By: Sara S. Wallach
February 2, 2016
“To me the most beautiful thing is vulnerability” – Alec Soth
I recently had the incredible experience of viewing three rooms full of Alec Soth’s photography at the Science Museum in London. It was essentially my first connection with Soth’s work, but it was forged strong as I made my way through the beautiful retrospective. The show, Gathered Leaves, is a convergence of ten years and four books of work. It reminded me of home, which is to say, it was distinctly American… but it was also so much more.
After the exhibition, I read up on Soth and understood (with a little embarrassment) that he is actually one of the leading documentary photographers of today, following in the visual tradition of my own professor at Bard, Stephen Shore, and other American photographers such as Joel Sternfeld and Robert Frank (who, although Swiss-born, had great impact on the American photographic cannon). All three of these masters, along with Soth, took on the great American road trip as their subject matter, their foil through which to examine the country and its infinite landscapes and complexities. Soth’s work in particular exposes the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of people and their environments. He portrays these without overt celebration or criticism (maybe a bit of both) but with a sense of being palpably present to his subjects. In this way, viewers can also feel his presence behind the camera.
His work, for me, is everything that modern photography should be – technically, it pays homage to the medium’s history by using large format film and printing digitally, and ontologically, it is utterly perceptive, lending a world of thought to one instance. When people ask me why photography is a form of art, this is what I imagine in response; the ability to perceive art in a split second out in the world, and capture that precise combination of emotion and thought-process with a camera.
The show itself is arranged around four photobooks: Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), Niagara (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2014). Within these are captured an abandoned bed frame in the process of being devoured by surrounding leaves, a portrait of a red haired woman gazing into the distance with a cross painted on her forehead, reclusive men who have taken to nature and appear to be surviving in the wild, a fully naked couple whose skin is shown in gritty detail, a plaintive love note, and a hotel bed with the towels folded into the shape of swans, “beaks” met in a kiss and many more. All of these images build a comprehensive portrait of America, the place where people may be whatever, whoever, and however they wish.
The detail of the prints is just one reason why these photographs are so fascinating. Many are also life-sized, with colors that are not overly saturated but very real, allowing the viewer to step right into the image. But for me, the reason I could not tear myself away from this exhibit was because I was swept along with Soth’s rabid curiosity, the apparent driving force behind his work. Each of his subjects, whether they are object or human, is lent mystery and complexity through his lens, and viewers may sense that he understands them. The beauty of his aesthetic sometimes creates a romantic atmosphere, it appears that he is in love with his subject, but more likely, he is in love with photography itself.
On view at the Science Museum in South Kensington, London until March 28, 2016.
December 9, 2015
Once again I took a dive into the internet archives of artwork and photography from Albania, in order to bring you relatively unknown work. For this article, I want to focus on women, because I realized that my last one presented you with mostly male artists. Having said that, the options are fairly limited. It seems difficult to be an English-speaking user of Google searching for Albanian work. I came across a lot of amateur photography, but in terms of more established artists, there was internet silence. Maybe this indicates that there is not much of it, or more likely I am ignorant as to the best way to find it.
What I did come across, however, is endlessly fascinating. So this article will integrate two very different concepts and styles of photography, governed by three broad themes: gender, photography, and Albania. It could also be argued that there is fourth theme creeping in around the edges, which is identity.
The first incredible project is by a portrait photographer named Jill Peters, whose complex and difficult work explores questions of gender identity and social acceptance. I recommend viewing her project called “third gender”, which documents the Indian hijra.
Peters herself is American, but she travelled to Albania to photograph a puzzling gender-bending tradition wherein women in the north decide to become sworn virgins, and to take on the social role of a man. This essentially involves a gender transition. The woman dresses like a man, wears her hair short, in some cases even changes her name, and is allowed to partake in the social positions occupied only by men in Albania. As I understand it, this is a dying tradition, so Peters’ work is particularly relevant as an historical document. A short video (must-see!) on the website describes the different reasons why women choose to take on this role. It mostly has to do with the fact that in traditional Albanian society, they are not considered social equals to men, and are basically in the power of their fathers, brothers, and later husbands. The sworn virgins sacrifice their sexuality and gender identity in order to work independently, to provide for their families, or, as the video states, to be free.
Obviously, this project opens many questions and problems about the nature of this transition, but it does not necessarily seek to answer them. The portraits are straightforward, often posing their subjects with landscapes of Albania in the background. It shows them in their everyday clothing, in the process of doing work, or in their homes. What the project exposes in its best photographs are the subtle non-binary physical attributes that blur the lines of gender and present the viewers with something entirely new. It is a deeply complex situation to choose, or be pressured into, and so the photographs achieve something significant which is to probe and disrupt the visual and intellectual vocabulary of their viewers.
The second woman I discovered is named Eni Turkeshi, who is a contemporary photographer and artist from Albania’s capital, Tirana. Her work has been featured in many publications and group exhibitions, all of which can be found on her Flickr account. She works in all mediums of photography but specializes in alternative processes; cyanotypes, albumen printing, and other analogue techniques. Because of her interest in these processes, her photographs often take on the blurry, romantic, and layered qualities of darkroom mistakes. But for Turkeshi, this has become an entire aesthetic. In their less developed forms, the photographs appear to be amateur, but at their best, they are intricate portrayals of emotion and self-awareness and display a talent. Part of why I was so excited about her work is because I found her on many different online websites, none of which are particularly edited or curated, so I was able to take part in her process. This is, for the most part, experimental. I could see her attempts, which were more and less successful. She has seemingly endless amounts of projects posted on her Behance account, most of which are titled from songs or poetry. She makes many self-portraits, and photographs other women as well. This combined with the romantic and soft aesthetic led me to understand that her work has a distinctly feminine undercurrent, where she explores her own identity. Find a selection of her photographs below:
December 5, 2015
A few weeks ago, I moved to a new place and as always, I took a walk around the block to see who my new neighbors would be. My interest was already piqued, so each new cafe and shop that I passed became a beacon of excitement as I rambled through. And without realizing it, I landed in front of a tiny gallery whose facade was completely made of glass. Before I noticed its name, I saw inside something that made my heart beat a little faster… gelatin silver photography.
For a photographer whose focus has been mainly black and white, large format film for over seven years, this is a treat to see. Not many people use the process anymore because of the digital revolution. But it is my understanding that many photographers still hold it dear to their practice, because it was through that process that they learned the art (and craft) to begin with. At my college in the United States, gelatin silver process is still taught as the foundation of photography, before the digital curriculum even begins. So it is very important to me and as you can imagine, I was thrilled at the discovery of this place.
I found out that it is called Rough Print Gallery, located at 14 Bradbury Street in Dalston, London. They mainly show darkroom work there, and have a new opening every Thursday evening. As it happened, it was Thursday, so I slipped inside to see the show.
All of the prints on the walls were tiny, maybe 5×7 inches each. Everyone was taking turns and crowding each other to get an intimate one-on-one appointment with each image. This was a lovely experience because even though I had to wait and allow others to take their time, once I arrived at the photograph, I entered into another world. The photographer is Mick Williamson, who I gather is the Head of Photography at The Cass (London Metropolitan University), and who has been photographing for over 30 years. His project, entitled Photo-Diaries is soft and beautiful. Each image is a black and white, brief meditation in the home and in nature; moments that could easily be passed by. They floated me into a state of reverie. When I read the small leaflet included in the show, it was noted that “Photographers often pride themselves on their ability to capture the decisive moment. The work of Mick Williamson however purposefully shuns the key moment, preferring instead to focus on what might be constructed as the missed opportunity.”
Indeed, I felt as though these moments had previously escaped me, and I was being reintroduced to them through Williamson’s work. They felt like real ruminations, not on anything particularly complex, but on something like the mystery of time passing or light shifting. Many photographs resembled each other and clearly flowed as a series. Each had a certain off-kilter moment of capture, feeling less like a completed thought or sentence, and more like a fragment. This forced me to think twice – look again – and look deeper, and in doing so connect in a greater way with each instance. Plus, they had those luscious grey tones only achieved through gelatin silver printing, which automatically won me over.
All in all, it was a great introduction to Williamson’s photography, and to Rough Print Gallery. I recommend paying a visit some Thursday evening to this tiny house of worship in Dalston. And though his website is currently under construction, there is a limited selection of Williamson’s work available for viewing here and here.
November 18, 2015
My last article discussed the difficulties and problems of outsiders photographing a place that isn’t their own. This article will take the opposite approach and focus on photographers whose work is primarily about where they come from, and why that is important to the rest of us.
The Balkans are a fascinating region which has endured violence and conflict over the past 500 years. In many Balkan capitals and cities, life appears to have been caught in time, or at least exists liminally, partly progressive, partly antiquated. The beauty of these places is unique, distinctive from their Western European counterparts. That character is wrapped up in the history of war and regime shifts that have been dominant throughout the different countries that made up Yugoslavia and its neighbors. So now the region is at a critical turning point, and much of the art being produced from natives of Southeastern Europe is not so visible to “the West”. At this juncture, it seems important to know and understand the artwork emerging from there, because (to be reductive and brief) artwork produced from any sort of struggle is often some of the best. Here are 5 photographers whose work allows us Westerners (me, as a Dutch-American) into an artistic vision of the Balkans and gives us a taste of the landscapes, identities, and cultures to be found there.
Michał Korta, Polish – Okay, so with this photographer I am breaking my word a bit in terms of origin. Korta is from Poland, not Southeastern Europe, but his photography project called “Balkan Playground” is a good introduction to the visual language of a place, namely, the Balkans. Korta has a strong eye, and an authoritative approach to photography which makes his work simultaneously easy to view, but complex to think about, like a good novel. This project takes us on a brief road trip through 8 Balkan countries, and shows us the beauty, contradiction, and humor that exists in everyday life in these different places. He captures a certain idiosyncrasy in an abandoned trailer in the middle of a forest, a handmade shack labelled “castle”, an unfinished house in naked cement, and two red chairs, one broken, one whole.
Enri Canaj, Albanian – This photographer, through high contrast, black and white, moody images, shows both life in Albania where he has his origins, and the difficulties of living in neighboring Greece as an outsider. This perspective does not necessarily include his own experience as an Albanian living there; he chooses instead to focus on other fringe members of Greek society, and their struggles. He creates intense and charged portraits of drug addicts and sex workers in Athens, as well as immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan living in deplorable conditions. The overall feeling from these photographic essays is that these subsets of Greek society are not accepted in terms of social equality or government support. His latest work is on the influx of Syrian refugees in Greece. His particular window into the lives of these people looks like one of sympathy and journalistic exposition.
Some of my favorite of his projects is called “Albania – A Homecoming”, where he describes the culture and place where he grew up as a small child. In this collection of images, he shows a group of five women at what appears to be a funeral. They are dressed in black, and holding each other in grief, support and solidarity. This is the first image, an introduction to the project, which goes on to highlight the significance of family relationships in a country that looks, in his images, to be pretty bleak.
Eugenia Maximova, Bulgarian – This photographer’s style could almost be classified as halfway between collage and photography. She contrasts vibrant and high resolution patterns with everyday objects, and highlights the culture of kitsch that existed in the second half of the 1900’s in Bulgaria. Within these constructions, she interrogates concepts of memory, the general taste and aesthetic of her country during this time, and her own emotional connection to objects and patterns. Her latest project up on her website, called “Associated Nostalgia” is her most sophisticated and concise work that brings together strengths existing in her previous projects to create a dreamy, exaggerated, hyper-reality where her imagination seems to play.
Ivan Blažev, Macedonian – Blažev’s work “Macedonia Dreaming” is photojournalistic, and mostly concerned with the everyday experience of people in Macedonia. It is lucid and humorous, creating contrasts and disconnects between the people and the background, but provides a realistic and clever look at the life and culture in a post-Yugoslav country. This includes the sense of a general lack of infrastructure, leaving people to fend for themselves. But in this type of abandonment, he finds peace and camaraderie between people, and shows how the society functions based on them rather than focus on the government. In many ways he seems to be a photographer still finding his eye, but is most at ease and fluid around people and their stories.
Samir Karahodzha, Kosovar – More than any of the other photographers on this list, Karahodzha plays with the viewer’s sense of temporality, and illustrates the timelessness of the Balkans. His images are cinematic, unfocused, and dreamlike, leading the viewer down a mysterious path. Little information or work is available about him via his website, but what is available is worth getting acquainted with.
I should mention that this list is not at all exhaustive or comprehensive, and during my research for the article I came across tons of artists and photographers whose work astounded me. Below, find a few links to recommended pages for deeper examination and also, please check out this article on photography of Yugoslavian punks in the ‘80’s (incredible!).
November 3, 2015
This is going to be the first in a series of articles that I will write about Albania and art. As an introduction to subsequent pieces (where I will also explain my obsession with the place), I want to write about an issue that has been plaguing me as an artist. This does not have to do specifically with any place or people, but with the issue of fine lines. There are many of these to be explored as an outsider looking into another culture that is not your own and is initially alien to you. And there are countless problems that appear when attempting to make art and be creative about something or somewhere that you don’t know. But people have always been inspired by far places, different cultures, the sounds and smells of the unfamiliar. That inspiration should not be quelled or silenced by fear. So there is this tension and that is what I will explore.
To illustrate this, I want to give examples of two photographers who have travelled to Albania and made projects about the place. Their styles are totally different and so are their photographic narratives; what they have in common is an interest in the country. Marco Kesseler is a UK-based photographer, and his work, in general, relates to socio-political issues. His photos have careful and thoughtful compositions. Gilles Roudière, a French photographer based in Berlin, has work that is dreamy and confusing, impressionistic, often vignetted and in black and white. But before I get further into their work, I want to discuss the difference between art that is declarative, and art that is explorative. Using these terms should make the distinction pretty straightforward, but when it comes to photography, the usage becomes foggy. Photography is, by nature, a declarative medium. It is indexical, it touches its subject and renders it as the light is captured. This is, I guess, a tired conversation in photography, but it always fascinates me to think about it. Despite its straightforward nature, it can also be so deceptive in terms of the reality it shows. This is why there are conceptual photographers and then photojournalists (and of course everyone else in between and beyond).
So this is where the tension arises. When artistic photography is more journalistic than conceptual, it teeters on the line between declaration and exploration. Sometimes this comes across as the idea behind the work not being fully fleshed out, or the voice being a bit uncertain. When the work presents itself as an exploration, suddenly a whole new range of possibilities is available. Probing into a problem or issue almost always allows a more honest and authentic voice to shine through, rather than any form of authority that doesn’t really exist. This is an issue that does not just apply to artists – actually probably to them least of all. Essentially this ties into a current conversation about cultural appropriation which artists are infamous for not really giving a f*ck about, as long as they make something that they care about. What I’m more concerned with in this discussion is the effectiveness of the voice behind the artwork, and what makes one photograph hold more impact than another.
In the case of Kesseler and Roudière, it seems unfair to compare them, so I will try not to do that. Kesseler’s work takes a more straightforward approach to its subject, which is the controversial and antiquated tradition of gjakmarrja, or blood feud that still exists in northern Albania today. This is the eye-for-an-eye approach of taking back blood for a family member who has been killed. It is a heavy subject for a photographer to depict, and his work does a good job of illustrating how lonely and difficult it is to live with this problem. It shows scenes from life in Albania, the condition of a house with hardly any furniture, a rocky landscape with a jagged clothesline, faded color and grey skies. As I said before, it’s careful, thoughtful, and beautiful work, lending integrity to its subject. He also captions his work like a photojournalist, explaining each scene and situation. We as viewers understand that he is an outsider looking into the life but not participating in it. It is a first look into another culture, and not necessarily an exposition of it. In this way, the work self-consciously has some difficulty accessing its subject.
Roudière’s work takes Albania as “photographic theatre” and he approaches the place purely through his own experience. He doesn’t care to be objective, in a sense he disregards a politically considerate method, and revels entirely in his own vision of the place. Featured in the British Journal of Photography, the work is described as taking “documentary to the realm of emotion and metaphor”. It is disinterested in being careful, but it also manages not to be disrespectful or condescending towards its subject. Rather than pointing to say how strange, or how different these people are, it presents an immersive experience.
These two photographers give me, as a photographer interested in Albania, a framework for my own approach to the work. They present some answers to a struggle that is not just artistic, but could be applied in everyday life. Finally, if you would like to view my first look into Albania, photos are available here.