Wednesday, 24 June 2015

→ the photo book (part II): between documentation and memory (@ Photographers' gallery, London)

Georges Didi-Huberman has recently been awarded Theodor-W.-Adorno-Preis 2015, which is given for outstanding achievement in philosophy, music, theater or film. Some years ago he wrote Images In Spine of All, in which he discussed four explicit photographs of mass extermination in Nazi camps. Huberman put the voyeur, the history and the art into one line of questioning. Photography, he said, rested between documentation and memory.
A simple piece of film - so small that it can be hidden in a tube of toothpaste - is capable of engendering an unlimited number of prints, of generations and enlargements in every format. Photography works hand in glove with image and memory and therefore possesses their notable epidemic power. (Huberman, p24)


As a Lithuanian, I must start this blog with Moshe Vorobeichic. In 1931 he published Paris (as Moi Ver), one of the very first photo artists' books ever produced. At about the same time, however, he published another photo book Ein Getto im Osten - Wilna (1931), documenting the Jewish quarter in Vilnius, where he himself grew up. Like Paris, Wilna book is equally avant-garde in it's collages and layouts. Yet, it is also a very intimate book: the viewer is brought very close to the faces, the puddles, the baskets of Vilnius Jews. The reader is led though the back streets and the markets; the reader looks at the rooftops and the pavement; the reader meets residents of the Jewish quarter. This book is not a record of a historical point in time, rather it is a personal reference point to somewhere in his childhood, soaked in black-and-white nostalgia.


Photographers' Gallery at the moment is hosting a Chinese photo book exhibition curated by Martin Parr and WassinkLundgren. The exhibition space is tight, but there are large double-page-spread photos, videos of books, books to handle (albeit chained) and books to look at under the glass.


The exhibition does not solely focus on the artists publications, but brings together the whole range of photographic books, pamphlets, promotional material under one umbrella. There is no line between photo books as artists' publications and institutional albums, produced to document an aspect of research, such as tongue conditions or bridges. Does a distinction between photo book as a document and photo book as a creative practice, rest on the maker's intentions only, rather then certain qualities of the outcome? Ed Ruscha recorded gasoline stations, while Chinese government recorded bridges. Both resulted in photo books.

The Hairy People of China

Basics of soccer - a series of techniques

This merging of intentions is what I found so pleasing about the exhibition: there were instructions on the correct ways to play sports and then there were artists' publications, such as the beautifully cinematic  This Face portrait book by Xu Yong.

 Zi U's face was photographed during various times of the day: with make-up and without, tired and refreshed. She is a sex worker. She sees clients from very close and she is used to be seen from close. The sequence of photographs forms an intimate portrait similar to that produced by a film: the trace of the real Zi U is captured in-between the page spreads and the viewer, in-between proximity and truth, in-between memory and document.

Photographers' Gallery also contained an exhibition of Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015 (now closed). Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse - the winners - had the work in the first room for their mammoth long term project documenting the fate of Johannesburg's Ponte City. The prize was awarded "for their ambitious publication Ponte City (Steidl, 2014), charting the social and political history of a 54-floor apartment block in Johannesburg", which was built under apartheid rule in 1976 and was originally conceived as a center of aspirational living for a white elite.  A sequence of books follows the temporal line of events, with an introductory pamphlet - containing newspaper headlines - placed at the front. The narrative is built one step at a time by thoughtful sequencing of images and texts. The work balances between the space of historical documentation and artistic interpretation, merging the boundary between the the objective fact and subjective elucidation. 



As a young teenager I collected photo books of my city. They were published once every few years. I did not own a camera - I documented my space and time in another way. Like those Chinese photo books - which show the correct way to play soccer - Kaunas photo books reflected the correct Soviet way to see my town. They are not voyeuristic (like Xu Yong's book), they are not nostalgic (like Moshe Vorobeichic book) and they only have the intimacy of a travel agent's photography. Yet, they stand as a document and they stand in for memory. Because they contain photographs.
Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire. (Sontag, On Photography)


1. Susan Sontag also argues against photo books, because they determine the order in which photographs are to be viewed. Like cinema, photo books sequence images as determined by artist's intentions. It is in the nature of the photo book to be sequenced. Yet, it is also in the nature of the book as such to accommodate a random access option for the viewer should one desire to exercise such.


images Egidija's own, except for M. Vorobeichic (Moï Ver), Ein Ghetto im Osten – Wilna, 1931, which were taken from achtung.photgraphy website.

Didi-Huberman, G (2008), Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sontag, Susan, On Photography, June 21, 2015.


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