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Original author: 
Jeffrey Ladd

The artistic collaboration between Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin has spanned over two decades since their beginnings working as photographers for Tibor Kalman’s Colors magazine in the early 1990s. Using a wide variety of means, their practice, which has often concerned itself with how history and current events are perceived through images, reevaluates and challenges the classic ideas of photography as a tool for documenting the social condition. Broomberg and Chanarin have authored ten books including Trust (2000), Ghetto (2003), Chicago (2006) and People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (2011). Their latest book project Holy Bible is being released this month by MACK.

Jeffrey Ladd: Can you talk a bit about this current book project Holy Bible? Had it evolved from your recent work War Primer 2 which is a modern reinterpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Primer) from 1955?  

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin: When we were researching Brecht’s work in Berlin we stumbled across his personal copy of the Holy Bible. It caught our attention because it has a photograph of a racing car glued to the cover. It’s a remarkable thing, and in retrospect, seeing and handling this object definitely planted the seed for this book. Just like the War Primer, our illustrated bible is broadly about photography and it’s preoccupation with catastrophe. Brecht was deeply concern about the use of photographs in newspapers. He was so suspicious of press images that he referred to them as hieroglyphics in need of deciphering or decoding. We share this concern. Images of conflict that are distributed in the mainstream media are even less able to affect any real political action now then they ever were.

An essay by Adi Ophir called Divine Violence is reproduced in an epilogue to Holy Bible. How did you come to this particular essay? 

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin—Courtesy MACK

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin—Courtesy MACK

Holy Bible, 2013

If you read the Old Testament from cover to cover, you notice very quickly that God reveals himself through acts of catastrophe, through violence. Awful things keep happening: a flood that just about wipes out most of his creation, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra – we constantly witness death on an epic scale and the victims hardly ever know what they have done to deserve such retribution. Adi reflects on this theme of catastrophe in a really interesting way that connects with our modern lives. He concludes:

“States that tend to imitate God benefit from disasters… even when they cannot claim to be their authors, because any such disaster may serve as a pretext for declaring a state of emergency, thus reclaiming and reproducing the state’s total authority. And when earthly powers imagine that they can take His place in the divine economy of violence, faith may provide resistance but no shelter. It is not God’s response to human sins but sheer human hubris that might bring the world to its end.”

This extract from his book, Two Essays on God and Disaster, became a philosophical and political map for the whole project. We felt lucky that he permitted us to publish it, as it’s previously only appeared in Hebrew. We’re going to badly paraphrase his argument, but Ophir suggests that the Old Testament is essentially a parable for the growth of modern governance (God eventually chooses his people, issues them with a set of commandments and punishes them when those are broken). At the same time, he points out that when his laws are broken, he meters out the most radical, unimaginably violent punishments. So this reading of the Bible suggests a contract we are all silently and forcibly bound into with the modern state and our naïve acceptance of the harsh punishments the state meters out; prison, the death sentence, a war on drugs, on terror… The camera has always been drawn to these themes, to sites of human suffering. Since it’s inception it has been used to record and also participate in catastrophic events. Catastrophe and crisis are the daily bread of news.

Is it possible any longer in your opinion to provide images directly with a camera from war or natural catastrophes that are not in some way undermined by this?

We both believe that events still need to be witnessed and documented. But what happens when those images of suffering are turned into currency, into entertainment/ Recently we were asked to give a presentation of our book, War Primer 2, which contains some of the infamous Abu Ghraib torture images. We had a moment of concern regarding the copyright of these images and did some research into the reproduction rights. It shocked us to discover that most of these well-known torture images are syndicated by the Associated Press. When we approached AP before we gave a public lecture showing the material, they requested that we pay £100 per image per presentation. How is it possible that those images have become currency? We must owe them hundreds of thousands of dollars by now.

Photographs are essentially mute in telling the “who, what, why, when, where of journalism without a caption and where simple gestures are read, properly or not, as a kind of photographic “shorthand” – what responsibilities do you feel a contemporary journalist with a camera has in bringing images to the public? 

Is there still such a thing as a contemporary journalist with a camera? Anybody with a telephone could pass for one. And the world, particularly war zones, are littered with cameras. Soldiers, insurgents, civilians, even weapons — all have cameras attached to them. The so-called professional journalist must contend with all these other forms of witness. We have engaged with so-called war zones and skirted around the parameters of violence. But we’re cowards and have always kept back from any real prolonged danger. The Tim Hetherington’s and Chris Hondros’s of this world are a different breed. Our role, is to instead think about how images produced in the theater of human suffering are consumed; the individual response to such images. We only went to conflict zones to explore these ideas, never to responsibly document any specific war.

How did you come to decide to use the Archive of Modern Conflict for gathering images as opposed to using many sources? Was there a method you applied to sifting through AMC since it contains vast amounts of material? How did you approach such a task?

The Archive of Modern Conflict is a weird place — a lot of that comes through in our book. Officially it’s an archive that spans the history of the medium and concentrates on images of conflict. Looking through the thousands of images at the AMC, the narrative that unfolds is not at all a straightforward account of war. It’s an extremely personal and very idiosyncratic one; an unofficial version of the history of war.

One shelf contains hundreds of personal albums of Nazi soldiers. We see moments of intimacy between men — we see them kissing their wives goodbye, hugging their children and then fooling around with their friends. These images run counter to the narrative we can morally cope with. We’re not used to seeing Nazi’s displaying human traits; showing tenderness, emotion, desire. Our days at the archive sifting through all this material was difficult. So many dead people. It’s depressing. But somehow we discovered a lot of humor, too. In particular, a large collection of photographs of magic tricks became a running motif through the book. We always pair these delightful images with the phrase, “And it came to pass,” which appears again and again like a form of punctuation throughout the text.

Words as image (I am thinking of work on the Egyptian surrealists), or texts integrated into the images, have played a part in your practice. In this work had the underlined fragments found on the bible pages come first and then the images paired?

Our only intervention is to underline phrases on each page to add an image. Pick up any old Bible and you might see similar notations. There is a long history of this. But we wanted to avoid a purely illustrative relationship between words and images, so at times the connection is quite oblique. Anybody reading through will be able to make their own connections.

The scope of your practice has extended beyond making images in fairly traditional ways (working as creative directors at Colors magazine) to including appropriated images from archives and exploring different narrative styles. How has this shaped (and evidently challenged) your notions of photography?

We’ve always been more interested in the ecosystem in which photography functions rather then in the species itself; more intrigued by the economic, political, cultural and moral currency an image has then in the medium. We’re fascinated by how images are made but also how they are disseminated, and how that effects the way they are eventually read. Photographs are the most capricious objects — way less faithful then words. They can’t be trusted. So we need to be on guard just looking at them, never mind making them. We still take photographs, however. It’s just that we don’t radically discriminate between images we take and those that we find. We’re equally mistrusting of both.

As collaborators, you have worked both in books and exhibitions in a certain degree of success where many of your projects work well in both forms. You have also started your own small imprint Chopped Liver Press. I was wondering if you have a preference for the intimacy of books over the public exhibitions?

The definition of ‘book’ is undergoing a radical transformation. Far from becoming obsolete, the book — particularly the photo book — is experiencing a new lease of life. They speak to us. They turn their own pages. They update themselves. They have been de-materialized. Chopped Liver Press emerged as a response to this. We make handmade books in our studio. Very limited runs. When they are gone, that’s it. For War Primer 2, however, we produced two versions, a handmade edition of just 100 copies that was instantly sold out, and an e-book version that was freely available and continues to be downloaded. The code that powers these digital books is limited. But there’s great potential for intimacy.

I understand you are both artists and your role is bringing thoughtful art and ideas to the table and where it leads after is not really your business. But, is there any frustration in the thought that these ideas or philosophies get trapped by the “art world” in which they are presented and the world of philosophy (another comparatively small arena)?

We are more interested in the world than the art world, which is exactly why we are so honored to have this conversation with you.

Holy Bible is being published by MACK in June 2013.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

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Original author: 
Jeffrey Ladd

As an avid photobook enthusiast I have gone to great lengths to see books that are far out of my reach economically. I have spent countless hours at photobook auction previews just to carefully flip the pages of rarities that will be sold for thousands of dollars. I have no intent to bid or buy, or to check the condition which is the main reason for attending previews. My reasoning is just to experience and gauge my own level of interest (albeit quickly) concerning what are the important titles of photobook history. When so much material is out of reach, one depends almost entirely on the scholars and historians as a guide, but in the end it is all subjective. This is why I am so happy that MACK has succeeded in creating a facsimile edition of the Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri’s 1978 book Kodachrome. On the anniversary of Ghirri’s death, I finally have the chance after so many years to have the opinion that it’s, well, not my cup of tea.

Luigi Ghirri came to photography in 1970 with an interest in the conceptual side drawn from his training. One pursuit was the paradox of photography itself and uniting the real and the artificial, visible and invisible in the single image. Photographs in general, Ghirri believed, whether “art” or advertising, create a vast labyrinth of images to navigate daily through which it is difficult to decoding our true surroundings.

‘The daily encounter with reality, the fictions, the surrogates, the ambiguous, poetic or alienating aspects, all seem to preclude any way out of the labyrinth, the walls of which are ever more illusory… to the point at which we might merge with them… The meaning that I am trying to render through my work is a verification of how it is still possible to desire and face a path of knowledge, to be able finally to distinguish the precise identity of man, things, life, from the image of man, things, and life.’

That, for me, is interesting to ponder philosophically but are the works in Kodachrome, in the words of essayist Francesco Zanot, “powerful devices for the re-education of the gaze?” This seems a modest collection through which many things can be projected, but without the textual introductions of the edition laying out the intent, or at least providing guidelines for reading, I don’t see the photographs alone enabling the task. A small handful of the 92 images compel me to try — but most have me grappling just to keep my attention.

The qualities of the photography in Kodachrome call into question for me why this book seems so universally revered among the writers of photobook history. The major developments in color photography in general seem so often boiled down to the Americans “William Eggleston and Stephen Shore,” whereas post-war European color photography books seem to get scant attention — even though one of the first true pioneers of color work was the Danish photographer Keld Helmer-Petersen with his 1948 book 122 Colour Photographs. Then the historical timeline of European photobooks continues along mostly in black and white until 1978 and the publication of Kodachrome? Are there no other landmark books between 1948 and 1978 that could also act as balance to the historical dominance of Eggleston’s color?

Being that I approach most photography, my own and that of others, knowingly comfortable to be trapped within the labyrinth of illusion, aesthetics, style, and photography as the language of metaphor — Kodachrome is a deck stacked against me. It stands as the antithesis to my own practice where the visual component compels you to explore the relationship to the image before you.

Luigi Ghirri’s Kodachrome was reissued by MACK in November, 2012. Twenty-five vintage color prints from the series were recently on view at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

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The photographic voice of the English photographer Stephen Gill always has a playfully inventive ring. His book ‘Hackney Wick’ (Nobody, 2005), named after an area in east London where the photographs were made, is comprised of pictures taken with a cheap plastic lens camera he bought at a flea market in Hackney Wick for 50 pence. For his book ‘Hackney Flowers’ (Nobody, 2007) he gathered plants, flowers, and seeds, arranging the material over photographs (which he then re-photographed) — creating complex dimensional collage. For other series, he has buried prints to “allow the place itself to imprint upon the images through decay or markings;” or placed objects and creatures inside his camera creating images akin to in-camera “photograms” as seen in his book ‘Outside In’ (Photoworks, 2010).

So when the Centre National de L’Audiovisuel in Luxembourg commissioned Gill to create a new body of work and a book responding to an industrial wasteland that is the remains of the steel-making industry in the city of Dudelange, it seemed to be a perfect fit for an artist who is known to physically integrate the surroundings into the process and final results of his work. Gill’s newest book Coexistence has just been co-published by the Centre National de L’Audiovisuel and Gill’s own book imprint Nobody.

Concentrating on a pond that had once been used to cool the factory blast furnaces as recently as 2006, Gill became curious about the newly forming microscopic communities of life that would be returning and flourishing. As he writes in the afterword to ‘Coexistence’; “For eight months leading up to my first visit to the territory, my mind increasingly started tuning into the microscopic worlds within worlds, and I became ever more aware of the many parallels between patterns and process in the pond and those in our own lives as individual humans within societies…Slowly I became committed to the idea of attempting to bring these two apparently disparate worlds — so physically close yet so different in scale – visually closer together.”

In order to draw these two worlds together Gill employed the use of a medical microscope from the University of Luxembourg and a pail of water scooped from the pond. With the microscope, he studied and photographed the miniscule creatures and plant life. Carrying around the pail of water, he would dunk his underwater camera into it prior to making portraits of residents he met in Dudelange. The results, page after page, have your mind jumping back and forth between the recognizable and the indistinguishable — the scientific and the conceptual.

One might be tempted to dismiss Gill’s strategies as gimmicks were it not for the immediate beauty and complexity of the images. Admittedly this writer has questioned his cleverness, on occasion, as “the idea” dominating the actual content (dipping prints into the pond water to transfer life onto the surface of the paper), but I find the two approaches to image making here flow together into the ‘tapestry’ that Gill expresses as his intent.

With its gold foil stamped titles and speckled book block edge, ‘Coexistence’ is handsomely made to resemble a leather, quarter-bound, reference book that might be seen sitting aside Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. That is, after all, the ultimate metaphor here – the primordial sludge finding its footing and slipping seamlessly into society.

Stephen Gill is a British photographer based in London.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

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Love makes people do strange things. The history of mankind is rife with love producing illogical and oddball behavior. When it comes to photography, falling in love with the medium is hardly an exception. For example, someone painfully shy might find themselves impulsively photographing strangers without asking for permission. Or, they instinctively photograph something without any ability to later explain why. Alec Soth’s newest book Looking for Love, 1996 is, in its way, about both—the search for love guided by the heart and the search of love guided by the eye.

Soth, a Minnesota native, came to national attention in 2004 after his project Sleeping by the Mississippi was featured at the Whitney museum during its Biennial exhibition and consequently released in book form by the prestigious German publisher Steidl to critical acclaim. Rapidly thrust into the worlds of art and commerce he followed up his debut with equally strong and provocative bookworks: Niagara (2006), Dog Days Bogota (2007) and Broken Manual (2010). Looking for Love, 1996 (Kominek Books, 2012) is a look to the past at his early beginnings as a photographer working with black and white film and a medium format camera.

In his brief introduction to the work Soth describes that time as one of working a miserable job (printing photos at a large commercial lab) and retreating to a bar to be comforted by “the solitude I found among strangers.” He began to concentrate on his own pictures, slyly using the lab to make prints which he smuggled, concealed under his jeans, out to his car. He writes of imagining one day “a stranger would fall in love with me.”

The first photographs of couples we encounter in Looking for Love cling possessively to their partners and leer at Soth’s camera as if to ask, “this is mine, where is yours?” While his journey takes us through the outside landscape and various social gatherings—the aforementioned bar; a convention hall that seems to bridge religion, spirituality and dating under one roof; poker games; singles parties; high school proms—we can sense a young photographer eager to hone his photographic instincts for metaphor and craving the fruits of collaboration between artist, medium and world. A photo of a flirtatious blonde cheerleader sits on the opposite page of a lone, slightly gothic teen outside a music club. The prom king and queen stand proudly before an auditorium empty but for a few hidden background observers and a basketball court scoreboard. An older man sits phone to ear at a ‘Psychic Friends Network’ booth while a quaffed blonde with a #1 ribbon pinned to her lapel passes by paying no mind. Alongside the underlying melancholy of some of these pictures is also the excitement of a photographer discovering their talent and seeing an affirmation of life stilled in photographs.

That affirmation makes the parting photograph all the more important. In it we see Soth himself sitting sprawl-legged in a rental tuxedo as if his own prom has just ended. Perhaps it had. I hope the love he may have found, lasts.

Looking for Love, 1996 is available from Kominek Books.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

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In photography, “the road trip,” especially by car around the United States, has been a right of passage for many photographers. Embarking on a fourteen-month world tour however is a bit less common, but that ambitious challenge was taken on in 1959 by the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken and his wife Gerda. The resulting photographs would turned into one of the most epic Dutch photobooks ever produced, The Sweet Life.

Ed van der Elsken

Ed van der Elsken photographing his exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in 1966.

Van der Elsken secured the much needed financing for the trip through contracts to make a series of films enroute for Dutch television and at the Royal Dutch Shipowners Association (KNRV), where Elsken and his wife would be provided first class passage on merchant vessels. In exchange, van der Elsken was to make a short film about the merchant navy that would be a present to Princess Margriet of the Netherlands. Additional funding came from Gerda van der Elsken who wrote a series of articles about their adventures for Dutch magazines illustrated by her husband’s photographs. On Aug. 22, 1959 they sailed for Africa.

Their travels would cover West Africa, the Malay Peninsula, the Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, the United States and Mexico. Van der Elsken found his stride photographing in the streets of each major city or backwater; “When I’m working I get up fairly early, cup of coffee, camera, check if the film’s alright, any dust…then I set off to see what I can find. Hunting for luck, hoping I’ll come across people who excite me…I let them know with my eyes and facial expressions what I am doing, that it’s okay, that I mean no harm – and I don’t.” In all he would shoot more than 5,000 pictures, and by the time of their return to the Netherlands on Sept. 19, 1960, they were both completely exhausted and their money had just run out.

If the scope of the trip wasn’t enough of an exhausting (albeit exciting) experience, the ordeal to get Sweet Life published as a book would be frustrating and even more exhausting. Upon his return van der Elsken immediately set to work printing, editing, sequencing and designing a book he thought at first to call Crazy World. After four years of work there were still no book publishers interested that would take the risk on bringing his world project to print yet Elsken continued to rearrange and improve the edit and layout. He employed various improvised means to shape the material including hand drawn “storyboards,” cut up photo prints, variant printing techniques, extreme croppings, images bled to the paper edge, and double-spread pages that linked separate images into a run-on panoramics. Additionally, van der Elsken wrote 26 pages of extensive captions for each of the images with stories of experiences in a hipster voice that recalls the lyrical styling of Kerouac and Ginsberg.

*SWEET LIFE* – sweet and sour, sweet and bitter. Who am I to spout about life, love, happiness? About whether all’s right with the world, or whether it’s just a vale of tears, so store up your treasures for heaven. I think it’s unbelievable, fabulous, this life of ours – everything, the birds and the bees, the dear and the antelope, the spacious skies, the foggy dew, the rockabye babies. Men like John F. and Robert Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, Georges Brassens, Fidel Castro, Pope John XXIII. My wife’s embrace, a landing on the moon, space, time, eternity. I don’t understand one damn thing about any of it, except that it’s enough to keep me in a constant delirium of delight, surprise, enthusiasm, despair, enough to keep me roaming, stumbling, faltering, cursing, adoring, hating the destruction, the violence in myself and others.

© Katholieke Illustratie

Article in Katholieke Illustratie #39 from 1959 announcing the departure of Ed van der Elsken and Gerda on their world tour.

Finally in 1965, Andreas Landshoff a friend of van der Elsken’s who had ties to the American publisher Harry N. Abrams, persuaded Abrams and several other publishers into co-publish an edition that would appear in seven different countries (with seven different covers!) totaling 17,000 copies in all – a huge number of copies for a photography title. Borrowing the name from a tramp steamer they traveled upon in the Philippines, the book’s title became Sweet Life. During its printing, van der Elsken stood next to the presses in Japan and ordered the black ink to be applied as heavily as possible resulting in the dense and contrasty gravure images far blacker than his original prints achieved.

Today, for historians and those lucky enough to see a copy firsthand, Sweet Life is admired and celebrated for its cinematic energy, raw style, and gritty in-your-face design reminiscent of another masterpiece, William Klein’s Life is Good & Good for You in New York. What Klein’s New York and Robert Frank’s The Americans did for the genre of ‘personal’ documentary of one country, van der Elsken’s ambitions took on the world.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions. Errata Editions is featuring Sweet Life in its Books on Books series this month.

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