He watches me and moves slowly in my direction. In his eyes, I’m a stranger; a distraction that interferes with his sphere. He sits down next to the guys I’m talking to. The strike comes suddenly. His hard-knitted fist hits the right side of my face at speed. Almost simultaneously, he aims a kick at me, which I manage to escape. The whole incident is both expected and unexpected in some inexplicable way, as if I could instinctively see what was about to happen, though I was unable to control the following sequence of events. Dazed and confused, with blood flowing from my mouth, I stand still and watch the man run away, past the long queue of the soup kitchen into the adjacent park, before finally disappearing into the crowded city.
Whathappened that evening in Paris had direct consequences upon my self-image. I lost the motivation for the work that I had planned to do, and my earlier photographic ambitions only provoked uncertainty and a haunting feeling of meaninglessness. Everything I had achieved so far suddenly felt like a farce, as if I had fooled everyone I had photographed in the past years, as well as myself. Who really was I then? A white, middle-aged man from Sweden with a working-class background, who had changed profession in his thirties with the desire to become something else. Was my belief in being a documentary photographer so fragile that it only took a punch in the face for me to lose grip? I understood that the feelings that had come over me could be irrational, yet they were still difficult to manage.
Slowly the urge to make photographs returned. I observed that everything had a value in itself; its own story and existential right. The only clear limitation to my photographic exploration now was geographical. The urban environment in Paris became a kind of scene, a passive place. Using my camera felt like the only solution for engaging with the world that I now felt alienated from.
I didn’t think about it then, though the result of the abuse was almost certainly a kind of identity crisis, and the beginning of the need to redefine my photographic practice. This was the first time I really connected with what it was to photograph from my own experience; noticing what was going on within and around me while taking pictures. The photographic act was not separate from me nor the photographs. It was part of life as much as anything else.
Ever since the incident, I’ve thought about the introspective perspective. For a long time, I couldn’t understand the context of the work I had created in Paris that summer, when I focused on the images by themselves. It wasn’t until I imagined them as only part of the work that it became a bit clearer. I started to write down what had happened during that stay. In the beginning, I was dubious of the whole idea; that I needed to write about myself to get somewhere in the first place. I was a photographer, not a writer. My idea needed to be put into perspective. Since photobooks are an accessible and suitable way of experiencing large amounts of photographic works, this was the method that I chose, hoping to find some good examples.
As I browse through my photobooks at home, I struggle to find any traces of such a perspective. I can feel and sometimes understand how a photographer has experienced a specific event, thanks to the photographs, but usually I don’t know why the photographer goes to a certain place or is engaged with a particular subject. When I go to the bookshop at the art museum here in Gothenburg, I find thousands of books that represent several generations of photographers from different parts of the world. I browse through book after book. Sometimes I find single sentences which indicate the photographer has also been experiencing something while taking the pictures, but this rarely takes up any notable space. I continue my search at the Humanist Library in Gothenburg. Down in the archives are lots of classic photobooks that are both sought after and highly valued. Despite my efforts, I’m no closer to what I’m looking for.
The majority of today’s photobooks are often constructed in similar ways. They often begin with an essay written by a writer, curator, critic, or similar, who in some way illuminates the work and the photographer – a text that, among other things, guides the reader through their experience of the work. This almost generic format creates a distinction that separates the writer’s role from the photographer’s.
In my first two photographic publications, I chose to write texts that described events surrounding the creation of the photographs. The texts were not part of the photographic narrative, but served as forewords and afterwords. Whether it was successful or not, I can’t tell, though I tried to do what felt right in the moment. This kind of approach is something Robert Adams problematises in his essay Writing. Adamspoints out that photographers, like other artists, choose their particular medium to express their personal vision in the best way possible. He continues to suggest that, at the same time when the photographer begins to explain the images, the recognition of a failure begins. The written words become proof that their vision is not clear enough, and that the images need support to be read. The ideal photobook, according to Adams, is one without any text at all. He illustrates his reasoning with an anecdote about how he wrote hundreds of drafts for a four-paragraph long speech for a catalogue, only to realise that the text stood in the way of the pictures.
Adams’ argument represents a strict and puritanical idea that photographs must be independent of other ways of expression. Adams himself is known for both his writing and photography. He has worked as a photographer and writer most of his life and manages to use both the pen and the camera in a conscious way. He separates photography from text and does not allow his various works to touch each other. The texts in his photobooks are written by others about him, and in his written books he comments on other photographers’ pictures. It could be that Adams’ criticism is primarily aimed at texts that exist outside of the photographic narrative, the purpose of which is to expand a work or the subject being treated. Or it could be the opposite; more artistic or poetic texts that try to enhance the expression of the photographs. Neither of these are the subject of this essay, though it is nonetheless difficult to get around the fact that his argument suggests a limited view.
When gathering the pieces from my quest for photobooks, I find three male photographers from Sweden, plus one female from England that seem coherent with the subject of this article. I have given each a title – named as clearly as possible – that describes the way text is being used. The four examples that follow are not primarily intended to be used as an argument to Adams’ criticism, but perhaps they can suggest a broader perspective on how photography and text can cooperate. Above all, the examples are a means of seeing how different photographers create parallel storylines within the photographic context. They write about their life during the period they were making the work, and in one way or another comment on the working process or the photographic act in itself.
A couple of days after the incident in Paris, I stumbled upon some photobooks at VU Gallerie. One of the books was by the English photographer Vanessa Winship. During several trips over the course of a year, Winship visited a number of states across the USA, trying to understand the worn-out concept of the American dream. Winship met the people she portrays as she walked around. She combines the many, often young, faces with the landscape and soil that has attracted settlers for centuries. In this way Winship depicts, very subtly, the discrepancy between both a promising and consumed America.
The material from her travels in the States resulted in the book She Dances on Jackson. The title is generated from a short text, written by Winship herself, presented at the end of the book. Here, Winship opens a window, inviting the reader into her experience. She describes how she observed a mother and her daughter dancing at the Jackson subway station. At the end of the story, they notice Winship with her camera, and eye contact and words are exchanged. If only for a short while, a sublime and meaningful encounter between strangers occurs. This little story hints at and opens up the possibility of seeing the photographer as a participant in her own work. The rest of Winship’s personal story is incorporated and hidden in her photographs.
During my stay in Paris, I discovered that She Dances on Jacksonwas also being exhibited at the Henri Cartier Bresson Foundation. The frames on the walls were beautifully hung, yet nothing beyond any standard institutional photography exhibition. What was significant, on the other hand, were the glass cases in the middle of the room, up on the second floor. The cases displayed mail correspondence between Winship and her sister, printed on paper, plus some handwritten notes. These were accompanied by the same pictures that hung on the wall, though in a much smaller format. Winship and her sister exchange memories of different experiences, especially those about their father who passed away years earlier. The private dialogue suggests a sense of melancholy that is also found in the photographs. The content of the texts gives the work more depth and insinuates that this photographic project is also a part of Winship’s personal journey. Thus, since the text enables another perspective, it doesn’t diminish nor ruin the experience of the images, rather the opposite.
The other book I bought during my stay in Paris was La Residenceby the Swedish photographer JH Engström. It was created from material made while Engström was living in Brussels for two short periods as an artist in residence during 2003 and 2006. It is a thick and visually beautiful book, with only the title handwritten in gold on the green cloth cover. Engström’s suggestive images contrast with the romantic surface of the book. During the days he is out by himself inhaling the city, while in the evenings he returns to the bars to find comfort and trust in both alcohol and people. A recurring feeling is that Engström is photographing his way through life, as a kind of self-diagnosed therapy.
The pictures from La Residenceare difficult to distinguish from some of Engström’s other works. What makes this book unique is that it includes his diary. The texts, often of only few lines, are in a constant dialogue with the photographs. Deeper reflections are combined with superficial, almost banal remarks. The words of the diary remind me of everyone’s loneliness in the world, and the need to constantly grasp the possible and the understandable in life. The diary has a humanising effect that transforms Engström from the role of a photographer to an individual human.
The Autobiographical Essay
Wind Upon the Face of Watersis a photobook by the Swedish photographer Johan Willner. It is a story about growing up in a secular country in the 1970’s and 80’s. In the book, Willner’s black and white photographs, which span almost 20 years, come together with a text written by the photographer himself. Individually and together, they guide the viewer forward, into his world of characters, as well as his reflections on the role of religion in society. The book is divided into chapters in which Willner reflects upon different episodes in his life.
In the first chapter, Thunder Road, Willner begins by describing a visit he made to Priego De Cordoba in Andalucía in 1996, and reflects on what it was like to photograph. He follows a boy with his camera, and when at one point their eyes meet, Willner takes a picture. He describes how his presence affects the situation and asks himself how much he has influenced what we call reality. Inthe middle of the second chapter, Hotel for Seekers, he visits the Maranatha Parish in Bromma during 2015. He finds people he met 10 years ago in the congregation, with the intention of photographing them in a similar manner; pictures he then places alongside each other in the book. The way Willner uses portraits is engaging and moves time and space in a subtle way. In the text, Willner also describes the experience of the congregation’s premises; what the smell is like, and also the sense of timelessness. Hardly any of this is visible in the pictures, and the information creates a larger spectrum of experience for the viewer.
Of the 96 pages, there are only 31 photographs, which gives an indication of the balance between text and image. Wind Upon the Face of Watersis a book where the personal story is intended to use more space than the photographs; something that is rare within the world of photo books. Without the text, the book would certainly be a fragmentary experience, and probably the photographs wouldn’t be enough to stand for themselves. Unlike Engström’s introspective approach, which deals with himself and his inner thoughts, Willner uses himself and his own experience to relate to the world out thereand what has shaped him. Together, text and image create a kind of autobiographical essay, where reflections are related to one another and together create a wholeness. The text creates the narrative of the book, and the images serve as references to it. The result is a photobook with a reversed hierarchy between image and text.
The Prose Pamphlet
For three years, between 2013 and 2015, the Swedish photographer Martin Bogren visited several Italian cities. The photographs from the nine journeys were later compiled in the book Italia. The pictures are reminiscent of Bogren’s earlier photographic works; the grainy black and white imagery has become his signature style, placing him as one of Sweden’s best representatives for what could be called subjective street photography. When I open the book, I find a thin, small folder, much smaller than the book itself. The folder is not attached to the book and almost falls out unnoticed, giving me the feeling of randomly discovering a hidden document. The light brown colour suggests aged paper, an implication of the object as something secret and private. Whether or not it is a conceptual idea is hard to know, but it is certainly a kind of proposal on how to read the text and the book’s photographs. Had I been less focused when opening the book, the folder may well have disappeared on the floor, or been left in a bag somewhere.
I’m glad I didn’t lose the folder, because I quickly realised that it is the heart of Italia. The folder contains prose by Bogren, which page after page brings the reader into his experience of Italy and his experience of walking around the streets of the city. Even after reading the first page, I become part of Bogren’s state of mind. He wonders what he is really doing, why he goes up and down the same street, with the camera in his hand, day after day. He chases something but is not sure what. Iquickly recognise myself in Bogren’s thoughts and wonderings; it was something I experienced in Paris, and so realise I’m not alone in my thoughts.
Bogren is a skilled and experienced photographer, though through the text in the folder, he suggests the complexity of the photographic approach. From time to time, he is both shy and doubtful, although people are the subject that he most commonly photographs, and maybe for just that reason.
Bogren’s photographs create a condition where space for details is minimized. It may partly have to do with the almost impressionistic imagery and how he captures people and their surroundings. It is a suggestive Italy that is captured. The story deals a lot with the gaze. Sometimes people are staring straight into the camera, sometimes away and out of the picture, constantly seeking and confirming or avoiding each other. In combination with the prose, the possibility to move between introspection and intensive interaction is given. The inner and outer journey between Bogren’s thoughts, memories, and feelings, and a timeless, imagined Italy. What is characteristic of Italiais that Bogren’s prose and photographs do not cancel each other out, but instead help each other.
The photographic image often shows a different, more fragmentary world than the one we normally experience. Through the use of text in photobooks, there seems to be a possibility to expand and engage with this on different levels. But literary traces of the self as a subject of experience in photobooks seem hard to find. The examples in this essay all have an individual form for how the written story was combined with the photographs. The texts express something that the images cannot. The photographers seem to think it important to share their personal story with the viewer. With text written by themselves, their own self becomes a part of the photographic narrative, and thus shows that there are more elements in the story than the photographs. In all cases, especially the Swedish photographers, it seems as though they have used the camera to understand the world around them, and that the photographic project had a dual purpose – both conceptual or artistic, and personal. The photographer then becomes visible as a human participant in the same way that I do as a spectator of the work. The texts explain nothing of how the images should be perceived, but become part of the possible interpretation of the works. In one way, it is a kind of trust that is given to the observer, though at the same time, just like the photographs, the text only describes fragments of an experience and of the person in question. The text provides another possibility for reading the work, which is (as always) largely reserved for the viewer’s perspective and willingness to engage with it.
We live in a self-centred era where our own experiences take place and are communicated on websites, blogs, vlogs, social media and more, in an almost constant stream. It is not unreasonable to assume that these contemporary trends, where our own voices and stories are in focus, affect contemporary photographers. This gives a new perspective on Adams’ criticism. His view of photography, like mine, is undoubtedly coloured by his time, and needs to be revaluated in relation to where the medium stands today.
In the end, it is the genuine desire to express one’s own story which must be the basis of the matter that has been dealt with in this essay. A literary work I have returned to in recent years that relates to this topic is Marguerite Duras’ essay Writing. It’s a low-key story where she deals with what it is to write and what it has meant for her life. It is also about her relationship with her houses; one in Trouville-sur-Mer and one in the Neauphle-le Chateau, and about the loneliness that binds her, the houses, and her writing together. Duras has a general, everyday tone that invites me into her world, where I feel and understand what it means to write and both the need for and difficulty in choosing loneliness. If I take a step back, I feel the writing almost becomes symbolic for life itself and what it means to live. She tells herself that she does not understand why she writes, but still she continues to do it.
Writingis not perceived as a memoir or autobiography, even though it is about parts of her life; about when, how, and where her works were created. In some ways, it becomes an independent literary work. Personally, this essay reminds me of what it is to photograph. Duras is a writer who writes about writing and life around the writing with a kind of metaphorical perspective. Perhaps it’s not very different from a photographer who writes about what it’s like to photograph, as well as life around it. I think the experience of writing or photographing cannot be distinguished from life and art, and hence there are no absolute rules about what can or cannot be presented or revealed.
Adams, Robert, Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defence of Traditional Values, Aperture, New York, 1989.
Adams, Robert, Why People Photograph: Selected Essays and Reviews, Aperture, New York, 1994.
Bengtsson, Kenny, Horisont, Monument, Göteborg, 2017.
Bengtsson, Kenny, Jag kom ensam, Monument, Göteborg, 2016.
Bogren, Martin, Italia, Max Ström, Stockholm, 2016.
Duras, Marguerite, Att skriva, Ellerström, Lund, 2014.
Engström, Jan Henrik, La Residence, Stockholm, Journal, 2010.
Soth, Alec, Brookman, Philip, & Ford, Richard, Niagara, Steidl, Göttingen, 2006.
Willner, Johan, Wind Upon the Face of Waters, Skreid Publishing, Stockholm, 2016.
Winship, Vanessa, She Dances on Jackson, London,Mack Books, 2013.