Jörg Colberg is a photographer, teacher, and critic based in Northampton, MA.
BA: A new internet joke: How many bloggers does it take to decipher a computer platform?
JC: Turns out I switched off Google Chat in my "Settings." Only took me 15 minutes to look there. My last Gchats are from 2007. Or rather were. Scary how all that junk survives. I deleted them all. The Right to Forget (tm).
I think deletion is a myth maybe. Everything sticks around in some form.
Maybe. If I can't see it, it's gone, though. ;-)
The future historians will have a big big big pile to sort through. But we'll get to that later maybe.
Gives me hope, though, that every nugget survives, however inane it might be. How is anyone going to make sense of all the nonsense we leave behind? Future historians might conclude we really liked fart jokes. So that's then why our civilization perished.
Yeah, plus all the environmental issues. But hopefully the world will last at least until I'm dead (30 more years?). Back to the topic. I'm familiar with your writings but I'm curious about you as a person. I don't know much, like even how to pronounce your name.
Well, it has that umlaut ("ö"), which isn't just an "o" with funny dots on it for design purposes. But it's very easy to pronounce actually, if you write it somewhat phonetically: Yurg, with the "y" as in "Yankee," the "ur" as in "turn," and then the "g" as in any word that ends with a "g." I do realize that in English, you can also spell the word "fish" as "ghoti," so the "yurg" trick might not help much.
Can you give me a little background on your personal history? You grew up in Germany?
I was born and grew up in Germany. I lived there until I was 32 (or so). Got my education there. Originally, it was West Germany (at least where I was born), later just Germany.
And your education was in physics?
Yes. I wanted to study astronomy, and to do that, much to my horror, you had to study physics. Which I did.
Were you also interested in photography at that time?
No, I wasn't.
When did that happen. And why, do you think?
In retrospect, I think I wasn't so interested in photography, because the dominant photography - at least whatever I'd see it - was the reportage photography that actually was so important, coming out of Essen. That's before the Düsseldorf School took over. And I just wasn't interested in it. It didn't tell me anything. I had a much easier time connecting with literature.
And I was shit at taking pictures as well. My very first camera ended up being disassembled. I literally found it on a walk with my parents. I must have been 8 or 9 years old. We took it to the city's Lost and Found, and a year later, they called us and said we could claim it since nobody had picked it up. So we did. We took it home, and I disassembled it. I was quite disappointed there was nothing inside. Later, I had cameras on and off, but I never liked the pictures I took. I just didn't know what to take pictures of. Wasn't interested in family pictures.
Your city had a Lost and Found? Is that common in Germany?
I think it might be. I'm not sure. But yes, it had a Lost and Found where they'd keep things for a year. I don't know what they did with unclaimed items.
That'd be Wilhelmshaven, a port city in the north of Germany; also a major German naval base.
It's funny that you remember that camera from when you were very young. So maybe the photo gene was in there even then but not expressed yet. But moving forward a few years, when did it take hold? And why? You've said why you weren't interested in photography. But when did you become interested?
Someone had told me about the Lomo LC-A, because there was some connection to the kind of music I was listening to when I was a grad student. I didn't have the money then, but I ended up buying one when I had my second job after grad school. I don't remember why I bought it (other than possibly having too much money). But I started taking pictures with it, and that got me hooked. I realized I was able to take pictures I enjoyed looking at (however bad those pictures are in retrospect). That's how this started. But I never learned doing anything other than doing something and making a mistake. I'd then have to figure out how not to make that mistake again.
What was the musical connection to the Lomo? And what music were you listening to?
I was listening to Mouse on Mars, amongst others, and they even had a song (if I remember this correctly) called "Lomo".
A chance encounter. A lyric turns you onto a camera. Then 20 years later you're teaching it.
I looked it up: It's "Bib (Lomo Mix)." But I wanted to know what Lomo was. It's an instrumental song, so no lyrics. But another grad student knew more, and he told me how that was some sort of "in" camera back then. I only bought the Lomo years later, though.
I hadn't realized that you became interested in photography as a shooter. I thought of you more as a critic. But I guess it's not surprising. So you were engaged in a scientific career with photography as a side hobby. And by this time you'd moved to America? For your career presumably?
At the same time, I was doing a lot of digital image processing. There's a whole history of me working on astrophysical images over the course of my science "career." I loved making those images. They weren't photographs in the strictest sense (maybe Thomas Ruff would accept them as such), but I loved the challenge of making something visual that made sense and was beautiful.
|Untitled, from American Pixels (2009-2010)|
I've looked at your rocketship jpgs. Are those the photos you mean?
No. I know, this is kind of confusing. I did a lot of image processing in science, and I roughly got interested in photography when I was a scientist.
Why do you put your science "career" in quotes. Did you never buy into it all the way?
I quit astronomy after my Ph.D., because I hated the politics you had to play to get a job. Got a job as a "technical consultant," which I hated, interviewed for a new job, which I got, as a programmer. That job then brought me to the US. But I really regretted not doing science any longer, so after a few years, I went back to science, which I then re-hated for the reasons I left it originally (I might not qualify as the best career counselor). But, and this might be the only interesting bit in there, I got interested in photography, started to take pictures, and photography became more and more important to me. That's how that then took off.
I think the photo world has some of the same politics maybe that you left behind in astrophysics. Wherever you go, there you are.
|Untitled, from Higher Education (2006-2008)|
Right. You can't escape that stuff.
Were you in Germany during the reunification?
What was that like?
I guess I should make up some good sounding answer how I was inspired and all that stuff. But the reality is that I wasn't very interested in it at all. Especially not after the conservatives won the East German elections (the only ones they had). When it became clear that reunification would just be the same, except with a bigger country and a lot of phony promises thrown at East Germans.
You're saying nothing changed? That's pretty cynical.
I did live in Bonn at the time, which was the capital of West Germany. And I thought if there is a reunification, then of course the government should move to Berlin. Not much changed really, at least over the first few years. Technically, the East German states joined the then Federal Republic of Germany and adopted all the laws etc.
I haven't. But just to come back to the topic of what changed, I do think things changed eventually, but it took a years. The Germany that exists now is way different than West Germany, and I'm not talking about the geography. So in that sense, I'd say reunification was good after all. I'm glad that that bigger West Germany finally became the very different Germany that exists now. But in 1990 it really didn't look it would. At least not to me.
How is it different?
People think differently. There's a different atmosphere. German history has become relevant in different ways. As much as it dismays me to see people waving German flags at sports games (say the World Cup), it's mostly done out of joy, not out of nationalism. And I can deal with that.
I don't follow you. Why don't you like flag waving?
I think Germans are very aware of what happened in their country's past, and they have made that part of who they are. Germans are still very troubled with the idea of patriotism. For a German, at least historically, flag waving equals nationalism, and you know what nationalism led to in Germany. It's really as simple as that.
So the German flag is sort of like the Confederate flag? I guess so, maybe. But still, you gotta have a flag.
No, it's not the Confederate flag at all. It's not the flag itself, it's the waving it.
I meant Confederate flag in the sense that it's a symbol carrying a certain amount of baggage. I don't know the German consciousness as intimately as you. But when you say the old West Germany is different than the new one, that's sort of surprising. Or counter to the prevailing ethos in America which is that after unification, West Germany sort of sucked up the old Communist state and everything became more Westernized.
You're right, at least technically, West German sucked up the Eastern part, and the Eastern part became westernized. But the overall atmosphere did change, especially once Helmut Kohl was out of power.
All of this happened right before the time the Bechers and Düsseldorf school gained real prominence. Do you think there was any causal connection?
|Untitled, from More Cooling Towers (2010)|
I'm not sure there's a connection between the Düsseldorf School and German history. But I suppose you could make an argument for the change from Essen (classic West German reportage photography) to Düsseldorf (contemporary, cosmopolitan photography).
You say "The atmosphere changed." I still don't understand how.
Well, I suppose, in West Germany, there was always that feeling that ultimately, the country didn't have to do too much. It didn't play much of a role. And people didn't have to worry about what their country was other than some sort of country with a very bad and loaded history. But then the Wall fell, and Germany became a bigger country that suddenly started to have a lot more responsibilities simply because it couldn't hide behind anything any longer. Now, I'm not saying whether that's good or bad, say, how you view the Euro and all that stuff. But that excuse of being just some sort of backwater without any responsibility disappeared.
There also were all those things that still were bottled up. You'd ask questions about the German Army during World War 2, and they were the good guys, the guys who did their duty, who didn't have anything to do with any of the horrible atrocities, because those were done by the SS. That's obviously bullshit, but in West Germany, that stuck for a long time. And it really only got challenged and changed after reunification.
And people, especially the younger generation, latched onto that. There was a bit of a promise, even though I'm certain most Germans would loathe the idea of there being a promise. Because, you see, Germans are very pessimistic people.
It's now the main power in Europe. And one of the main powers in photography too. Maybe that's why I was drawing the connection before.
Maybe there is that connection. In reality, German photography is a lot more than Düsseldorf, but as a token for all of that it might stand.
Are you a pessimist?
How can you not be a pessimist?
Easy. I'm an optimist. A cynical optimist.
I try not to be cynical. But I am certainly not an optimist.
I think you need to be optimistic to hunt for photos. It's really essential. If you don't think you'll find photos, you won't.
I don't think photography has much to do with pessimism or optimism.
To me it does. And I realize that's a very personal outlook. But what I said above is true for me. Optimism is essential. Sometimes when I'm feeling down it's impossible to see things. It's very central.
I suppose you can phrase everything in such a way that it either becomes pessimistic or optimistic. When I go out to take pictures, I don't expect or even hope to find good ones, because I know, most of the time, I just won't. There will be some good photos at some stage, but it's a haul to get those. And I like that it's so damn hard. Much like writing, which is also impossibly hard.
You mentioned going out to shoot photos. What is your practice? Do you go out often? Where and when? And for specific projects or just hunting?
I don't have the time to do photography in a way that I'd consider consistent. I usually have to make the time, because I'm so busy with writing and teaching. I also work on different projects at the same time, out of sheer necessity. I work on "straight" photographs, while at the same time, I might work on "found" pictures or on computer-generated ones like "America Pixels".
The SF photos came out of a self-assignment.
Right. Something about you not liking San Francisco?
|Untitled, from The Trip I (2013)|
They're a bit unusual in that sense, but I enjoyed them enough to put them on my site. I have this self-assignment that on every trip, I have to take pictures to then make a book afterwards.
You have one for every city?
Yes, starting some time in 2013. It's an exercise really, trying to make something, to make mistakes and to see what can be learned from those. Part of the assignment is that I cannot repeat something I've done before. So now I have a stack of books from those various trips. The idea is to do them fast, to commit (and not procrastinate). It's a tough exercise. But some of the books are quite good. Most of them are shit. Or maybe not shit, but they're clearly not very good.
Part of the motivation is trying to do something that I'd ordinarily never do. To challenge my practice, and my thinking around photography: If I do this thing that I'd never do, what is that going to teach me? Is this as easy as I think it is? As hard? Etc.
There are several references on your site to separating photographs from their original context. You sometimes sit on them for a while. And the same with found photos. Then come back to them later and re-interpret them or appropriate them for some other use. I think that derives from some central urge maybe, like a need to conceptualize or remove photos from "truth". And maybe your city photos are a way to reverse that tendency?
Maybe. Seriously, one of the main reasons for me sitting on pictures is the lack of time to work with them on a daily basis. But photography takes time anyway. I think one has to spend time with one's pictures, to see and hear and feel what they say. The assignment is more about doing something very limited and restricted. Something that can be a total failure. Some of the assignments are pre-planned. Some of them come out of me going somewhere, not having an idea what to photograph and then knowing I have to make that damn book.
Where are all these books? Are they just single copies for you?
They are all just single copies. I get them done through Blurb, because it's fast and simple that way.
Do you apply some of the photobook ideas that you teach? About design and editing and such? Or are they generally just simple collections?
Part of the idea of making a book is the idea of, well, making one, so I can apply what I teach. Or I can make the mistakes that I see students make - to see how when I make the mistake, I learn something that helps me teach. Design-wise, the books are very simple. The edit is supposed to be good, though, as is the sequence.
I don't know whether this is final. Things will probably move in a different direction at some stage. But I think the book is teaching us a lot about photography right now.
It forces photos into the structure of literature. I'm not sure if that's always a good thing.
I know Hartford
concentrates on books too.
Hartford does concentrate on books. Graduates are required to have a fully realized book plus a thesis exhibition. The photobook is its own medium. And it might not work for all photography. But you can learn a lot from approaching photography through the form of a photobook.
There's always the question of "truth" in photography. The question how photographs tell their stories. And I think the book forces you to deal with that. But it allows you to experience your photography in a different way.
Yeah, too many books. I love photobooks but I can't keep track of them all. The movement from large prints on the wall to sequenced photos in a package isn't just about the editing and storytelling either. It seems like a fundamental shift in the experience. It's bringing the photo right to your lap. Instead of holding back as some grand statement, which is sort of a regal stance, the book is very personalized. It comes out into the world and interacts with you. I think it marches in step with the whole shift in culture. It used to be some expert on a pedestal making a speech. Now the expert is the hive brain.
Right, it's different. I don't think there's a better or worse here. What I do think, though, is that we now have these very different modes of engaging with photography, and they're all (in theory) equally established: the exhibition, the book, the picture on your Instagram feed (for example).
True. Many different outlets. But if I read your post correctly you were making a statement about one of the main shifts. Sure you can still do an exhibition or book or IG. But when it all boils down, aren't most photographers shooting for a book? Whereas 30 years ago maybe not.
Not sure. Some are, other very clearly not. I mean right now the photobook is a fad. That's not going to last.
I have a hard time thinking of my photos in books. I've come to the realization I'm a photographer not a book maker. Sad to say.
I don't think there's anything sad about it. But I think as a photographer, you now have more options, and you can pick which one is the one you need. Which is the one that serves what you do best.
The sad part is I'd like to make books. But it's maybe just not in me.
Maybe you just need to give it a shot?
Yes, maybe. Too daunting... Let's go back for a minute to the old camera you found and returned to city lost and found. Were you always finding ephemera laying around? And does that connect to your interest in collecting found photos?
I tend to find things, but not as often as I'd like. But I do like finding things. Finding as in "not looking for it, but finding it anyway". As opposed to "finding" something on eBay (because you looked for it).
Don't you collect found photos?
OK, where does that urge come from?
I think there are multiple reasons. One of them is that I can afford to buy found photos. That's essentially the only photography I can afford, books aside maybe. And I love the process of finding them. Ideally, I find them in person, in some shop somewhere. It's a lot less fun on eBay. Even though on eBay I look very specifically for photographs, which I collect very slowly.
Is there a theme? Or what do you look for?
There are themes, but they depend on where I look. When I look on Ebay, I have some themes. When I look in a shop, especially when they have a lot, I make up a theme on the fly. There's a shop in Berlin that has tons of found pictures. Every year, I go there, for example. There's so much I can't browse without some sort of theme. Last year, for example, I came up with "Other People's Party Pictures" and "Disinterested Women."
|from Haunted Air, 2010, Edited by Ossian Brown|
Have you seen Ossian Brown's Haunted Air
? it's pretty great.
Yes, I have that book. It's great. Get yourself a copy of Arjan de Nooy's Party Photographer. It's cheap and a lot of fun. I'm envious I didn't come up with that idea, especially since I already collected party pictures.
I will look for it. That's perhaps the next wave of found photography, curation into very specific themes. Erik Kessels has been doing it but not many others yet.
Right. De Nooy took it a step further by pretending the pictures were all made by one specific (fake) photographer. It's quite funny.
Sort of. Except it's way funnier. It's one of those books where there's actual genuine fun in the whole thing. Kessels has that as well. But De Nooy really pushed it.
Wisconsin Death Trip doesn't feel very fun.
No. Which, of course, appeals to the pessimist in me.
I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about Conscientious
. It was one of the early blogs and as we know there was a whole vital scene which has sort of dissipated. What do you think happened? How will people write that history in the future? Of blogs?
It's too bad that scene dissipated. There might not be one reason. Maybe that scene was never sustainable after all. I don't know. But a lot of people probably realized it wasn't worth it, at least in terms of how much time it takes and how much (little: zero) money it makes.
Instagram takes time and money. People still do that. What's the difference?
Instagram is like the very, very early photoblogging. When I started Conscientious the way I did it, it was slightly unusual. A photoblog then was a blog where people posted a picture a day (or so). And then Facebook came along and Hoovered up a lot of people. Plus the corporate blogs started taking over.
Do you consider Facebook a corporate blog? What about Feature Shoot? PetaPixel? New Yorker Photobooth? Wired RawFile?
I don't think of Facebook as a blog. By corporate blogs I mean all those blogs by big media companies. Some of them are quite good, others less so. Or maybe I should say they all are consistent, covering what they do well - it's just that I'm more interested in some than others. For example, I think the Lens blog is wonderful. There's a lot of photography that's not necessarily on my radar on it, and it makes me engage with that, especially since you can tell they actually spend the time writing those articles. But there are also blogs that essentially copy edit someone's PR statement and then show you a bunch of pictures. That's not necessarily what I personally am looking for.
One of the features of Conscientious which makes it maybe unique is lack of ability to comment. I think I know why you disabled that. Do you ever have second thoughts about reinstating it?
Didn't have to think much about that?
I'd like to think there's more to the site than that that makes it unique, but maybe not.
Yes, of course. But that's one feature. I think that's why some of the energy has moved from blogs to Facebook and Instagram. At the end of the day what many people want from the web is just a place to hang out and chat. Like in a bar. Facebook is very good at that. The comments ARE the content.
Sure. Facebook is like a bar, except it doesn't offer any of the things that people go to a bar for: the atmosphere, company, and the drinks.
So the deliberate removal of comments could be seen as an old fashioned posture?
I guess you could see it as anything (and I've seen all kinds of things said about that). The reality is that the time and effort I'd have to put into moderating comments would take away from the time I can spend on writing instead.
How much time did moderating comments take? Did you get a lot of spam or trolling?
I don't remember this well any longer. That's years ago.
I think the question I'm circling around is your relationship with your audience. Since you have no comments it's hard to gauge reader reactions, and your writing style is sort of removed, and gives the impression of the audience having little effect. Do you take audience into account when deciding what to write about, or later, after something is posted? Does audience reaction have much effect on you?
I'm not sure comments are the only way to gauge someone's relationships with the audience. I get quite a few emails, and I love interacting with people that way. When I write something or when I think of writing something, I don't have the audience in mind in this social-media way of thinking where a piece is successful if it gets a lot of "likes" or "shares" or whatever. I mostly think about how I can work on whatever it is I want to write about in a way that adds to the conversation, whatever that conversation might be.
And I look at take the audience reaction, because I'm interested in where I got it wrong, where I can learn something. I just object to the idea that you need comments for that, given that such vast parts of almost any site's comments sections are so… how can I say this… Have you seen any of the YouTube Comment Reconstructions? Not all comments are like that, but one does end up there too often.
I understand what you say about Sean O'Hagan and the negativity in those comments. And I agree comments sometimes become stupid. But that's no reason to write them off completely. Sometimes they can be interesting
. It seems that by ignoring them you're cutting off a large piece of the puzzle for no clear reason.
You're right, sometimes comments can be interesting. But the signal-to-noise ratio simply is way too low for me to justify sifting through all that stuff to find that one or two thoughtful comment(s).
If people want to engage with me, they can email. I've become friends with various people who emailed, with whom I didn't (and still don't) agree. So I suppose to take your bar analogy, I have always been much more comfortable having a beer with just a friend than hanging out in a big rowdy crowd. That's just not me.
That sounds like my beef with Instagram. I'm sure there are some fine photos there but signal/noise ratio is too low for me. I can't wade through the crap. But I know I'm probably cutting myself off from some good work.
Right. Instagram has the same problem.
Another change in Conscientious is the nature of material. It used to be many short blurbs with links. And now it's long form writing. There's a note on your site about why. You say other sites have replaced the need for short links. Maybe that's true. Twitter or Tumblr or even Facebook do that.
I think the way we look at photography, the way it's presented online has changed a lot over the past few years.
The "Hey! Look at This" type of post isn't as useful. Because everyone's probably seen it already.
With Conscientious, I essentially try to do something that adds to what people are doing. Whether I'm successful at doing that I don't know. But you have Twitter now, where there are tons of those "Hey! Look at this!" posts. Or you have Tumblr, with a picture and a link. So in a sense, me doing that as well just doesn't add much any longer. Also, when I started the site, my hope was that some day, there would be other people doing it. So I would be able to enjoy not doing it. Tumblr, for example, essentially has made this type of blogging redundant I think. At the same time, my focus has shifted as well.
Wait, you wanted someone to take over Conscientious?
No, I wanted other people doing what I did. That was way back, though. Back then, photography on the internet was quite tough to find actually. It's maybe hard to understand this now, but you probably remember that time.
I think you've gotten you're wish. It isn't hard to find any more. Opposite problem now.
Right. And my own focus has shifted, as I engage differently with photography now. So the site has always reflected how I engage with photography. And it has reflected what I wanted to see on a site. Luckily, enough people have been interested in what I did/do. Even though there have been plenty of disagreements. But that's just good.
There's a quote on your site
which is maybe relevant to your shifting interests:
"I find myself caught with a seemingly endless loop of disenchantment and re-enchantment with the world. I want the world to have more opportunities than what I perceive as being there. The friction between wanting something and feeling rejected (or, occasionally, dejected) has – so far – provided the driving force behind my straight photography."
Maybe that gets back to the pessimism mentioned earlier. But to me it's more about being caught in shifting moods, and changes in how you engage. That loop you mention, there's something to it. Not sure if that's a question.
That's from my artist statement. I wrote that about my photography, but maybe you're right. Maybe that applies to the writing as well. Maybe I need to be more honest with myself and look at that beyond my photography.
|Untitled, from The Fall (2010-2013)|
Well the idea of disenchantment and re-enchantment with the world goes beyond photography and/or writing. It's pretty fundamental.
I didn't think anyone would actually look at that part of the site.
I had to do some research. Remember, there's no deletion online. Everything sticks around.
I am pretty certain, though, that my engagement with photography has changed. I look at photography differently now than ten years ago. I prefer different things. I can appreciate some things more, others less.
How do you view photography differently than 10 years ago? Are there photos or photographers you like now who you didn't appreciate before?
I don't think I "got" Michael Schmidt ten years ago. Whatever to "get" means here. But I think I've learned to engage with work in a more profound way. Well, I hope at least. So there's work that I maybe appreciate less now. And some that I started to get or at least started to appreciate.
That makes sense, at least on the surface. As you study something longer you get deeper into it. Which work do you appreciate less now?
Maybe we won't talk about the work I appreciate less now. I do think that'd be a bit unfair to the photographers, unless I could make my point in a way that'd require a lot more typing.
No need to name names. What about style? I know you don't like street photography much. But maybe that was also true 10 years ago.
It's not that I don't like street photography per se. It's not my favourite genre, that's for sure. But there's some good work. We might disagree on that one, but PL diCorcia's is quite good. I'm a little less interested now in the very disengaged contemporary photography ("Lewis Baltz in colour, but barely" as I called it in my latest reviews - quite like that line).
That's sort of the crux of the difference in our opinions. I don't consider DiCorcia a pure street photographer. I like his photos. But in my mind it's a different category.
Well, he's not. But he did street photography, where he placed lights and all. I do think those are marvelous (not the "Heads" - those are great, too, but I don't see them as street photography).
What do you think of Instagram?
I'm using it. I didn't want to sign on, given it's owned by Facebook, but then I felt I had to know about it. A lot of the work on Instagram doesn't interest me. But just like with any site, you can find things to appreciate. And frankly, I think it's wonderful how many people who don't call themselves photographers use it.
Is it helping you make photos that you care about?
I don't think so. It's a different beast I think. It's a tool of sorts. Or maybe a way of sharing work.
I guess that's my mental block. If I get the sense looking at photos there that people aren't putting much energy into them, then why should I? I know I've got a mental block there. Need to get over it, or maybe just think of it in a different way. Sharing. Not making.
I hear you, though. Instagram is simply a different avenue for your work. It doesn't offer the same engagement you can expect from a show or a book. That said, it does have its promises. But it positively dismays me to see serious photojournalists share work on Instagram for that very reason. It's not a very serious medium for serious topics. And who wants to read long paragraphs of text on a phone?
Wait, everyone gets to use Instagram except for the "serious photojournalists". That's not fair.
Hey, everybody gets to use Instagram! Be my guest! But I don't think you can (or maybe should) use Instagram for a purpose for which it isn't suited.
What is that purpose?
So photograph your cat or partner or your vacation or something that's light and that connects us. But don't try to tell me about the ills of the world in an environment that's used by 99% of all people in such a casual way. I wrote about that a few years back...
(All photos above by Jörg Colberg unless otherwise noted)