Text by Erik Vroons, GUP Magazine, Amsterdam, Netherlands, February 2017

“Steamy Windows and Distorted Rearviews – How Photographic Images Can Function in Artist Books”

A photograph is commonly considered to function as either a ‘window’, through which the exterior world can be seen in all its presence and reality, or, alternatively, it is to be understood as a ‘mirror’ to the photographer’s sensibility. While both applications are concerned with the recording of an external event, the latter serves as the expression of an internal experience.

Visual artists, however, are actively exploring a blurry middle ground in this apparent dichotomy, by means of a narrative structure – more and more so through the form of a book. In order to further elaborate on this matter, two recent publications are discussed here: Post (Actes Sud, 2016) by Marta Zgierska, and The Epic Love Story of a Warrior (SPBH, 2016) by Peter Puklus.

By the end of the 1970s, John Szarkowski – responsible for the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York at the time – proposed a clear distinction between photographs that either function as a ‘window on the world’ or, by contrast, as a ‘mirror to the soul’. Both of these applications could share a certain aesthetic ideal, but when juxtaposed, the difference in the artist’s intention is more apparent: the ‘window’ group of images reports on actual events, while the ‘mirror’ section includes depictions of something that is altogether more transcendental; they’re images that reflect an artistic need to symbolise an inner state of being.

What Szarkowski didn’t anticipate – or, at least, had not yet in 1978, when setting up a major exhibition at MoMA on American photography since 1960 – was a period of mass communication, which eventually gave way to our current ‘post-truth’ era. Photography, by and large, was still trusted for its capacity to report on things that happened in the world, though viewers were increasingly expected to question its role as an unbiased reporter. That’s not to say that the metaphor of the window was denounced (thrown out the window, if you will) at that time. Rather, the mirror function as proposed by Szarkowski had gained another possibility, one that could be defined as a deliberate appropriation of the ambiguous trustworthiness of the medium; one that stressed the intermediary role of the photographer.

Take the photo series ‘Sputnik’ (1997) for example, in which the Catalan visual artist Joan Fontcuberta created a narrative structure of material pulled from various sources. Through the documentary images that he aggregated and sequenced, Fontcuberta relayed the biography of an imaginary cosmonaut named Ivan Istochnikov, constructing a story that could very well be considered plausible because the (Western) audience had access to very little factual information about the Soviet Union, let alone its space program. In actuality, the work, produced as an exhibition and a book, is a postmodern backdraft of the notion that photography is a purely transparent medium. It’s not exactly a lie, but its content is absolutely not ‘true’ according to the ethical standards of journalism.

“Photographs in themselves are not evidence, they can only become so constructed as ‘objects of evidence’,” wrote the independent curator Lars Willumeit, in an essay that accompanied a group show that he assembled for the FORMAT photo biennial in 2015. A common thread of the works presented in the exhibition is that the artists make use of the medium of an ‘archive’ to achieve a narrative structure. This, by itself, fits a larger trend among visual artists to ‘hijack’ photographic material for the sake of producing a keenly orchestrated book. Some recent titles come to mind: Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood (MACK, 2013) incorporates the techniques of photojournalism, forensic photography, image appropriation, re-enactment and documentary landscape photography, not so much to offer a reliable reconstruction of past events, but rather, to deconstruct a pre-existing history; Sugar Paper Theories (Here Press, 2016) includes original photography by the author, Jack Latham, of the people and surrounding area in addition to ephemera, vintage photographs, text, case notes, and images of related objects. As its starting point, the book is based on a story of the disappearance of two men in the ‘70s in Iceland. In a somewhat similar way, Laia Abril reconstructs the story of the most enigmatic and bloodthirsty serial killer of Spanish history in her book Lobismuller (RM Editorial, 2016).

Unfortunately, John Szarkowski passed away in 2007. Which it to say, he was never able to comment on this trend that more or less started, let’s say, with the publication of The Afronauts in 2012. In this book, author Cristina de Middel uses a calculated mix of created and archival materials to creatively tell the real-life story of a science teacher in Zambia who initiated a utopian space program in 1964. Still, one wonders, how would Szarkowski classify those authors who leave it up for debate whether their visual story mainly serves a documentary purpose, or rather a purely artistic need for the expression of a creative idea?

John Szarkowski acknowledged in a fairly early stage (for example, by praising Robert Frank’s book The Americans, which was published in the late ‘50s), that there was a tendency among photographers to deliver a more personal (subjective) view on the state of the world. But the division between window and mirror images, as proposed by him, did not seem to take into account that such a personal vision could also be forged by applying seemingly objective visual material.

In this genre of photobooks, the content is ‘manipulated’ – not because the pictures themselves have been altered, but because the authors have arranged (edited) the material in such a way that their stories are rewritten. It’s even the case that the authors for these works will often downplay their creative interference, to such an extent that it’s difficult to grasp the misdirection that has taken place.

But, it’s not always so. In the realm of artists who take the same creative approach but more cleanly state their interpretative intentions, let’s have a closer look at two other recently published artist books: Post by Marta Zgierska (b. 1987, Poland) and The Epic Love Story of a Warrior by Peter Puklus (b. 1980, Romania).

Post, a winner of the Prix HSBC pour la Photographie, is “an attempt at intimate contact which closes the past non-experience in the present,” as the author herself describes it. Intriguing (or confusing) as that may sound, Zgierska leaves no room for misunderstanding: “In 2013, I survived a serious car accident. I was close to death, and reality – one that I had been adapting to with difficulty – slipped through my fingers. This misfortune brought about another: surgeries, months of physical limitations, a breakup, and the return and aggravation of anxiety neurosis. […] My mind was filling up with fragmentary memories, and sharp, detached details.”

The work contains hints to her exhausting dreams, fears, obsessions. That is, what we see relates directly to what Zgierska has experienced, but what we potentially feel is something that arrives from our own memories, as triggered by these images. Or, as Christian Caujolle writes in an accompanying text: “Feelings, although they are not expressed, are evoked. Imagined by a me who looks.” He goes on to describe the pictures themselves, detached documentations of arrangements set up by the artist, as ‘formidably precise’. However, from their juxtaposition and sequencing – which, apropos, also includes an interlude of depictions of clay masks that are all printed on a thinner paper – arises a certain arch of symbolic meaning.

Edward Weston once proclaimed that “an idea, just as abstract as could be conceived by a sculptor or painter, can be expressed through ‘objective’ recording with the camera.” While this might be considered a typical modernist notion, it also seems to resonate from Zgierska’s photographs. Something lingers beyond the strict aesthetic form of the depicted objects that she presents. In fact, all images in Post (a ball of hair, a handful of teeth, a compressed car wreck, etc.) are ignited with a metaphorical reference to the traumatic experiences of the author. Or, in the words of Zgierska: “My own physicality and pain became a source of images that felt more and more substantial and bodily as time passed.”

The Epic Love Story of a Warrior by Peter Puklus (published in collaboration with Self Publish Be Happy) is, on the other hand, an attempt to tell a story with more emotional distance. It contains an impressive amount of provisionally constructed objects, put together with studies of stairways and Soviet-style apartments and juxtaposed with theatrical poses performed by nude models.

The sheer volume of The Epic Love Story (at 468 pages, it’s the size of a dictionary) might be considered versatile and bulky, but it is smartly held together with a keen edit. Significantly, it also includes a poem. The words of ‘Untitled (How many people fell in this abyss...)’ by the acclaimed Russian poet Marina Ivanova Tsetaeva (1892-1941), however, can only be read when flipping the pages from the back to the front cover. It altogether serves as a collage that references everything from World War I to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and as the author notes, he is “playing an associative game based on a collectively experienced history and the images we have imprinted in our minds about this period.”

But who is this ‘we’? And who is the protagonist (the ‘warrior’)? Puklus retells the execution of Romania’s Antonescu through a photograph of a single pole in the ground, he marks the assassination of Franz Ferdinand with a cluster of nails, and he suggests the looming, iconographic shape of the Empire State Building through a bundle of wooden shards. Not all readers are in an equal position to fully grasp the references. Those who have studied (East European) art history are obviously in a better position to make the links – connotations intentionally sprayed as a visual perfume. It remains questionable, however, whether or not such a level of abstraction allows your average viewer to recognise the allusive quality of this book.

As a curator and a critic, John Szarkowski defended a longstanding thesis that photographs are ‘good’ when they can speak for themselves. More precisely, he praised those post-war photographers (e.g. Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus) who managed to express their authorship by spontaneously recording the exceptional as it occurred in the outside world. Szarkowski was far less charmed by prefabricated ideas, i.e. by visual artists who gave priority to a concept over the nature of the material itself. What he did not seem to have foreseen, however, is that eventually, as noted by critic Gerry Badger, “[T]he photobook became the primary vehicle for giving the photographer’s work a voice – a narrative voice.”

The bodies of work as mentioned here are books that all include a (dramatic, theatrical) reference to actual events, only because the author has incorporated such an index. Perhaps the viewer gets it, to a certain level, or perhaps not at all. One could indeed argue about the efficiency of the applied methods to give way to an autobiographical motif (Zgierska) or a more communally experienced history (Puklus) by the support of images that are all sculptural in their form and performative in their action. But Post and The Epic Love Story of a Warrior are artist books, first and foremost.

One could fail to perceive Puklus’s distorted rearview mirror to its fullest potential, or being unable to emotionally respond to the steamy window on personally traumatic events as addressed by Marta Zgierka, but their balance acts on the rope between artistic and documentary impulses could not go by unnoticed, as they perform them without any form of disguise.

Erik Vroons, GUP Magazine