Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Non-discussion topic

Photographers are like magicians. They don't reveal their tricks. A photo is supposed to carry its own weight without any help from words. No explanation. No story. Even a descriptive caption is considered poor form. Instead, the classic photo caption simply lists place and time. Or sometimes just Untitled

Why? Because ambiguity is a key component in photography. One viewer might see one thing in a photo. Another person might see something completely different. Maybe that kitten was about to conquer New York. Or maybe it was just a twist of perspective. Maybe the whole thing was created in Photoshop. Who knows? Without extra information, all you've got to go on is what's visible in the frame, and we all know photos can lie. And lies are wonderful. Lies are magic. That's why instead of adding to a photo, an explanation can often take something away from it. 

So you can see why photographers are often reluctant to discuss their images. When I've been turned down for my What-Was-He-Thinking? series, it's been for that reason. Photographers want to preserve some mystery.

And that's cool. I can dig that. But...

I also love it when photographers discuss their images. It's a view behind the curtain. Such commentaries are relatively rare —maybe that explains my fascination with them— but I've encountered two great publications in the past few weeks which break the photographic taboo and discuss pictures freely. Both are out of Germany. 

The first is romka magazine, a journal entirely dedicated to What-Was-He-Thinking? style essays. It's simply various photographers telling the stories behind selected photos. 

Romka's been around for a few years, steadily improving with each iteration. After a few years as an online entity, the last few issues have been available in print. I've got #7 and  #8 and both are great. 

The mix of material is consistently diverse. Photographers range from amateur to professional, from anonymous to notorious, and represent all corners of the globe. There are some photo stars included, but the celebrity factor is muted. The focus is on the stories. Some of the essays are as short as a few sentences. Some go on for pages. There's no rhyme or reason as far as I can tell, but each issue is entertaining. And the production quality improves with each one. Number eight, the most recent issue, is the slickest yet. Glossy pages, clever design, Joscha Bruckert and crew have got it going on.

If you want a taste, see for yourself. Most photo/essay combos from past issues are available online.

The other book I've stumbled on recently is Juergen Teller's Pictures and Text. I can't remember where I first learned of it. Through Alec Soth? But somehow it wound up on my photobook list, where it sat for a while before getting caught up in my annual book gleaning last December. And I'm sure glad it did. It's an awesome book.

Juergen Teller is considered L'enfant terrible of the photo world for good reason. His work doesn't exhibit much taste or boundaries or humility. The style is casual, exhibitionist, over-exposed, and infantile. He photographs nudes in uncomfortable positions, such as groveling in garbage among puppies. Or laying in a wheelbarrow like compost. He uses silly props. He shoots himself a lot, sometimes with his anus pointed at the lens. And he's even convinced beautiful models to do the same.

But you know what? His schtick works. And I've grown to like his photos quite a bit. They're quite unpredictable. Sometimes near, sometimes far, sometimes serious but often not. I think his style might fit into 100 different portfolios. What I like best is he seems to be having fun. So if he's infantile he gets a pass. Because kids play. Kids laugh. And I can imagine Teller laughing while making these pictures. 

Pictures and Text contains several dozen photos accompanied by the stories behind them. The descriptions are sometimes absurd, often quite personal, and consistently interesting. Teller's writing style is simple and straight forward. Downright poetic actually, with not a hint of academic bullshit language. If the descriptions remove some ambiguity from the photos, they more than make up for that in entertainment value.

The photos in Pictures and Text originally appeared as a weekly series in ZEIT Magazine. I don't know much about ZEIT but I gather it's a general interest journal for intellectuals, roughly the German equivalent of the NY Times Sunday Magazine

As might be expected, Teller's photos created quite a backlash upon publication. Intellectuals like to think of themselves as open-minded...until they encounter a photographer's cock in their face while drinking morning coffee. That's just too far, dammit. Someone needs to write a letter of complaint!

A selection of these letters is contained in a side volume called Literature. They are just as entertaining as Teller's photo essays. Thin-skinned people are one of the great comic foils and I can imagine Teller laughing to himself while browsing his inbox. Their inclusion here is in keeping with Teller's unconcealed in-your-face style. Instead of reacting to the letters or attempting to put his spin on them, Teller simply presents them as-is. He's a magician on stage performing tricks right in front of you. There's nowhere to hide. But you still can't figure out how he does it.


Anonymous said...

Interesting take! By they way, Teller's book is "Pictures and Words", not "Pictures and Text".

Blake Andrews said...

I think there may be a few ways to translate the German. I'm just going by the title Steidl put on the cover: Pictures And Text.

Anonymous said...

Oh good point. I see there are a few different translations.

Stan B. said...

Great resource- thanks!

But seems even the evocative Mr. Teller has his scruples (or met his match) when he declined to photograph Ciley Myrus.

Mr. Thin Skinned

Anonymous said...

check out Ping Pong conversations by/with Alec Soth.