On August 28 2013, in the afternoon, Dutch graphic designer Sybren Kuiper started a debate, which led to a lively discussion among about members of Photobooks (a closed group of 3.000 members on Facebook sharing their interest in the medium photobook) regarding the merits of the latest publication by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (B&C), Holy Bible (2013). From this thread of questions, opinions and remarks I pulled some out and would have liked to invite B&C to comment on these straightforward, ironic and sometimes evil words. I contacted their agent, Lou Miller, who agreed by e-mail on September 17 to arrange a Skype interview, but eventually wrote on September 30st: “they are unable to devote the time that they would like to your interview and proposal, and unable to take part at this time”. So I have decided to change the format and share with you this discussion on Holy Bible, and ask you to comment and elaborate on it. From my side, I pose some questions that arised during the research on their publications. Let’s start with the legislative history of this photobook on found photographs.
First there was Brecht and War Primer 2. Published in a limited edition of 100 copies in the same year, 2011, as People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground. In June 2013, they won the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize for their critically acclaimed work, War Primer 2.
This publication is a collection of Brecht’s newspaper clippings he had been collecting for almost three decades. Each clipping is accompanied by a four-line poem, so-called ‘Photo-epigrams’. The title deliberately refers to the textbooks used to teach elementary school children how to read. Brecht’s book is a practical manual, demonstrating how to “read” or “translate” press photographs. Brecht was quit suspicious of the indoctrinating use of press photography in newspapers that he referred to press photographs as ‘heiroglyphics in need of decoding’.
Peter Burke has introduced the notion ‘iconotext’ in Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (2001). The caption, or what he calls, ‘iconotext’, according to Burke, should be a major component in visual analysis of a photo-reportage, sequence, photo-essay or press photograph because it helps to create the illusion of a meaningful and logical message. Text and captions are used to influence the reader/viewer in his/her interpretation of images; to ‘filter’ them. The caption, or text, bears an unmistakable ideological message. And that is at stake here, in fact both in War Primer 2 and Holy Bible.
Brecht used a pair of scissors to cut out newspaper images on the Second World War. In the sequel War Primer 2 the London based artists have gathered digital images, screenshots and mobile phone images, on the War of Terror. But how did B&C get to Brecht? And to what extent do they share his concern?
While conducting research for War Primer 2 in Brecht’s archive, B&C, as they explain in the Times interview with Jeffrey Ladd, ‘stumbled across his personal copy’ of The King James Bible, ‘Holy Bible’, being the official church bible. And it caught their eye because it had a newspaper photograph of a racecar glued to the front cover. So their preoccupation with found photography and catastrophe continued right there.
The afterword by Adi Ophir in Holy Bible, printed on bloody red paper and glued to the inside of the back cover is entitled ‘Divine Violence’ and in the last paragraph he speaks about ‘the divine economy of violence’. I wonder what does the title of the afterword and this phrase refer too?
Holy Bible contains 512 images selected from The Archive of Modern Conflict in London. This London based archive/publisher became their main source for images on the War of Terror. Is it because AMC has a collection of images depicting ‘unique aspects of war’?
Let’s pick out a few pages, for you to comment upon the text underlined in red and the inserted AMC press photographs.
Exodus, page 42; ‘a jeaulous God’.
Leviticus, page 72; ‘every man’.
Psalms pages 335-356; ‘they walk on in darkness’.
Ezekiel, page 498-499; ‘And it came to pass’.
Acts, page 639; ‘naked and wounded’.
Revelation, 720-721; ‘the bottomless pit’. [This is the last underlined phrase in Holy Bible].
Let’s now focus on the Facebook discussion, I mentioned earlier. In chronological order quotes are selected and underlined is the core of the statement (referring to the artists’ strategy in Holy Bible). And I would like to invite anyone to elaborate on these comments in order to get full understanding of and insight in the juxtaposition of image and text in Holy Bible.
Given that many of the juxtapositions of biblical text and photographs are extreme – images of death, sex, mutilation, terrorism and deformity are included – the duo may also find themselves making headlines for all the wrong reasons. (The Guardian, June 2013).
Sybren Kuiper: Dear photo book lovers or enthusiasts. Maybe somebody can explain to me the merits of the publication Holy Bible by Broomberg & Chanarin. Maybe my expectations were to high, maybe I’m not intelligent enough, but after a good half hour trying ‘to get it’ or to experience something the strong feeling prevails that the joke is on me and that I am flipping through a well designed prank. An experiment in how far you can go in pretending to be interesting, without being it, (and get away with it). Beautifully designed though. And as I’m in favor of a bit stronger debate concerning photo books on pages like these, I thought I should share this. I’m really willing to let me being convinced of the contrary so I like to know your thoughts. All of this in total respect of designer, photographers and publisher of course.
Likes · August 28 at 14:43 in the neighbourhood of Amsterdam
Stefan Jora, Editions Bessard, Pino Musi and 16 others like this.
Lewis Bush: My main thought is that the bible is an easy target and one that many controversial artists turn to when they run out of really interesting ideas…
August 28 at16:15 via mobile · Likes · 2
Sybren Kuiper: Well, if I felt that there was any recognizable link between the inserted pictures and the text I would applaud, but I can’t see any and that does make it feel pretty gimmicky I have to say.
August 28 at 16:20 · Likes · 4
Sybren Kuiper: not sure what the idea is though, it all seems a bit arbitrary…
August 28 at 16:37 · Likes· 2
Lewis Bush: The idea, I think, is to take an already slightly dodgy comparison between the violent acts of God and those of modern states and expand it to photography and it’s fixation with violence.
August 28 at 17:21 via mobile · Likes · 1
Josef Chladek: […]. A bit overdone with gilt-edging, leather imitate and all, but I guess this is part of the concept (and the fact it’s the bible)
August 28 at 18:48 · Revised · Likes · 1
Annakarin Quinto: I just adore it but maybe it is because I am Italian and familiar with bibles and accept easier the Christian culture that even unwillingly penetrated my soul ; ). It is an exact replica of the Bibles you find in most of the hotels of Christian countries […].
August 28 at 19:02 · Likes 6
Erik van der Weijde: Hypes create high expectations. I don’t have a copy, but based on some of their previous work I can imagine it’s a decent book. Maybe not as great as the hype thinks it is? A hype can weaken a book or product and only serves sales numbers. Not the artist not the work, right?
August 29 at 0:48 via mobile · Likes· 5
Marcel Du: I have not read the bible, but one side of my family has. And I have not browsed page by page, nor repeatedly returned to the book since it arrived. I’m not sure how the book is intended to be read […].
August 29 at 3:04 via mobile · Likes · 4
Alex S.: […] I was thinking to get it mainly because I don’t have a bible. So I thought a bible with images is better than one without, this means instant classic: it is something that was bound to be created. A bible with images of XX century destruction?
August 29 at 4:19 · Likes· 4
Marcel Du: […] there are always surprises. I reread my comment and realized that single pages as posters would regain what I think folks are expecting this book to be. The Bible and the Archive of Modern Conflict and Brecht and being winners of awards […].
August 29 at 5:14 via mobile · Likes· 2
Alex S.: […] But [what about] page 58 of the bible with associate quote and image [as posters] in a shopping mall display case?
August 29 at 5:29 · Likes· 1
Marcel Du: page 58, “the common people” (on the left), “This [is] the law of” (on the right).
August 29 at 5:30 via mobile · Likes· 2
Alex S.: Also you can try sneaking in a church and put stickers directly on the prayers books.
August 29 at 5:32 · Likes· 1
Marcel Du: Is there a difference between the law and the common people? These men are criminals, right? How can you tell by the portraits alone? Shall we judge? Do I see my grandfather? Do I see myself? […] Which one outbid me on eBay? If you collect me, identify me. Oh dear Facebook, will you control me??
August 29 at 5:34 via mobile · likes· 1
Annakarin Quinto: Maybe they should do [the] same exercise with this version ; ))
August 29 at 9:42 · Likes · 1
Marcel Du: So, why choose the bible version they did, and why only photographs from the Archive of Modern Conflict? [It] Could have been more fun to choose an atypical or special bible, or to insert ‘holiday’ photos of their mistress with a sharp narrative essay?
August 29 at 16:57 via mobile · Likes· 1
Annakarin Quinto: I am curious about your idea of “practical purpose”. What do you intend?
August 29 at 22:53 · Likes 1
Marcel Du: Well, perhaps a didactic purpose. Practical [purpose] in terms of a tool for understanding. A “dummies guide on how to build an ark” photobook would be practical, I guess, which this is not.
August 30 at 2:32 via mobile · Likes · 1