So a month or so ago I had a chance to attend a conversation with Norton Juster.* There wasn’t much new information or anything if you’ve already read the Annotated Phantom Tollbooth but it was still wonderful. 2016 has been a rough year for everyone’s heroes. I’m very happy that I got to see, meet, and thank one of mine.
My favorite part of the talk was Juster’s response to the “which of the characters is your favorite” question. While mentioning the Tollbooth demons in general is funny enough, zeroing in on the bird and taking things “out of context” is the perfect answer. It also reminded me, again, how much context matters and how aggressive changing the context can be. And while Juster does this with wordplay, I know that much of my photo consumption—heck, this entire blog—is really just about context.
My earliest memories of just looking at photos all involve National Geographic. My parents had a subscription and I looked forward to the day each month when a thick magazine slipcovered in brown-paper arrived in our mailbox. I was too young to read the articles but I devoured the photos (and the maps of course) for at least the following week. I also would go through our magazine files and pull out my favorite past issues—reading the spines until I found the one with the feature I wanted—and revisit the photos all over again.
June 1984 was my favorite issue. By far. I paged through Paul Theroux’s By Rail Across the Indian Subcontinent repeatedly as I was captivated by Steve McCurry’s photographs. It wasn’t anything specific about the quality of the photos which got me. I just, like many grade-school boys, loved trains and these were like no trains I’d ever seen. Instead of the commuter train pulled by diesel engines which took people up and down the peninsula between San Francisco and San José, these were steam trains which wound through mountains and countrysides, were packed with people—including riders on the outsides of the cars—and had dining cars to accommodate multi-day journeys.
The recent McCurry pile-on which started with Teju Cole’s A Too-Perfect Picture coupled with some photoshop disasters encouraged me to both revisit McCurry’s train photos—the first set of photos I can remember loving—as well as to finally read the text which they accompany.
At some point in the past decade or so, McCurry’s work has lost all the context in which it was originally made. He has indeed gone full White Guy Photography, peddling a mythical third-world exotic beauty via photos that function as desktop backgrounds or hotel art.* Teju Cole says they’re boring. Paroma Mukherjee points out that the ethics behind these photos are dangerous. As McCurry packages them now I completely agree. They don’t tell us anything beyond confirming our stereotypes of the region and suggesting that modernization will ruin the “real” soul of the place.**
**As stated in Image on Paper’s Jimmy Nelson Post: “It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant.”
While I would be a bit worried about looking through all the 30-year-old National Geographics and seeing what I grew up with, this particular article is thankfully not too bad. Rather than being concerned with any sort of “authenticity,” it’s unabashedly a travelog and photos—most of which do not look like what has become the McCurry brand.
Travelogs, when they’re about the author’s trip and don’t claim to be speaking for the country,* are great. The same goes with travel photos. The more specific and personal the topic is, the more likely I am to like them. And I still like these.
*Or in this case, the entire subcontinent.
The railroad is a wonderful thread to anchor the entire trip. It grounds the narrative and allows for historical diversions where the infrastructure is older than the political boundaries which it crosses. It also offers glimpses at a large range of the people in India. While Theroux is mostly riding first class, he and McCurry are also interacting and talking with the locals crowded in second class, the people riding on the roof, the white tourists in the separate better-than-first-class tourist cars, and the service workers and public workers who run the trains and the stations.
That I still love trains, and train photography, doesn’t hurt. But there is something distinct about the rail travel and the way it filters how you see both the countryside it cuts through and the built environments which have grown up around it. It’s simultaneously part of the landscape while completely imposing itself on that landscape. And it waits for no one. If one of the chief tenets of photography is taking your time and thinking and picking the right moment, the way the train keeps moving introduces a variable which is out of the photographer’s control.
Seeing McCurry’s work in this context also serves as a reminder of why he became an acknowledged master. There’s maybe only one of those McCurry™ Portraits and all of his colors are more subdued by the necessity of having to stick with the railway itself. But the photos are great. Strongly composed and timed with a sense of place—and on occasion the photographer’s presence—they illustrate the text so well that I have no use for the captions except when they offer a bit of additional story where McCurry’s experiences differ from Theroux’s.
Even the photo of the train at the Taj Mahal—which out of this context becomes about the men and “how well they work as types”—is instead a perfect “holy crap you can see this from the train” photo.
Despite completely agreeing with the critiques being heaped on McCurry now, I’m still glad that these were some of the formative photos of my youth. I’ve kind of grown out of him but I’m happy that I had access to these. It’s always good to be reminded of both my own growth, and what it means if an artist doesn’t grow.
While I’ve continued making family albums through Blurb, I’ve also taken the plunge and started to finally put some of my photos together into projects. Or, well, mini-projects. I’m nowhere near ready to put a book together—heck, I’m not even sure it has to be a book—but I’ve got a lot of smaller sets of photos that I’ve wanted to see as some sort of printed collection.
Blurb’s magazine format is in many ways the perfect way to do this. It’s much less of a financial commitment than their photobooks but the printing and paper is also a lot nicer than their trade books. The magazine format also encourages small projects of 32–48 pages or so—making it very easy to just put something together relatively quickly.
So instead of working on and biting the bullet for purchasing an expensive one-off book, I can make a bunch of magazines for a fraction of the price and experiment a lot more.
I even set everything up for sale on Blurb’s site since Blurb’s book preview interface is pretty slick and makes for a nice way to look at the projects. I’m not promoting these anywhere* but I do enjoy flipping through them online. I’m not sure I can recommend buying them anyway since Blurb’s shipping prices are designed with books in mind and so feel a bit exorbitant if you’re purchasing a batch of small magazines instead of a stack of heavy books.
*This is the first time I’ve even linked to them.
Most of the magazines are a new iteration of the photos which are in my portfolio at vossbrink.net. So ~90% the same edit but some photos have been moved around or deleted. One magazine per section on my site, plus the B-Sides.* I’m still intending to eventually put everything together as a book but I’ll sit with the magazines for a while and see how I feel about them.
*The B-Sides concept is one I’m going to keep in mind for any future book projects too.
These were pretty quick to make since most of the editing was already done. Since I didn’t want to spend a lot of time doing the typesetting and text/cover design, I kept things super simple and did everything in my default text settings rather than mess around with fonts and design something specific for each project. I actually like the family-like sameness of the end result but I think I’ll have to consider a different approach with the entire project.
I also threw together a few small projects that have been marinating on this blog. One of them is of the Tripod Holes series of posts I’ve been making. It’s actually much much different to see it in print rather than on the blog. I’m looking forward to doing a second Tripod Holes magazine with new blog posts as well as putting together a full-size book at some point.
The other project I worked on was of my PowWowphotos. One of the sad things about being on the East Coast is admitting that I will probably not make it to another Stanford Pow Wow for a long time. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the photos I took there but for the time being I have a small magazine of them which will make me homesick every Mothers Day.
Shipping issues aside, I’m super pleased with the way everything turned out and am thinking about what other small projects I’ll want to make while I sit with these.
They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.
While I was looking at War is Beautiful I couldn’t help but think about the iconic, well-known photos from Vietnam or World War 2. Those images are the beginning of what has become the cinematic language of war photography. They’re what the movies reference and are part of our common understanding of what war photography is supposed to look like.
Instead of looking at those images though, I got Jennifer Watts’s A Strange and Fearful Interest off the shelf and decided to look at Civil War photographs. Looking at the Civil War photography shows the beginnings of our current visual culture. We can see the beginnings of personal image sharing as well as the ability for images of “real life” to become larger than life. At the same time, we’re seeing other directions or standards that could’ve been taken.
The Civil War reflects photography’s first big maturation in terms of both how we understand what we’re looking at and in terms of figuring out what practices actually work for documenting and disseminating images. There were no set rules or perspectives to copy, the field photographers had to figure things out on their own. Nor were there guidelines about what’s ethically acceptable with regards to subject matter or staging a scene. The photos of dead soldiers*—and the way those bodies were often moved by the photographers—are so wrong in terms of the current rules of photography.
*Specifically noted in the book with the Antietam photos but applicable to Gettysburg and many other battlefields too.
Where the Vietnam and World War 2 images are still familiar to us, the Civil War photographs are more abstract. Their look—the staging, motion blur, toning, edge effects, etc.—reads as romance and nostalgia rather than documentation. They don’t look real to us anymore even though their existence fundamentally changed our understanding of both warfare and death.
But the photos themselves did say a lot about the war and the nature of violent death which, while people obviously knew,* were not images which were disseminated. There’s something about seeing the images of the bodies in the battlefields which drives home the cost of it all. And it doesn’t surprise me at all that we created National Cemeteries as a response to the Civil War. Our collective sense of war and its outcomes changed during the Civil War—in large part due to having a new medium with which to share and remember these things.
*Warfare, and in particular the Civil War, being something which touched a much larger percentage of the population then than it does now.
It was not just images of war which were suddenly being disseminated across the US. Tintypes and ambrotypes allowed for soldiers to both send images back home and keep images of home with them on the front. While still very much a portrait/sitter arrangement, this was a much more democratic* product in how it opened up the ability for this kind of personal connection to many more people.
*Reminding me of the creation vs consumption debate a few years ago. While I still agree that the Brownie opened up the true democratic floodgates, tintypes, ambrotypes, and cartes de visite did create a massive change in how we treated and understood images too.
Since Confederate photographers all but disappeared after—if not during—the war, J.D. Edwards is the only Confederate photographer featured in the book. This explicitly calls attention to how our visual understanding of the Civil War is almost exclusively the Union point of view. And as much as I hadn’t realized this before, it reminded me how most of my conception of war photography is aligned with the point of view of the US or the west.
I really like George N. Barnard’s landscapes of Sherman in Georgia. Barnard kept taking landscape photographs—very much in the style of O’Sullivan or Watkins—where the view is what’s important. In Barnard’s case though, rather than the promise of taming unspoiled nature, we see the architecture and landscapes of war.
The book also goes into the Lincoln assassination and how Alexander Gardner’s mugshots—well, proto-mugshots since the mugshot hadn’t been invented yet—as well as his photographs of the hangings get right at the intimate relationship that photography has with death. And then there’s his Lewis Powell image which, among all the retro-nostalgic photographs in the book, leaps off the page as being, still, strikingly modern.
Eco believes that hyperreality shows itself in America’s portrayal of history, art and architecture, entertainment, and nature. Eco believes that Americans want everything in a more entertaining way (including entertainment), so we have intertwined hyperreality into our lives.
The other day, I had a chance to sit down in the library with David Shields’s War is Beautiful. Given how I’ve mentioned previously how appealing the idea of a photographic Aarne–Thompson is, it was a lot of fun to page through a book which did exactly that with the New York Times’ front page War on Terror photographs. I like and tend to agree with Shield’s choice of tropes. I also found it interesting to be forced to question what it means to aestheticize war and the ethics of making beautiful images of ugly horrible things.
These are not new thoughts but it’s worthwhile to be periodically reminded to think about them.
In the case of these images—especially when you see them page after page after page—it’s not the fact that so many of them are pretty or even beautiful* which concerns me, it’s that so many of them look like movie stills. It says a lot about how realistic movies have gotten than this is the case. But it also says bad things about photography if what we consider good, meaningful, impactful photography appears to be influenced by the cinema.
*Despite the notes about how photographers hated the flat light in Iraq.
The news photographs aren’t faked or staged but they’re looking for certain compositions and perspectives.* This is a problem.** The movie look allows for a certain level of glorification which capitalizes on our expectations for the form. We “know” what the “bad guys” look like. We know who’s supposed to be the “hero.” We even have prejudices about the terrain and the buildings. The photographs are less about telling the story and making us think and are instead more about setting the mood for the story using our pre-existing biases.
A lot of this reminds me of William Gibson’s Zero History where the military and military contractors—specifically in the fashion realm—are dealing with the inversion of the traditional military to civilian workflow. For decades, fashion flowed out of the military setting and became streetwear after it had acquired a level of authenticity and coolness through military use. Zero History explores what happens when military-inspired streetwear has evolved into its own thing and its designs are both influencing military designs and making military designs seem inadequate and uncool.
It’s also worth looking at the video game realm where the comparison between how the military uses video games to recruit people with how those recruits are then trained shows a similar difference. The recruiting game America’s Army is very much in line with mass-market video games. Lots of action to compete with the latest first-person shooters accompanied with a very cinematic look. The training games meanwhile look awful. Lots of waiting around and hoping that there’s no action at all. Lots of uncertainty about what to do. But very realistic since they’re intended to train soldiers on what to actually expect. They just don’t look like what I, as a civilian, would expect based on how war is portrayed in mass media.
And that’s what current war photography is doing. It’s riffing off of the existing cinematic language of hyperreal military settings—suggesting that the real stories might not be eye-catching enough to be told anymore. Movies—and movie photography and cinematography—are our common language in many things. They’ve become our references and touchstones for what real life should look like. And it’s scary when real life can no longer compete with the expectations.
While I enjoy the trope categorizations, the best part of the book may be the rear endpapers which show thumbnails of all the New York Times front pages. The Edward Tufte style small multiples makes the point about how the Times has presented the war in a way that looking through the book is unable to convey. Rather than seeing the details in the images, it becomes more apparent how these images are chosen for their graphic (in the sense of graphic design) impact and sense of warness.
While I was in California this summer, I visited the San José Museum of Art to see the Covert Operations exhibition. Only part of the show was on display when I went* so this post covers both what I saw in the museum and what I’ve gotten from the catalog.** I’m used to treating catalogs as reminders of an exhibition so it’s a bit weird for me to be using one as a stand-in for portions of one. Thankfully, I saw most of the videos and video games in the show and have been using the book for the photography and painting—both of which translate much better to book form.
*It’s all up now.
**Which I flipped through in the museum to determine that it was worth getting. I have since spent a lot more time looking and reading through it.
On National Security
While the theme of this exhibition is covert operations, most of the work is actually about National Security and the things that government does under that aegis. A lot of work, such as Jenny Holzer’s redacted Freedom of Information Act request prints and Trevor Paglen’s Defense Department investigations offer glimpses of what’s going on when National Defense world intersects with the civilian world.
Holzer’s work takes advantage of the Freedom of Information Act and the theoretical ability of any citizen to request government records. The resulting documents are anything but transparent as they arrive covered with redactions. Holzer enlarges the documents to the point where they feel like Abstract Expressionist paintings—where text, redactions, handwritten notes, etc. all feel like they’re working together in a cohesive piece. Only instead of being abstract, these very clearly show, despite the redactions, many of the ugly details that go into providing what we think of as security.
Paglen’s photography looks almost conventionally pretty—star trails and sunsets—except that there’s one small detail which is off. Maybe it’s a Reaper Drone way off to the side. Maybe that non-star streak is actually a CIA satellite. His other work—in particular Code Names—similarly explores the small ways that the Security Apparatus intrudes into our world.
Meanwhile, other things aren’t really covert at all and just exist outside of the awareness of regular Americans. In particular, David Taylor’s Working the Line documents the security—and the security theater—on the US-Mexico border. There’s nothing especially confidential here, nor is there the sense that there’s a whole bunch of other infrastructure at the border that we’re not seeing. Still, the extent of physical security at the border and the way it’s actually implemented is quite different than the way that we think of it.
Taryn Simon’s photograph of the Alhurra studio is also something non-covert that we just aren’t aware of in the US. The entire point of this network is to be seen by Arab communities so it’s anything but a secret. Yet it’s not allowed to be broadcast in the US despite being based and funded here.
Taken together, all these pieces describe a massive amount of infrastructure and bureaucracy that we’re not aware of. Revealing only the tip of the iceberg allows us to think about how much is going on that we aren’t seeing at all. The way that much of what we do see is already horrifying should also make us really think about how much worse—whether in scale or in degree—the truly hidden stuff is.
But even the non-awful images reveal an apparatus that treats our safety as something where we don’t really want to know the details and assumes that we’ll sign off on anything in the name of security. It’s this assumption that disturbs me more since it’s carte blanche for security agencies to do whatever they want in the name of security while not informing us what it is that they’re doing. It also makes it very easy for those agencies to dismiss critiques and questions by referencing our ignorance of what’s “really” going on.
We’re assumed to not want to know, kept from knowing, and then criticized for not knowing. All in the name of our own safety and security. So I’m glad that people are calling out and highlighting what we can know. I love that many of these people are artists since it makes the glimpses much more accessible and the more of us who know, even a little bit, the better.
On Weaponizing Art and Games
Another extremely interesting concept in this exhibition is how it demonstrates the way art, photography, and video games—things which often get criticized as being inherently non-useful—can actually be effectively weaponized or used as diplomacy.
Photography is the most obvious example due to its interaction with surveillance, intrusiveness, and privacy issues being one of its defining characteristics since day one. That much of photography’s acceptance by the public has been a steady erosion of sensibilities regarding these issues is already scary. But even today, much of the concern is about photographs by other individuals rather than the government—we accept security cameras everywhere but freak out about a stranger with a cell phone. Yet it’s the security cameras which are more intrusive since they feed directly in to monitoring by the state. Which is why it’s important to keep in mind where security cameras get installed, who they’re actually monitoring, and whose interests they’re protecting.
The use of modern art as cultural diplomacy is less obvious but is explicitly mentioned by Taryn Simon’s photograph of the CIA art gallery. The connection between art and culture and the idea that “good” art demonstrates a superior culture is shocking to see laid out—even though it’s used by many people now to malign* art which has not been accepted as “good” in the West. It also forces us to really question our understandings of our own taste and how we learned what we like. I certainly didn’t even consider that it could reflect Cold War indoctrination about what is “American” (or at least non-communist) even though thinking about it now makes complete sense.
Video games get a lot of play here as well. Harun Farocki shows how, instead of being entertainment, they’re now used for military training—which is pretty cool in that it allows for a safer and more varied training experience. At the same time, it’s disturbing how easy it is to go from a medium of pure entertainment to something that’s life and death and literally training people how to kill other people. There’s no noticeable difference in the form, just the use case. That many of these training videos look less realistic than what’s currently on the market is the kind of thing that makes it very easy to see the defenses of video games as being “just a game” as being somewhat hollow.*
*I’m not anti video games, but I’m increasingly critical of everything about them as mass entertainment.
On the positive side, the way video games are also used as therapy for soldiers recovering from the stress of battle is both interesting and promising. They’re not fun here either, but seeing them used in a much more life-giving situation is nice to see. Still, it’s interesting to note the differences in quality and how there is more effort spent on training than on rehabilitation—but that’s a comment on the military’s priorities and not the medium itself.
I’ve long been used to technology’s give-and-take with the military. One of the best ways to really refine a technology is to push it to its extremes and the military is great at this. Much of what we take for granted today either started as a military project or got refined there. Art and culture are no different except that many people don’t understand how they’re useful.
Amazingly, the military does. And the way that the military uses art and culture should show us how dismissing them as a waste of time is lazy and incorrect. Art matters. It’s how we know and demonstrate who we are. It’s how we convert other people to our way of seeing the world. Entertainment matters. It’s how we interact with the world and the easiest way to introduce ourselves to new worlds. It’s a shame that for the military, new worlds have to be approached with a gun in hand, but that, again, is more about the military’s priorities rather than the medium.
One last thing about this exhibition is that it has me rethinking Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence. Many of the photos in Covert Operations are similarly bizarre in the way they show objects and places that exist outside of our understanding—except where in Evidence I found myself making up my own narratives and finding the humor in things, the Covert Operations photos biased me toward looking at the dark side. I have an inkling what they’re about but I’m still scratching the surface and know that there’s a lot more sinister stuff lurking underneath.
The result is that I can’t help but see Evidence now as a more innocent project* and which has made certain tradeoffs in opting for a fictional sequence rather than revealing or critiquing something real.
This isn’t to say that I don’t like humorous work. It’s just that while I understand and enjoy the impulse to poke fun at banal government photographs, I’ve also come to realize that opting for humor—especially the “WTF this is so bizarre” humor of Evidence—is a choice that tends to rule out critiquing what government is actually doing. And so the next time I view Evidence, I’ll keep in mind how the recontextualization gives a free pass to the ways that the baby boomers were pulling up the ladder on the next generation.
Apologies for the hiatus in my writing. I’ve been traveling and haven’t had the time to be on a computer—let alone the internet—long enough to put a post together. I’ve also finally gotten my act together and started making photobooks of my own. Instead of blogging, or even taking photos, I’ve been working on my stream, editing things down, and creating physical things out my photos.
These aren’t even “art” photobooks. They’re just family photobooks to take the place of the albums I used to make before I started switching* to digital a decade ago. There are still some sequencing issues I have to work out but for the most part, the photos are ordered chronologically. Most of my work is instead on the layout side as I’m often trying to fit multiple photos on a page without making it look too scrapbooky.
*While my main camera was film until 2007, I’d started shooting digital point and shoots on the side around 2005. Once that happened I didn’t feel like I could have a proper photo album until I started printing the digital photos. Turns out it was scanning the film ones that I needed to do instead.
Well, layout and editing. I’m wrestling with over a decade of digital backlog which, while I’ve sorted everything on Flickr, I haven’t been particularly ruthless about cutting anything. The family format is a nice way to ease into editing since it offers a bit of a cushion where sentiment and emotional attachment to lesser images is still a good thing. They’re not images I want to have blown up, but I enjoy having them alongside the images I’m prouder of.
So I get to include a number of smaller photos instead of “tossing” them. Meanwhile, I’m only picking one of two from a given event to print larger so I’m still winnowing things down.*
*Not that I’ll be making a proper photobook from these, but it’s still a good exercise for myself to cut things down to the tightest edit possible.
My biggest problem with this approach is that Blurb’s software isn’t strong enough to handle layouts with multiple photos—let alone text—in a way that I like. I tried them all and while the programs and plugins (especially the Lightroom plugin) work great for basic one-photo-per-page layouts, they don’t have enough control over dimensions and text flow for me. I had to fire up my ancient copy of InDesign and do everything by hand instead. Thankfully Blurb’s dimension calculator is accurate.
Printingwise, I’m plenty happy. I’ve been watching digital printing for a decade now and part of the reason for my waiting to make books has been waiting for the quality to be acceptable. While I can still see rosettes, they’re consistent with the higher-quality commercial print screens (~175lpi) I’m used to seeing. They don’t have the weird look of a lot of non-halftone digital screens nor are they as good as high-quality stochastic or super-fine (~600lpi) photobook screens.
The rest of the book feels great too. The premium matte paper is very nice and the bindings and covers are also solid. My family and I have already enjoyed looking through them and remembering things and I can’t wait to make more books now.
A few discoveries
Not exactly lessons learned, instead more like assumptions confirmed. I was a bit ambitious and made and ordered three books before getting a chance to confirm that they were indeed going to satisfy my expectations.
Converting grayscale images to RGB before creating the PDF resulted in nice black and white images.
1.75″×2.625″ is indeed large enough to work in an album
I’m not wedded to aspect ratio with small photos
10 point text is just fine
The black and white images were my largest concern since digital printing has a tendency to consider black and white printing as the budget option and not do as much quality control over print quality as it does over detecting color clicks for ink usage. But sending as RGB images worked fine. I’d consider toning them a little warmer since the Blurb defaults are slightly cool for my taste, but that may also be a lot more work for a minimal gain and a lot of potential problems.
Bill Manbo’s Colors of Confinement is very different than anything I cover in my Born Free and Equal post. Where even Miyatake as an insider was taking photos as documentation of the camp itself, Manbo is just photographing his life. There’s no expected audience besides his own family and no goals beyond remembering.
The photos are a lot of fun. It’s a beautiful area and Manbo’s a technically competent photographer who’s able to work in low light with slow film* as well as frame things beyond just bulls-eying his subjects. Color is especially welcome. Given how popular colorizing old photos is it’s always nice to be reminded that color images do exist from the 1940s. Something about seeing things in color moves internment into the “color” era rather than the “black and white” era and even while I know better, I have to admit that there is something more accessible about these.
*Lots of sunrises and sunsets which, while obvious subjects, are not the easiest thing to shoot with ASA8 or ASA10 speed film.
What sets the book apart though are the essays. They’re all great but the most-interesting point is Jasmine Alinder’s assertion that the family snapshot is a human right. She reaches this point by describing why cameras were eventually allowed into the camps but the general point stands on its own. Despite the tendency of photography rights to get caught up in documentary evidence and whistleblowing, it’s vernacular photography which allows us to construct our sense of self.
This is much of the appeal of looking through old photo albums in general. There is a universality to images of kids playing and growing up; local celebrations and events; group photos just because everyone’s together. We see ourselves and recognize elements of our own lives in these photos. They aren’t art or journalism but while every family has very similar images, these are the first things to be saved in a disaster.
Manbo’s photos are a perfect example of this. He shows life and the good things going on just like most people’s photos do. There’s lots of fun and joy and the kind of memories everyone wants to have. The only difference here is that the setting is an internment camp.
The photos don’t deny or hide the setting. It is what it is—heck, there’s even some palpable anger present in some of the frames. But they humanize the inhabitants by showing how they live and how normal life is—despite the obvious abnormal nature of the situation—by presenting them in the same kinds of photos that we all have in our family albums.
The standard documentary approach typically involves casting the subjects as tragic figures. This is conventionally powerful and absolutely necessary, but the more I see it the more I find myself questioning our tendency to treat it as the most important point of view. It’s not exactly a trope, but it comes really close to that in how the subjects of the photos are only important in how their otherness can move the viewers emotionally.
Again, this isn’t to say that Dorothea Lange’s photos of internees are bad and that we shouldn’t see the suffering. But it’s important to be aware of the kinds of photos which are missing from most documentary photography. If you don’t see the photos of people living, kids growing up, normal everyday life, you’re not seeing the things that make them human like the rest of us. And that’s a bit of a problem.
Are the camps awful? At one level, absolutely.* At another. Not really. It’s clear looking at these photos why so many of the sansei kids who grew up in these camps don’t remember them as being bad. There was so much for them to do since the goal was to keep the kids busy.** Skating, sledding, sports, scouting, bands, etc. Kids had free reign in a safe environment and got to grow up in school and social environments where they weren’t minorities.
*Nor were they ever as great as Adams portrays them. Compared to Lange, Adams’s heroic photos are the other side of the coin in how they have very specific aims about how they want their white audience to react to what the non-white people depicted in the photos have gone through.
**And turn them into Americans.
Treating the camps as uniformly and undeniably awful does a disservice to the diversity of the experiences of the internees.* It’s weird to say you enjoyed the camps if you feel you’re supposed to have hated it and it robs you of your own agency and memory to have a forced narrative like that. Manbo’s photos directly challenge the standard narrative by showing all the fun parts of the camps in a non-PR way.
There’s also a lot to be said for the cultural developments in the camps as the internees formed distinct Japanese-American traditions like Obon which are still celebrated today. This isn’t just cultural pluralism which celebrates Japanese things alongside American ones, it’s the development of new American traditions.
*Lon Kurashige’s essay in the book thoroughly covers this territory.
Where the WRA and the Ansel Adams photos emphasize “American” activities like scouting and baseball, Manbo shows other cultural aspects which didn’t fit that narrative but are as important and recognizable to Japanese Americans today. While I like the photos which demonstrate the traditionally American activities, the incompleteness of the picture frustrates me. Each time I go to Obon I see kids participating who are a fourth, or less, Japanese. But this is their culture and it’s a highlight of summer. It’s great to see photos of the beginning of new American traditions rather than getting only the prescriptive framing about what kinds of things are, or aren’t, American.
A selection of these photos came to Princeton for display in one of the dorm galleries. It’s nice to see big prints on the walls but I think I prefer these in book form. They’re more something I’d like to flip through and take in as an album rather than browsing through in a gallery. This might be an “art or not” distinction but it’s also related to how Manbo’s photos work better as a group rather than individual images.
One thing about the big prints that did catch my eye is that they’re printed with the black edge of the slide holder visible but cut off (much like the images on this webpage are). The book puts these images on black backgrounds so the presentation looks more like what a slideshow would look like.
I also caught much of the round table discussion about these photos. Not enough to provide a summary but I really liked Joshua Chambers-Letson’s talk about race as performance both from a double consciousness point of view and with the idea that Americana itself is a performance. This made a lot of sense in the context of all the internment photos since the tensions between being American and being foreign and being “loyal” and resisting what was being done to you course through everything here.
There’s also always the sense of oversight in the internment photos. Whether it’s oversight by the WRA censors or the camp management or the watchtowers looming in the background—or just out of frame of the images themselves. It’s not much a stretch to consider the oversight in photography now as we construct our own panopticons and continue to deal with racial issues in current society.
I’ve had a copy of Born Free and Equal* on my shelf for a while. I’ve flipped through it a few times but never really looked that closely, or read the essays, in it until recently. It took receiving a copy of Colors of Confinement** for Christmas to give me the push to actually look at Adams’s work and realize how distinct—in both weird and great ways—it is.
*I have this version of it which is very clear about not being associated with anything officially Ansel Adams branded. Given how the photos are in the public domain there’s probably some interest in comparing different printings too. It’s also interesting to see how the Library of Congress has digitized the collection by scanning both Adams’s prints and his negatives and presenting both versions as high-resolution downloads.
**Yes I’ll have a post on this coming eventually to.
Adams’s work was not part of the WRA and so isn’t government propaganda. At the same time, with its heroic headshots and optimistic assimilated future it feels incredibly propagandalike. There’s nothing here about hardship or injustice. None of the camp watchtowers or fences are pictured.* Everyone is identified as American. And all the activities depicted—baseball, scouting, marching band, home decor, toys, clothing, etc.—are “American.” The rare “unamerican” things—tofu preparation and buddhist rituals—are part of larger lists rather than highlighted images in their own right.
*While the texts says that Adams was not allowed to shoot the fences or watch towers, his photographs are not about confinement at all.
The portraits in particular are indeed heroic: full sun, tightly cropped, no context besides occupation. While we know that the subjects suffered hardships, they’re unbowed, optimistic, and looking forward to bigger and better things. The other photos are similar in tone and emphasize the working settlement and community which they have built in a tough landscape. The text accompanying the images expands on these themes by emphasizing loyalty, their post-internment relocation plans, and how they’ll become productive Americans.
I fully understand why this point of view was needed at the time. And why it got Adams into a bit of trouble when he exhibited these photographs in 1944. Still, the assimilationist view bugs me. Both in how it defines what it means to be an American and by extension, what it implies is non-American. While these photos aren’t about confinement, they are about a loss of culture.* To present as American, most of the Japaneseness has been scrubbed out of the photos.
*Which, given how big a deal Obon and other Nikkei Matsuri are still today, is distinctly not what happened.
At the same time, I can’t hate on these photos. Despite my issues with them, a large part of me is overjoyed to see Asian-Americans presented as simply, American. What makes these photos distinctly great is that it’s sadly jarring to see this view even today. Many people still do not expect “regular Americans” to be Asian. We need to see this representation more often.
Looking through the photos with today’s eyes and I also see some weirdness going on. Despite not being about confinement at all, because Adams published them at a larger scale under his name, they sort of became the most-likely collection of internment images for people to have seen. Internment is correctly remembered as one of the United States’ major mistakes in civil rights yet the images associated with it are these heroic ones which gloss over most of the abuses. I found myself wanting to look at some of the more critical photos as well. Thankfully, the book has essays which point in the correct direction.
Archie Miyatake’s essay about his father, Toyo, is especially informative. Toyo Miyatake became the official Manzanar camp photographer after smuggling in a lens and ground glass. At first he photographed on the sly with his home-made camera* and smuggled film and chemicals but eventually gained the acceptance of the camp director and photographed officially.
I went looking for more of Miyatake’s photos of the camp. There are precious few of them online* but I was able to find copies of Two Views of Manzanar—a catalog from a 1978 show of Miyatake’s and Adams’s Manzanar photographs—and Elusive Truth: Four Photographers at Manzanar—a 2002 book** which features Miyatake, Adams, Clem Albers, and Dorothea Lange and frames the internment as something we need to remember in a post-September 11 world.*** There’s also a good, but long, series of posts by Nancy Matsumoto which covers all this ground and then some.
*Which is why there are none in this post.
**I can’t recommend it since some of the photos are printed horribly. Thankfully JARDA exists instead so I can find higher resolution versions of what’s in the book.
***There’s no need to discuss Adams’s photos again but it is worth noting that the subjects are identified by name instead of occupation in these two books.
Miyatake’s photos are interesting. Lots of posed documentary shots since that’s what he was supposed to be doing in the camp. But also a lot of images that Adams didn’t, or couldn’t show. The watchtowers. Posing by the barbed wire fences. Kids lined up at the toy loan center. It’s very clear how this is strange confined world which is not acceptable.
There’s also a lot of the flip side to what Adams’s photos show. Where Adams photographed members of the 442nd as American heroes, Miyatake photographed their departure and their funerals and the way this impacted the community left behind—especially the Issei who Adams didn’t depict and who can’t be described as Americans because they weren’t allowed to become citizens.
The photos aren’t all negative though. Miyatake’s aims were more about capturing and remembering what happened rather than publishing and achieving social change. He wanted to be in Manzanar for the duration and have images which showed the entirety of the camp to future generations. There are photos of graduations and Christmases and other events showing how life went on and people had fun and things weren’t horrible even though nothing depicted should be considered normal. Ever.
Sort of ironically, it’s the official WRA photographs which end up hammering the social justice angle of the camps. Clem Albers and Dorothea Lange have different axes to grind—Albers is skeptical of the government and Lange is all about social change—but together their photos capture a much different Manzanar. Instead of the self-sufficient settlement that Adams shows, the WRA photos show the camp at its worst—needing to be cleared and built by the same people who were to be confined there.
Albers in particular is very smart about trying to show confinement while following the guidelines of not showing actual confinement. He frames subjects behind glass or in tight rooms or somehow otherwise confined. And if he can’t do that he includes a caucasian authority figure who, while not being depicted negatively, implies that there is more going on in the image. Why does the military police need to be involved with getting children or the elderly off of a train?
Lange meanwhile sees the internees as tragic figures who are being horribly wronged by their government. Her photos emphasize the existing context of what has been done to the internees. If you include her work of the evacuation before the camps were set up,* this point of view becomes even stronger. They’ve lost so much and are now working extremely hard in an inhospitable place to eek out their living. There’s no future in mind, only our complicity in what’s been done to them already.
Lange and Albers’s photos look more like what I’d expect images of the internment to look like. Harsh, brutal, unjust images of an unjust event. Looking at them solidified my takeaway from Adams’s work about how weirdly great it is. Despite its assimilationist tones, there is something wonderful about presenting an oppressed group not only as humans but as peers who have persevered despite the oppression. All too often we only see the oppression and suffering which, while important to witness, risks making someone else’s pain into a spectacle.
I always love it when I’m at a museum and information about how an artist worked is available along with the actual art. I’m not just interested in learning how something was constructed,* I love to see how artists worked through their ideas and found what worked and what didn’t. The effort part of art is too often framed as being only in the actual creation side of things—painting, sculpting, etc.—not in the ideation and working through of the concepts or in the decision making about what to actually show people.
Which is what makes Stephen McLaren and Bryan Formhals’s Photographers’ Sketchbooks so exciting. Rather than being about a single photographer, this book has samples from dozens of them. The term “sketchbook” doesn’t begin to describe the various working methods in here. There are contact sheets, maquettes and dummies, online streams, notebooks, workbooks, work prints, plans, sketches, and more. All vastly different ways of conceiving projects, working through them, and editing them. This is how art is made. There’s never one right way.
Many of the samples involve working with the stream and the archive. Taking unfinished work and knocking the corners off or reshuffling things. Showing the results to trusted peers. Rinse and repeat. That we’re allowed in to see this unfinished, unreleased work—oftentimes without explicit references to the finished pieces—is a major privilege which demonstrates the significant amount of trust that the artists have placed in McLaren and Formhals to handle and present these private documents into a more public space.
For photographers whose work I was familiar with it was great to see the behind-the-scenes side of how the work was produced. For those whose work I was unfamiliar with, I enjoyed being introduced to new work as well as learning some backstory for when I encountered the finished work. I can see myself returning to this book as I encounter more photography in the wild.
As a photographer, it’s also great to see how many different approaches there are. This isn’t a how-to guide. But it is inspiring. It’s easy to accumulate an archive of photos. Winnowing through and turning that archive into projects—even if they’re just family photo albums—is something I’ve been putting off for too long. Where most photobooks influence how I take photos and see things, Photographers’ Sketchbooks is encouraging me to do something with them.