Saturday, March 25, 2017

Value Above Replacement Post

Anyone who shoots photographs in public has dealt with cops. They're an occupational hazard. In fact I view occasional interaction with the law as an affirmation that I'm doing something right photographically. It can be a sign that some boundary is being pushed or questioned, at least in the eyes of the law. In reality it's hard to imagine how any photograph can pose a public danger. So a brush with the law becomes a sort of ridiculous dance. You explain what you're doing. The officer scribbles a note on your permanent record, or maybe fakes like they're writing something. A few minutes of everyone's time is wasted. Then they go away and you resume your allegedly suspicious behavior. 

When I saw two campus police approach me a few days ago I didn't think much initially. I was poking around the local community college with my cameras. It was spring break and the commuter school was mostly dead, but I'd stumbled on a motorcycle training exercise that seemed vaguely promising. But just as I'd made a few photos one of the instructors had seen me and waved her arms in the familiar "No Photography!" gesture. So I'd put my camera down and moved along. 

Five minutes later I noticed the squad car out of the corner of my eye.  Damn, I thought, the motorcycle teacher turned me in. Oh well, here it comes. I made a point of deliberately shooting a stand of dogwood blossoms in the other direction, exuding a vibe of routine tedium. Ho-hum, nothing to see here, officer, just a "normal" adult snooping around with a camera. Meanwhile I had my spiel rehearsed. Public space, street shooting, civil rights bla bla bla. 

Cop 1 approached. "Excuse me, sir, but someone reported an incident of public urination on this campus. Did you urinate behind a tree just now?"

Wha...? So this wasn't about photography after all. 

Lane Community College, shown with locations of note

Then Cop 1 dropped the hammer, "The suspect matched your description exactly."

I looked down to remember what I was wearing. I was a perfect match with myself. They had me cold. 

"Yup, that was me," I offered blankly, unsure how anyone had seen me in that tree. I'd buried myself deep in its undergrowth before peeing, but apparently not deep enough. 

In this moment my mind began to ponder police work, which I hadn't really considered in quite some time. I thought of all the potential things that cops encounter on a daily basis, all of the idle time in a squad car looking for incongruities or tips or leads, or something, and it struck me for the first time that police work is a bit like looking for photos. The successful events take up a relatively small portion of energy compared to the broader time devoted to the in-between parts, yet the two parts are interdependent. 

Photography works by a similar process. While looking for photos I can walk around for a few hours and come back with just one or two good images, which together might require thirty seconds to frame and shoot. But I can't achieve that thirty seconds without putting in the few hours of walking. To an outside observer these walks might seem aimless, and in a sense they are. I have no idea what I'm looking for, no idea when that special thirty second period might happen. It might be at the beginning or end of the few hours, or who knows when. But I trust that if I put in the time photo ops will happen.

In a recent interview Chris Rauschenberg described it this way: 
"One of the funny things about photography is that when you’re just taking a picture of something that you think might not be very important or you’re thinking about the way an artist might make a little sketch or something in a sketchbook—maybe that’s something I should think about in the future. With photography there’s no way to tell if you’re making a little sketch in the sketchbook or you are making your masterpiece—that it’s the greatest picture you’ve ever made in your life. It’s a 60th of a second either way, and that’s something you just decide later. That’s sort of a funny unique thing about photography—what you think of as playing scales could turn out to be your masterpiece."
Monitoring an empty community college on break is basically playing scales. Officers spend hours on the same daily rounds. 90% of the job must be boring as hell, spiced up only occasionally by a stray call about public urination or vagrancy or rollups, or who knows what? But cops realize as well as photographers you can't make the big bust without putting in the hours. They're interdependent, but you don't realize which part is which until later. When the alert comes from dispatch it's not immediately clear if the guy who peed on the tree will be that week's exciting arrest or just another harmless soccer dad. 

I tried hard to look like the latter as Cop 2 jumped in: "Can you tell me why you decided to urinate publicly rather than using a bathroom?"

"Well, I didn't see a bathroom nearby and I had to pee."

The truth went a little deeper than that. My strong affinity for outdoor peeing can probably be traced back to a blissful childhood in the hills without indoor plumbing. Peeing outside felt good then and it feels right now. It gets me outside in an odor free environment. It grounds me. On a long walk it creates a natural break. And it's eco-groovy. I've probably saved thousands of gallons of unflushed water over the years. 

Best of all, peeing outside is thinking time. I have some of my best ideas watering plants. For example during my busted leak I'd been ruminating about photographers in terms of the baseball VORP stat, Value Over Replacement Photographer. In my mind Arbus probably had the highest VORP of any photographer. She worked people and scenes to extract material that a replacement photographer would never see. Same with Tichy, Ballen, Friedlander. But Walker Evans or Joe Deal? Meh, not so much. Place any other photographer in Evans' footprints and they'd get roughly what he got. But that's the magic of Evans. He lures the observer under the spell of the obvious, low VORP notwithstanding. 

I know, I know, it's a sketchy theory, and I'll probably attract some shit for it. You can easily cite counter examples. I only had thirty seconds in the bushes to come up with it, so it is what it is. And thinking about it now, I'm not still not sure if that thirty seconds was the money section. VORP doesn't become truly interesting until it's cross referenced with VRBO, but then you get into real estate and deeper power structures beyond the scope of this post. But for the sake of argument, considering that outdoor pee time = thinking time, maybe subconsciously I'd felt a need to duck behind that tree even if I didn't really have to pee. Might I have held it and saved myself an inquisition? And considering the possibility of that inquisition, was it such a wise decision to bring along all these rollups?

"Are you a student here? Community member? Can I see some identification please?"

"I'm a parent," I lied as I handed Cop 2 my license. "I'm here for my kid's soccer game. Just taking some photos before it starts."

"If you're here for soccer there are porta-potties clearly marked near the playing fields."

I've never had a good idea come to me in a porta-potty, and in any case the playing fields were a half mile away. On those very playing fields in just a few moments would begin Emmett's soccer game, an activity in some ways similar to police and photography: two teams going at it for 60 minutes, never knowing when or even if a goal might happen. Players are interdependent on each other, and on the process itself. Cosmic, man. Worth a pee break. That's what I thought. But what I said was, "You're right. That was inappropriate of me. Won't happen again."

They ran my license against their database of bad guys, and naturally I came up clean because I hadn't given them the real one. So I was free to resume my photo making, or stashing explosives, or whatever it was I was not really up to. That should've been the end of it but Cop 2 wasn't done lecturing, "You realize this is a public campus. There are kids here for soccer, there's a family event over there at Oak Hill. You pull your penis out in public and you could get cited for indecent exposure." 

"Trust me, it had nothing to do with that," I lied.

"I know, I know. But it happens. You can get cited for exposure and if you get a prosecutor who wants to push it, you can be in real trouble. That's a sex crime. That'll follow you for life."

My silliness radar was buzzing. I wanted to laugh but Cop 2 said all of this with such a straight face I didn't dare. 

Of course I could only find it silly because society has bestowed on me a privileged profile. If I had a different skin color or an accent, or lacked documentation, or wasn't rollups, an interaction with police might be far less silly. 

From the perspective of a security officer, these other variables might be quantified as some sort of VORS, Value Over Replacement Suspect. My VORS was probably minimal. I'd never be a good substitute for a real criminal. But the cops couldn't know that until afterward, just as I wouldn't know what photos I'd taken until developing my film a few days later. That's when my favorite frame turned up:

Thirty seconds of paydirt from last week

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Unknown Pleasures

I've settled into predictable consumption habits as I approach middle age. For the most part the only things I buy any more are music, photobooks, and gasoline. I've been enjoying a steady stream of all three lately. For example, the recent A Tribe Called Quest album we got it from Here...Thank You 4 Your Service is fantastic. Who woulda thunk a band could take so much time off, then come back better than ever? Somewhere Phife Dawg is smiling.

The album cover is a gas too, a Basquiat-inspired graphic mess which I hated at first, but of which I have grown more and more appreciative. 

Compare this design to the cover of a recent favorite photobook. 

This book has great insides. In terms of artistic merit, Faurer is right up there with ATCQ. But you'd never guess that from the conservative cover. It might as well be the face of a corporate training manual or employee handbook. I don't know if it's true you can judge a book by its cover. But this book better hope not. 

These are merely two recent examples but they typify a wider phenomenon which I've often wondered about. Why is it that album covers have a rich history of design and artistic innovation, while photobook covers are generally bland and lacking? I realize that's a broad categorization. Exceptions exist. But generally it's true. 

Don't believe me? Just spend some time browsing recent book covers at Mack, Steidl, or Photo-Eye

Then compare to recent album covers at Pitchfork.

The images shown above are just from the past few weeks, but album cover designers have been hard at it for decades. If you want to delve into the rich history there are plenty of books and reference manuals available. This one's pretty good. Or this. Or this, this, or this. There are scads. The territory is well established. Photobook covers on the other hand? No such equivalent exists, nor should it. Because photobook covers are boring as hell. They make the White Album's cover look downright fancy. Ooh, they twisted the text!

I'd been mulling this situation for a while but it was brought into sharper focus when Aperture's Total Records showed up in my mailbox last week. This is yet another beautiful compilation of record covers, but with a twist. It's compiled from a photo historian's perspective. This treasure trove is packed with photo drafts, croppings, repurposed images, famous photographers hired for covers, covers with sly photo references, etc. For anyone remotely interested in the topic Total Records immediately establishes itself as the central reference. Not that it's a hard task. There isn't much else out there. 

Browsing Total Records one thing becomes quickly apparent. Musicians aren't afraid to put themselves on their own covers. Grace Jones may have taken it further than most, placing her portrait on every single one of her covers as a sort of musical brand. But many others have gone there as well. Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, Madonna etc. At this point the practice is so commonplace we hardly notice it. But think about that motif in the context of photobooks. When did you last see an author's portrait on a photobook cover? Juegen Teller's I Am Fifty comes to mind. Kim Kardashian's Selfish might count in a pinch. After that I draw a blank.

But why not? After browsing Total Records the idea no longer seems so outlandish. Like albums, most photobooks are organized around a particular artist, and purport to express that person's vision. A casual reader might think a photobook is about its photos. But really most books are about the person behind the photos. And a portrait of that person, if it's a good one, might be a very good aid in interpreting their vision. Musicians understand this. I'm not sure why photographer's don't.

For example a photobook cover like this describes something about its contents.

But with Sander's own portrait on the cover, the photographs inside might take on a new dimension. 

That's all fine and dandy, but for me the more interesting territory isn't portraits. It's appropriated covers. For it's in album re-appropriations that photographs become transformed into new languages and new ideas, sometimes in ways their creator hadn't intended. Each appropriated cover is a like a page from Evidence. A Weegee shot of Coney Island is one thing when it's published as photojournalism. But stick that picture on a George Michael cover and watch it transform. Or view Sugimoto through a U2 lens, or Eggleston through Spoon. Photographic covers are great fun to ponder as you listen to the music inside. This is an area that's near and dear to my heart, the subject of a lengthy Eggleston essay and three quizzes (herehere, and here) on B. But to my knowledge no other critic has investigated the topic until now. 

Total Records takes a stab at it, devoting thirty pages to a chapter titled Aural Reappropriation. Although it contains several examples I hadn't known of before, it merely grazed the subject and left me wanting more. In fact I want the whole thing, and I think it could be delivered in just a few chapters. The territory isn't huge. Considering the millions of record albums in existence, the use of re-appropriated photographs for album covers is actually uncommon. There may be a few hundred examples extant, or perhaps less. In any case it's a manageable quantity. A smallish website could potentially categorize them all. 

Karl Baden's already created such a site for text-based books, where re-appropriation is a cottage industry. His Covering Photography documents hundreds of examples from the 1940s to the present, all cross-referenced by photographer, author, designer, publisher. A similar site for albums would be doable. Maybe some young MFA or BFA student out there reading this could take it on as a thesis project —hint, hint?

Browsing the covers at Covering Photography or Total Records, the influence of designers becomes evident. These covers don't come about by chance. They're crafted by professionals. In the worlds of albums and books "Cover Designer" is an actual job —albeit a niche one— and well compensated. Just ask Chip Kidd or Hipgnosis.

Cover design by Chip Kidd

But in the photobook world, covers generally don't get the same investment. If a designer is hired, it's usually for the book's innards. The designer's energy goes primarily into layout, sequencing, editing, narrative, etc. The cover is an afterthought, or at least it often appears that way. I see a lot of photobooks in which a photographer works with a designer over weeks or months to carefully hone, select, and sequence photographs. That's on top of all the work making the photographs initially, a huge investment of time. All of that, just to slap a cover like this on the finished product:

Employee handbook, anyone? 

I don't mean to single out Bryan Schutmaat. Lewis Baltz recently received similar treatment, so he's in fine company.

As did Diane Arbus...

And Shane Lavalette.

Or Sultan/Mandel, reissued with original cover. 

I like the cover of Curran Hattleberg's new book. Sure, it's just text, but with a twist. Literally. Plus gold leaf always kills. 

But Lost Coast is the exception. Most photobook covers are boring. The examples above typify the strange burden that photographers feel to textualize the cover with name and title. I guess that's ok. Still, a cover needn't label its contents to get the job done. Most books have plenty of room inside, and any necessary identification can be written internally. A photobook cover might better get the job done graphically, maybe without words at all. If we think of a cover's purpose as twofold —1. To attract eyeballs, and 2. To brand contents— graphic design should be the chief concern. Mack's brilliant Zzyzx cover shows that a wordless cover can be quite effective, while subtly foreshadowing its checkered interior.

Of course this isn't news to album designers. They've been making covers like this for decades.

After a brief familiarizing period, one brief glance at the Joy Division cover or the Halpern cover immediately identifies it. No words needed. At this point Unknown Pleasures is iconic. It's on T-shirts. It's been posterized in a thousand dorms. When was the last time you saw a photobook cover posterized? Photographers are supposedly visual people. Shouldn't we have a better grasp on this cover business than musicians? 

I suspect a complicating factor in wordy covers might be the exhibition effect. Photographers tend to think of their books not just as reading material but as projects, the literary equivalent of an exhibition. And how do you "cover" an exhibition? You paste large simple captions on the wall, like so.

A photographer making a book of work from an exhibition might be tempted to slap the same caption on the cover because, at least in the photographer's mind, there's a rough equivalency. But that's a misnomer. In actuality a book and an exhibition are about as different as an album and a performance. One gets a line in the weekend listings. The other gets a work of art on the cover. 

Matter none of it matters. Whether it's on an album, photobook, regular old book, or some other piece of creative content, a cover's final resting place will likely be the same: invisible. The cover will enjoy a brief public existence before the item is stacked in a pile or on a shelf with only its binding exposed to the world. Books and albums all morph into vertical color fields. Cover? What cover?

Sorry covers, but most of you will be buried, if not on a computer hard drive then on a shelf in the basement. It's a wonder we spent any time at all fussing over you. If you enjoy any sort of publicity in your dotage, it might be as a snapshot on the cover of a photobook about albums.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Q & A with Ivars Gravlejs

Ivars Gravlejs, photo by Līva Rutmane
Ivars Gravlejs is a photographer based in Prague.

BA: I first learned about your work through your book Early Works. It explained some of your progression as a photographer/artist. But I'm wondering if you can revisit that time. What was your childhood like and how did it lead you into photography?

IG: Childhood was a no-future atmosphere. In 1990 my mother was 40 and could not find a job in the new “independent country” because she was too old. All around was banditry, brutal competition and extreme materialism. We (my cousin and I) found an FED-2 camera in our grandmother's room and started to play with it. I was around 5 and he was 11 years old. Materials were cheap, we could experiment. We got equipment for enlarging and developing too.

Why did your grandmother have a camera? Was she a photographer?

No. Grandfather had it, but mostly it was used by my mother and her sister (they are twins) when they were young, just as amateurs.

Did they or anyone else encourage you, or give you ideas about how or what you should be photographing as a kid?

No, they even did not remember how to deal with the camera or how to make enlargements. We faced a lot of errors…We were thinking about what is cool to be photographed, and sometimes it took us one year to realize 36 frames. Actually we didn't do more than 5 rolls of film. Then my cousin lost interest.

Were you looking at works by any other photographers at the time? Or just going forward on your own?

Calendars or newspapers. I liked pictures of half naked women, flowers, trees in the winter. I was collecting pictures from newspapers — sports, cars, but these are thrown out.

What about "fine art" photographers? When was the first time you encountered that type of work?

That was in gymnasium, when I was 16 or 17 or 15.

Which photos?

I was attending a photo course at Centre of Creative Learning in Riga. We were introduced to the history of photography, Weston, Cartier-Bresson…

What was your first impression of that stuff?

Bresson, I remember a picture with man and cat. I was looking at it and thinking, what's so special?

Downtown, 1947, H. Cartier-Bresson
Before that for me fine art was nudes and kitsch photos. But somehow examples from the history of photography were influencing me and I went to the streets. But that's after Early Works.

I love the cat photo. I don't think it's very typical of Cartier-Bresson.

It's very simple in composition.

What do you think of that photograph now?

Bresson loved to photograph catsI've never been in New York and I don’t know how crowded it was when Bresson was there. The photograph is taken after World War II - Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

A lot of your later work involves consciously rule-breaking and tweaking authority. Was the photo-club your first introduction to the so called "rules" of making photos?

My reaction to rules started in second or third year of my studies at the academy in Prague. At FAMU I got quite a big dose, so I started to be fed up. The photo course was based on your own will to attend it or not. In Latvia at that time we had no higher education in still photography.

Meaning in high school or college?

Like Bachelor studies in European system.

How would you describe the general photo culture in Latvia as you were growing up? Were there lots of galleries? Were photographers respected as a profession? Was it something to aspire to?

The few art galleries or museums we had were not showing photographic works. Actually only at the turn of the century did photography start to be accepted as art in Latvia. By the way, during the Soviet times we had quite good possibility for kids to attend different types of courses for free. In each area I think was one photo course, but in 1990 they all disappeared. There were few Photo Clubs with their kitsch aesthetics. 

That's because of the Soviet collapse?

Yes, because the state had no money. 

Similar story today.

Photographers were participating in Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique and a few getting medals, so these ones were more respected, but not really as artists. In fact it is quite sad because in the 90s the photo club photographers were accused of serving Soviet ideology, showing beautiful girls in the flower fields instead of being critical of everyday life conditions. Imagine you are around 60 and suddenly you gain even less respect than before. All of them were self-taught.

The Medium Is The Message, 2008

I think Boris Mikhailov has played against that idea successfully. He made great photos inside the Soviet sphere bumping against their rules.

Yes, but it was a risk. And before you exhibited something you had to pass USSR General literature administration. Often there were very absurd situations and reasons why a photograph was censored and you could not not show the photo at all or had to retouch some parts of it.

So maybe you're coming from a similar place as Mikhailov? I know you're interested in tweaking rules and bringing attention to how crazy certain limitations are. 

It might be different as well in Moscow or Kiev. In Baltic countries I think it was a bit more problematic to photograph and to have access to information. For example, if you got into Lenin's library in Moscow, you could have more chances to be progressive in photography.

You mentioned the older generation of Soviet photographers who are "self taught". Does that describe you? How much formal photo training do you have?

I was attending a photo corse in Riga and the teacher there is still Latvian photographer Andrejs Grants (Latvian Henri Cartier-Bresson). Then I went for half a year to a very bad trade school and at the age of 18 I got into the daily newspaper. 

Interesting. I didn't know of Grants.

Grants and his colleague Inta Ruka, stayed with so called subjective documentary. The rest from their generation jumped into commercial life. The older ones mostly present a different aesthetic, as I mentioned before.

You took classes with Grants? He taught you the "rules" which you later broke?

He was my pedagogue when I was 16 - 20. That is for 4 -5 years before I left for Prague. My next teacher was Viktor Kolář.
from Ostrava, by Viktor Kolar

I love his photos. He is not well known in the U.S. but in my opinion just as good as HCB and Kertesz. What is he like as a teacher? Or as a person?

As a teacher quite good, but Andrejs Grants was better for me. As a person - kind of zen Buddhist. Maybe too pathetic and conservative. Kolar accepted only black and white from me.

Do you make the type of photos that Grants and Kolar make? 

No, I think I'm too sarcastic and more of a "carnival" type  photographer. But I learned quite a lot from them.

Yes, I know you're sarcastic. I'm sarcastic too, by the way. Which may have led me to you. But what's below that? What photographers do you admire sincerely?

Joan Fontcuberta, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Hans Aarsman. I like a lot work of Thomas Mailaender. Arnold Odermatt, Weegee, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, of course.

Those last two seem quite different than Fontcuberta and Mailaender. They are more interested in straight photography, photography for its own sake, rather than twisting or tweaking it conceptually. Are those the sort of photographs you make yourself?

I'm quite a straight photographer. I’m very sincere. Street situations sometimes, pictures of my daughter…

I guess I would loosely label Grants and Kolar as street photographers.

I think it's quite often called Subjective Documentary?

That phrase works too. I haven't heard that term but I like it. 

It is an absurd invented term from Latvia.

Maybe absurd but pretty accurate.

Maybe, if we consider that there is such a thing as objective.

That's a can of worms.

Yes, yes.

I think I have a rough sense of what "subjective documentary" means but I'm wondering what you think it means. How would you define it?

It’s like a frame of reference in Einsteinian relativity, where reference frames are used to specify the relationship between a moving observer and the phenomenon or phenomena under observation. 

Perhaps your photographs for the Czech newspaper could be considered Subjective Documentary?

That's quite subversive documentary.

They seem to take clear aim at the idea of objectivity, which is pretty closely tied to newspapers. What made you take that job? Did you intend to sabotage the photos from the start? Or did it grow out of boredom? Or a need to break rules?

No, I did not intend to sabotage the photos from the very start. I was working in printed media in Latvia for about 3 years before I went to study to Prague in 2000. After my studies in 2008 I needed money to pay debts and just to live. I was lucky to get this position as the reporter in one of the biggest Czech daily newspapers. I got in “taxi driver” position again and decided to have some extra experience, and started to do some manipulations before photographs were sent to the picture editor. Kind of an experiment within the limits, and at the same time I tried not be kicked out of the job. In fact I was fascinated with digital media. When I was photographing on film in Latvia, it was not possible to do so easy, fast postproduction and smuggle spontaneous micro details into photos. It is quite strange that the newspaper got to know about my art work and still used it. For example, in 2015 they used the most manipulated photo almost 20 times.

Very entertaining project. I'm surprised they're still using the photos.

Well, me too. But it is for free. I do not get paid for it.

So why did you eventually reveal the manipulations? Why not allow them to pass undetected?

I decided to put them in an art context and exhibited them. It's kind of a joke and a critique of the absurdity of media. It did not mean sacrificing the job. I knew I would not be a reporter for more than one year. The economic crisis came in 2008 and instead of 6 photographers in the newspaper remained only one. I got a reputation as a manipulator and was not welcome in the press anymore.

Sample Spread from Early Works, 2015

How did Early Works become a Mack book?

I sent the book to First Book award competition.

I didn't know that. So it won?

No. Because of 2 pages, it would make a scandal but Mack wanted to publish.

Is that the part of the book that says "CENSORED"?

Yes. There is an edition of stickers made after the book went out but I think they are hidden too.

The stickers show the censored images?

Missing parts of photos.

The pages must've been pretty bad if Mack wouldn't run them. What was censored?

Children games in doctors.


It depends how you define or interpret it. For me at the age of 10 it was  - adult games or doctor games. But for someone who might buy the book it might be a big provocation.

Apart from the censored section, how close was Mack's final version to what you'd originally sent them? Did it change much?

A bit, a few details. Basically it stayed the same, just a few millimeters bigger, I do not why. Better printing. Some people say that self-published is better because of more mistakes in text or more gray printing and it is uncensored.

Maybe. You self-published the recent Useful Advice For Photographers, right?

No, that is by dienacht Magazine. It was my practical work for my Master degree at FAMU academy in Prague 10 years ago. I made a few self-published too.

It's a great booklet. I find it amusing that in almost every case the "wrong" photograph is more interesting than the "right" one. I know it was meant as satire. Joking aside, I'm curious if you have any general ideas for making "right" photographs. 

For the inspiration I studied quite a few Photography handbooks. Sometimes I found there more absurd extremes of right/wrong than in Useful Advice For Photographers. At the same time I collected opinions and beliefs about good or bad composition in photography. The book is based on formal qualities like composition, lighting, exposure or sharpness. 

What do you think goes into making good or bad photographs? Are some photographs "better" than others?

About making good or bad photographs Hans Aarsman did very good presentation at TEDxOf course life would be much more easier if we lived in a black and white value system. Hitler would like it for sure. I think mostly right/wrong depends on context and initial aim. 

I like the Early Works book. As you probably know it's quite different than most Mack books, which is why I was curious how they came to publish it. Mack is close to the center of the fine art photo world. So it was striking to see that world critiqued so sharply from within. If you'd self-published I don't think it would have the same impact because it would be coming from an outsider's perspective.

Sure, I think it is a good combination.

I don't understand the earlier comment about "more mistakes in text or more gray printing". Are those things you wanted?

Not much intentionally. It just makes it more authentic.

Mistakes = authentic?

The book was done in 2010. Three copies. I put together it in +/ - one day for the exhibition in France. And if we interpret it as a kind of Eastern European kid's book from 1990, mistakes are a part of it. Punk, looser .... from the east.

Mack wouldn't allow you to insert deliberate mistakes?

Maybe, but there are few mistakes anyway.

from Useful Advice For Photographers

Erik Kessels has a recent book about Failure in photography. He might agree there is some relationship between mistakes and authenticity. It could also be related to the recent wave of interest in film/vinyl/books/analog process, since mistakes are part of anything analogue.

Is it a new book? Is it a good book?

I don't have it. But I agree with the premise that mistakes can sometimes be more interesting than perfection. In photography but also in music and other arts.


Maybe it's that everything commercial/monetary seeks perfection, often unwittingly. Perfection is the syntax of advertising. So there's an informal tie in the mind. When you see perfection you associate it with the market.

Mistake have an aspect of humor. Incongruity.

Mistakes and incongruities can hint at absurdity. And there is definitely humor there. 

Are you an Andy Kaufman fan?

Haven't seen much, but yes. Tragic. He passed young, and no one took seriously what he said about the cancer he had.

He did something similar in comedy to what you're doing in photography, breaking rules and poking fun at rules. Questioning shit. And in regard to mistakes, he would incorporate deliberate mistakes into his material, so that the audience wasn't sure where the line was. If you can do that effectively, it's a very powerful device in comedy or in photography.

I'm doing my PhD research related to humor in contemporary art.

You're doing a PhD in photography? Why? To teach?

Not in photography. I'm going to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and in Bratislava. As well to teach, even though I'm teaching now anyway, but who knows. In the future it might be more difficult without a PhD to teach. It is a good job - you read books.

What conclusions have you reached so far about humor in contemporary art? Or in contemporary photography?

Not yet. It is in the mix of basic theories - incongruity, release and superiority. I am only halfway. It can be dysfunctional comedy or functional comedy. It is up to each individual. 

I'm not in a PhD program but my informal conclusion is that photographers (and maybe other artists) take themselves way too seriously. Often the more serious a photographer takes himself or herself, the worse the photos are. If I see another fucking portrait of a person on a bedspread staring wistfully at the ceiling I'll shoot myself. And the reverse is true too. It's difficult to make humorous photos without being dismissed as inconsequential.

Yes, it is kind of sect, photographers - the serious ones with great pathos. And it's not funny to read theories about humor. 

Which photographers working now do you think make funny photos? 

Mostly amateurs, and artists who use vernacular photographs for their own projects. For example thisor the book Unfortunate Selfies by Joachim Schmid.

Who uses humor successfully?

Vendula Knopova (the book Tutorial), Camille Laurelli, Jasansky and Polak, Joan Foncuberta, Thomas Mailaender, Juergen Teller, Zbigniew Libera, Oskar Dawicki…

Is the basic premise behind your PhD the idea that we need more humor in art?

No, I will analyze some of my projects, how they are related to humor. It is more about introducing the context.

And you're doing 2 PhDs?

Yes, the other one is about Russian artist Avdei Ter-Oganian, who influenced me quite a lot

I don't know that person but I will look him up. 

Here is my short intro I made few years ago: 

Sounds like a real provocateur. Now I really think you need to investigate Andy Kaufman. He was the original prankster / performance art genius, in a similar vein to Avdei Ter-Oganian.

Yes, I will make for sure more research on Andy Kaufman.

Leaving aside the topic of humor, what is your general impression of the contemporary photo world? Which photographers do you like? Where do you think it's heading? What kind of photos will artists be making in 10 years or 20 years? 

In 20 years all the cameras will be linked to the Internet, and photography will be controlled either through augmented reality or by default built-in programs in cameras. It won’t be for free and people won’t be free to photograph whatever they want. Artistic photographers will make beautiful abstract images mostly for decorative or therapeutic purposes. But the ones who will have bits of silver halide most likely will be under the law. In such a configuration people will find out immediately when you photograph them. If your intervention with the camera is objectionable for them, they will quickly fight back and virtually compress you. 

According to André Stanguennec photography should not be an autonomous artistic medium as painting, and it should not be purely an aesthetic medium, as it was in modernism. Photography should not be used in order to speculate on the meaning of art, as it was in postmodernism. Photography should be purely accidental, without deliberate intention to make it artistic. Follow this idea and as a photographer you might find yourself very far away from the “Contemporary Photo World Shopping Mall”.  Although genetic disorder and sufficient intellectual disability will help people to photograph entirely descriptive documents. 

Can you please tell me a little bit about the following projects. How did you conceive them? What do they express?

Shopping Poetry?

Consumeristic DaDa. Fetish of goods. Rhyme. My commercial art project. Kind of Pokemon Go with a poetic mood.


For the art festival “Survival Kit 4” in Riga, I was invited to make project dealing with intervention. I made different stickers with the inscription SUPER. The stickers were available for free at the festival entrance and visitors could attach them in the exhibition space. This positive intervention changed the meaning of every artwork there. I’m not really sure if festival organisers understood my sabotage.

New Wave in Photography?

It is the same as the video LA-LA , the fascination with user friendly applications. I collected pornographic images and deformed them with Photoshop filters - Wave, Twirl, ZigZag . From the harsh reality I made beautiful abstract photos. 

Are you religious or spiritual?

No, but the background from where I come from is linked to Paganism.

What is your relationship with boredom?

Do you know if there are some theories explaining boredom?