, with the signs of a throat operation that made him dumb. The two little ones run around the house, having fun in the snow or walking in the woods. Then the family’s events intertwine with that of Jimmy, the nickname of the 1993 Volto 940 Turbo station wagon that goes in and out of the workshops for never-resolving interventions.

family car trouble gus powell

The girls sleep with their heads resting on the door, dance standing on the roof, play with a pinwheel moved by the wind coming in through the window. Peter turns off little by little, with dignity. From the pillow he seems to be looking up at the ceiling. Then, as you turn the page, his eyes seem to point to the image besides, where Townes and Maude move carefree in the living room. The light innocence of the granddaughters softens the gravity of their grandfather’s slow decline, while the red lights on the dashboard of the Volvo light up like a Christmas tree. At Lucky’s Automotive, the local garage, they do what they can with Jimmy, who has once again arrived with a tow truck.

It’s hard to linger on the funeral portrait of Peter, whose lifeless face is illuminated by the red light in the funeral parlor. Then we see the colours of a sunset from the rain-soaked windshield. Then, still through the glass, a green light. And again a road through the woods. The book closes with Powell from the driver’s seat portraying his daughters sitting on the hood looking out to sea. At a certain point the older one opens her arms and leans forward, as if she wants to embrace the world.

Powell (New York, 1973) made a name for himself in the Street Photography community in the 2010’s, participating in the In-Public collective (which included Joel Meyerowitz and Richard Kalvar, among others). His first images (collected in “The Company of Strangers”, 2003) he called them “Lunch Pictures”: he shot during his lunch break while working as photo editor for the New Yorker. Shots that fit perfectly into the genre that, par excellence, focuses on the “decisive moment”. Over the years, however, his approach to street photography has changed, becoming less narrative and more poetic, as evidenced by “The Lonely Ones”, his 2015 book.

With “Family Car Trouble” (TBW Books) Powell seems to go one step further, taking the narrative vocation out of the single image. If in Street Photography the single shot is a story in itself, here it ends up poured into the sequence of moments that take on strength as a whole. Editing, like editing in cinema, generates the story and enhances the single image by linking it to the previous and the next one.
It cannot be said that it is a photographic diary: Powell does not show his daily life. Or, at least, he doesn’t show it all: rather, he uses elements of his biography as narrative lines for an interweaving of symbolic themes (death, childhood, the unexpected). This allows the story to present itself, at the same time, as personal and universal. And Powell succeeds, inventing the image of the car that loses its shots, in a rare feat for a photographer: he knows how not to take himself too seriously.
A book, as Alec Soth described it as the best photographic volume published in 2019, “as humble, robust and adorable as his 1993 Volvo”.

Il Foglio, 6th May 2020

family car trouble gus powell
family car trouble gus powell
family car trouble gus powell
family car trouble gus powell
family car trouble gus powell
family car trouble gus powell