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Of the 35 photobooks and catalogues nominated for the Photobook Award Shortlist 2015 a third is fitting into a genre on the march, definitely since the launch of OHIO Photomagazine in the mid 1990s: ‘Photobooks of Found Photographs’, but actually starting way before, in the 1960s. Some comments and comparisons.

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Good 70s by Mike Mandell, has not been released yet. A good old Afga-Geveart carton box for analogue photographic paper contains a set of facsimiles, of seminal publications and originally unpublished work. One early original book project is Seven never before published portraits of Edward Weston from 1974.

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This might well be the very first ‘exercise’ by Mandel in compiling an artist’s book on found photography: three years before his collaborative with Larry Sultan: Evidence was released. The booklet contains typewriter and handwritten letters to Mike Mandel by e.g. E.Stanley Weston, E.W. Garland, and Emma Weston based on a biography-oriented questionnaire. It’s a satire, and a form of ‘mail-art’, turning into a revelation of   personal lives of American citizens called ‘Edward Weston’. 35 letters went out, 7 of them responded in handwritten letters and personal snapshots. In terms of working method, the approach is equal to the artist’s strategy practiced by Sophie Calle.

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Another facsimile is Bottom of the Lake by Christian Patterson, which reminds me of 180o Laurence Aëgerter. Reproduced, re-worked and altered content of the ‘dictionnaire encyclopédique pour tous’ Petit Larousse en couleurs, Paris 1973. Including contemporary snapshots, documentary photographs, urban landscapes integrated in the Larouse lay-out. The pictures are taken in a 180-degree turn from the actual described object. The publication contains contributions from different photographers. Reproduction starts at page 993.

Illustrated people (2014) by Thomas Maileander is widely nominated.

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“Illustrated People” is the translation into book form of a performance by Thomas Mailaender. He applied to the skin of models 23 original negatives selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict’s collection before projecting a powerful UV lamp over them, thus revealing a fleeting image on the skin’s surface. Maileander then photographed each of his models before the sun made the image disappear. The book comprises the resulting shots combined with a series of photographic documents found in AMC’s collection.”

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Negatives by Xu Yong deals in yet another way with photographic negatives taken during the Tiananmen Square protests in Being China, in 1989. And (In Matters of) Karl by Dutch photographer Annette Behrens (one of two nominated book works published by Fw:Books) also deals with the progressive War of Terror during the twentieth century. Annette revealed in self-made and found photographs how collective memory and history creep into the seemingly bourgeois life of an SS officer Karl-Friedrich Höcker as depicted in his family album, which was anonymously donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C in 2007. Well documented.

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Greetings from Auschwitz is another way of dealing with the reminiscence of the Second World War. A collection of postcards sent by tourists to family, friends and beloved ones, after visiting the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Handwritten warm greetings on the backside of a macabre backdrop; ethically inappropriate is what the message is. All postcards are selected and edited by Pawel Szypulski.

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Deadline by Will Steacy is the first of two newsprint publications, I understand, deriving from the family archives, and is in line with Down these mean streets (2012). This first monograph and artist’s book by Will Steacy brings back in mind both the sketchbook of Hannah Hoch: Album (1933, 2004) and Pornografie (1971) by Klaus Staeck. Staecy is also a collage artist par excellence. In Down these mean streets self-made photographs on ‘fear and abandonment in America’s inner cities’ are juxtaposed to classy, banal, and propagandistic US newspaper clippings. Full page double spreads with headlines, cut out fragments of newspaper articles and handwritten notes on ‘financial crisis’, ‘zero jobs’, ‘bailing out’, ‘benefits and bargaining’ in American politics in the first decade of the 21st century as well as the historical events that got the country that far: post-World War II industrial growth, The Reagan years and 911. In short the ‘betrayal of the American Dream’. Excellent printing. It all has to do with ‘The Ink in His Blood’: His grandfather (I assume) wrote a college essay about his summer job at the York Dispatch in 1938.

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The most provocative artist’s strategy towards found photography (blurry surveillance camera shots from Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) in this shortlist is manifested in You Haven’t Seen Their Faces by Daniel Mayrit. A smart appropriation of surveillance technology to instigate photography as evidence in the current financial and economic crisis, targeting the 100 most powerful people in the City of London as criminals, assuming their guilt. The title is a wink to a survey about the desperately poor working-class people in rural America, the southern states, by Margaret Bourke-White, published in 1937: You Have Seen Their Faces. And once again, that title is partly reminiscent of a short story by Whittaker Chambers: ‘You have seen the Heads’ (1931).

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Actually, all shortlisted Photography Catalogues of the Year deal with found photography in one way or another; photography as evidence is the main target in 2015. And of all 4 catalogues Beastly/Tierisch contains a motley crew of animal life pictures, cutouts from glossy magazines and such, AMC2 Journal issue 11 is black and blue in a different way: displaying the disguise and untruth of heroism in war photography against a backdrop of what…? Cozy, vintage self-adhesive shelf liner paper, maybe?

I vote for You Haven’t Seen Their Faces.

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Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

Taking off. Henry my neighbor, your recently published book – launched at Offprint in London (in Tate Modern‘s Turbine Hall) and at Amsterdam Art Fair with Johan Deumens Gallery – was published five years after Queen Ann. P.S. Belly cut off (2010) and seven years after Elisabeth – I want to Eat (2008). The three artist’s books, of the same size and format, together form an ‘open trilogy’. Trilogy is an interesting term, knowing it from the world of theater and literature, and in a way coming from your background in acting. A first question: to what extent are the publications thematically linked as a group of three ‘dramatic or literary’ works?

 

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Mariken Wessels (MW):

I designated it a ‘trilogy’ because my approach relates to theater insofar I work with characters like Elisabeth or Ann, or Henry and Martha for the new book, based on archival materials I received. Like a performer creates an environment, you build credibility by responding to questions as: who am I, where do I come from, why am I here, where do I go & what do I want? Being able to answer these one makes an analysis of how characters develop and mature.

In case information lacks I add to it, so to answer questions, like ‘where does he live and what is he like?’ Each time I write a script and gradually shape characters from notes, memos and sketches. Failing items are drawn from other sources, because I consider the material valuable for making up a partly fictional though credible character. This doesn’t apply to my other books. He was there (2012), for example, is a photobook for which I took pictures myself. At other times I collect pictures online. But Taking Off starts from the dramatic principle, that in creating a full-grown character everything has to match.

In terms of similarities: in all three stories, there are one or two protagonists. Elisabeth communicates with her aunt who tells her via postcards that she is crazy and has to face life. Eventually one wonders who the crazy one is. It’s an interaction between two people, like with Henry and Martha too. Martha took off her clothes before Henry’s camera. She chose to do it but could have said no. Queen Ann tells a different story: Ann is self-destructive and in conflict with the outside world, she decided to cut away her fat belly.

A common thread is that all protagonists wrestled with shame. You wonder how it’s possible that someone is interested in exhibiting their privacy like Ann did. Her story stands in stark contrast, for example, to today’s reality shows. All three narratives touch upon the edges of privacy.

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MT:

You mentioned writing a ‘scenario’ for Taking Off, does that apply to each part of the trilogy?

MW:

It’s not really a ‘scenario’, I describe characters and role profiles, based on the archive I got and the research I did. First I note down facts such as age, address, profession, movements and background. In theater this approach is known as the Stanislavsky Method. If you can’t distil these facts from existing documentation (in Chekhov’s Three Sisters it’s not all spelled out either) you need to find them out, but much is up for self-interpretation.

 

MT:

That explains the term: ‘open’ trilogy.

MW:

Indeed it does.

MT:

From a bird’s-eye view you played with a voyeuristic approach in He was there (2012) and made reconstructions of your deceased brother’s life in WHO (2012). Every artist’s book seems an effort to remember and assemble images displaying lives of anonymous people, characters if you wish, based on personal memories but infused by imagination. In general, an effort to ‘keepsake’ (a title of one of your projects) meaning ‘anything kept, or given to be kept, as a token of friendship or affection, remembrance.’ At the same time these personal stories are altered narratives. A trained actress you later entered the world of photography, dealing mainly with amateur photography. Correct me if I’m wrong: you make pictures of other peoples’ pictures; step into someone’s life so to create a fictional character, as performers do.

MW:

Yes, I appropriate materials from personal archives, creating characters, yet staying true to the source.

MT:

Focusing exclusively on amateur photography?

MW:

Not per se. I use self-made images, which I then often rephotograph. I try to find a fitting ‘translation’ for an absent image. Provenance doesn’t matter; whether I take the picture myself or take it from an archive, if it suits a character, anything goes. It’s often amateur photography because that genre, for all its unpretentiousness, speaks straight from the heart.

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MT:

How do you cast a role, create a person in writing? Do you describe the missing pictures?

MW:

I pull images from an obtained archive from which I start building a character. I collect as many facts as possible. At one point in Taking Off Martha spreads her arms, symbolizing liberation. I removed this image from its original context. By re-contextualizing, cropping and placing it elsewhere, it gains another kind of suspense. How I made that decision? I needed that image because I knew she did step out of her situation, hence I started sifting the archive.

MT:

So beforehand you visualize a mental image?

MW:

Yes, in terms of direction, with regards to existing material; to keep it authentic.

MT:

But the archive is a fragmentary entity, perhaps stored in a box?

MW:

It’s a starting point for creating a narrative. While investigating the archive the storyline gets nurtured by observations. I verify by reading documents, by talking to people involved, and for example after having found Henry’s annotations, I realized he was an amateur photographer. These elements form a plot thread.

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MT:

And the notion of ‘keepsake’, which is so vital to your work?

MW:

I’m fascinated and emotionally triggered by ephemeral lives. In trying to retain time, hold on to memories, one realizes that life is fleeting. While it’s a work about him, there are no pictures of my brother in my book WHO. I got no pictures of him after he passed away. Instead WHO was compiled from images I found online, where I looked for images that would bring his house back to memory. Of course I knew what it looked like: I just could have biked over there to have taken a look…but this would have been a huge move, too intimate. I then collected images so to reconstruct how I used to arrive at his place and what it did look like. Now while talking about this, I regain these images, seeing his guitar for example (he had many guitars, but not the one depicted in the book).

MT:

You create distance from what has happened in real life and drape your imagination over it, adding experiences to a personal life; we could perhaps say it’s a falsification of personal history?

MW:

Yes, and maybe because reality is too fierce. It’s a way to filter the intensity of life. Maybe ‘the third person’ helps in creating a storyline, in compiling a publication; because just the naked thruth that Henry had taken nude pictures of Martha for over two years raises an aversion. This is reality, it’s part of life and I feel I detest it. And this story reflects just a fraction of what happens in real life.

MT:

Let’s take a closer look at your book, starting with the title. What does Taking Off stand for? You discovered the archive of an extravagant amateur photographer named Henry, and who obsessively took and categorized nude photographs of his wife.

MW:

The title comes from one of Henry’s annotations. It could have also been ‘squeeze’, ‘kneeling’ or ‘xx good’ (some of his categories). But I thought the double meaning of ‘taking off’ was more fitting.

MT:

Exactly. Where did it originate; when did Henry start his amateur-nude-art-practice?

MW:

You’ll find the answer in the handmade diagram, which is part of the archive and reproduced here full-scale. From February 1981 till November 1983 Henry took 5,500 nude photographs. The categories correspond to annotations Henry made on the contact sheets. A husband who uses his wife as an object. Intimacy was absent is the impression one gets. It was Henry’s project, in which he was obsessed with lenses, film types, and judgment: ‘good’, ‘okayxx’ is what he noted down, a practice which is perhaps even more fascinating than the pictures themselves.

MT:

Let’s go back to the moment in which you found yourself in possession of a wealth of material. I understood from a short text in the book that while living close to New York City you met Edward F. Carroll and Dorothy Bartlett, ‘close friends’ of Henry and Martha. When did you live in the Long Island suburbs? When and where did you meet Edward and Dorothy? What did they tell about your former neighbors?

MW:

Facts aren’t important, otherwise I would have mentioned all of them. It’s an open approach, you might find the facts in the story itself. It was not my intention to make a straightforward documentary.

MT:

Would you want to lift a tip of the veil and explain how you met these people and where the material was stored?

MW:

No, not really. The project has been long in the making with long pauses in between… And this final result is what I wanted to publish. For example some collages were left out. Besides, some of your questions are answered in the epilogue.

MT:

Let’s put it differently: you were notified about the archive but left the material untouched for quite some time; it feels like an incubation period. How does it work?

MW:

It sat idle for quite some time indeed. Generally I leave material untouched for a while, in order to conceptualize and take distance from its source, making it easier to appropriate. When the moment is ripe and I’m able to keep the protagonist at arm’s length, I start to implement the material into my story.

MT:

Are you willing to reconstruct the first time you encountered Henry’s archive? In terms of personal experience?

MW:

I was enthralled right away and recognized the material’s potential.

MT:

What’s your fascination: How these people treated each other, how they communicated?

MW:

In fact, I already worked on another project related to ‘neighbors’, about stuff that happens behind closed curtains. What do we know and not know? After being allowed access to Henry’s archive, I knew I could use it and it also proved appropriate because luckily Martha isn’t particularly beautiful, for if she were I wouldn’t have used the photographs. The mediocrity appealed to me. As for the general theme: I’ve had a long-lasting fascination with people leading double lives.

 

MT:

How come?

MW:

I presume it relates to what we deal with in the world. You watch television and see a good looking man, you consider him a kind person, who actually happens to have been keeping children imprisoned in some basement.

Taco Hidde Bakker (THB):

It’s also about the friction between private and public domains, a person’s decorum: about how you present yourself to the outside world.

 

MT:

In that sense, the red thread is ‘acting’: decorum keeps up a mental attitude, a personage. Each of us is distorted by conditioning, personal traumas, indoctrination, etc. This specific behavior as exposed by Henry seemingly had to do with his past, his maternal bond.

MW:

All three publications deal with these social and behavioral aspects; with distortions of behavior.

THB:

And how the camera heightens tensions between private and public domain….

MT:

The camera is an important vehicle; in particular with regards to amateur photography: its own record must be irreproachable within the private domain. My next question probably will be too much focused on the facts as well: Where did you find the material and what did it originally look like?

MW:

I presume the book offers the reader details about the different domains I was given access to.

MT:

We will discuss the different ‘acts’ shortly. It relates to what you describe as ‘editing and rearranging’ Henry’s archive. How did you channel the extraordinary amount of pictures: 5,500 black-and-white photographs and 40 collages? What went through your head while processing the material?

MW:

I depart from materials at my disposal. I started with arranging and sorting out Henry’s work chronologically, following from his annotations.

MT:

During this process you were already aware of the personal histories of the protagonists?

MW:

Information I obtain gets sorted out and rearranged into a new structure. I construct the narrative based on my analysis of everything available. Upon reading the annotations I concluded that Henry must have been an amateur photographer knowledgeable about film and lenses and such. I collect, categorize and puzzle for a while, so to compile a narrative.

THB:

But things that you received are not by definition chronologically sorted…. In fact you translate ‘archive’ into ‘narrative’.

MW:

Yes, that’s the kind of process.

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MT:

I’m not sure to what extent my next question will be answered: Looking at the photo of Henry the adolescent, in his polo shirt, he seems so innocent but also not quite at ease, perhaps even a little vain. And I realized this is the boy that became Henry. It’s fascinating: a single youth portrait gets a different dimension. What type of person was he? Do you have information about his life, youth, and his profession?

MW:

He worked as an electrician. In the foldout pages of his room you’ll find the same portrait again. You’ll find more there, for example a book titled I’m OK, You’re OK. And he was obsessed about survival strategies, he owned books about how to control life; how to stand firm. Also, looking at the youth portrait: I see someone despondent, neither pleasant nor reliable.

MT:

Upon opening the book you realize right away that ‘Henry’s wife’ is the protagonist. The book is dedicated to her. What was her life like? You wrote that she was ‘under his spell’. You already indicated that Martha was submitted to stand model for her husbands’ compulsive behavior for a period of at least two and a half years. How did she abide with her husband’s behavior? And about ‘In dedication to Martha. For her courage’, the book’s opening lines: What makes her courageous?

MW:

It’s my opinion about her. She has traits of a submissive personality. Her face in the pictures expresses apprehension. But she found the courage to break the negative spiral. In one image we see her going upstairs to the room, close to opening up what was kept from sight. After having discovered the room, she became aware of what she partook in and broke out. Who knows about what happened before all this? Perhaps part of the archive was discarded; that’s why I don’t just cling to facts. Then there are feelings of shame, inasmuch as making a victim of rape into an accomplice, a partner in crime. Victims of sexual abuse often only seek publicity many years after the fact. It’s part of overcoming feelings of guilt and shame, as if having been accomplice to the crime. Likewise Martha overcame feelings of shame, and to throw the pictures out of the house was her way of dealing with it.

MT:

The first picture, a large color photograph inside the front cover, shows Martha in an opened bright red duster, with a pale skin, freckles and large breasts. She looks away from the camera. Why have this image begin the puzzling narrative?

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MW:

This was the last session, the last time she has been posing. She is introduced and simultaneously it reveals the moment she decided: It’s Enough! It’s the only time she wore red, a color I associate with bull fighting and with breaking out. She looks at the camera asking: “how do I get out of here?!”

MT:

What follows is the first act, which is quite disturbing: large-format full spreads showing grainy and uncanny black-and-white images, starting with a baby in a bathtub. And what happens next? Could you comment on the first 10 spreads, followed by two coal-black pages, and a Japanese-bound foldout, cleaving a foreshortened portrait of Martha, her youth portrait hidden inside. It feels like something bad is about to happen… gloom and doom… In short: a dark youth.

MW:

The black pages represent the story’s intensity. After the double portrait comes a picture of Martha covering her head and face with a scarf. Resistance maybe started here.

MT:

Followed by pictures showing frustration about undressing and being put in awkward positions. It’s a struggle, she’s not at ease. A strong statement. I presume these were the moments just before posing?

MW:

That’s correct, although you may find the same pictures in the contact sheets. In terms of chronology things are different, but I re-contextualized them with that in mind. It’s a preview of things to happen. The picture of Martha going upstairs is crucial, she is literally going to enter the room, but will also be confronted with what has been surpressed for years.

MT:

The first act is about traumatized youth, the second act about Martha pulling faces and taking off her clothes. The third act is made up by an avalanche of images: grids of similar nudes reproduced on glossy paper; categorized and labeled with stickers stating ‘sitting’, ‘bust’, ‘going flat’, ‘night gown’, ‘good bra’ etc. An overwhelming amount of pictures, like repeating a dry exercise: stand up; lie down; press up breasts; sit on hands and knees; always before the same backdrop: a bed, dark curtains, copper flower pots, a shaded lamp. The images are far from being erotic or pornographic, it rather looks like domestic photography with a high Hans-Peter Feldmann level (in All the Clothes of a Woman (1970) Feldmann piece by piece photographed all the clothes of a lady friend, like product photography, objectifying but also representing a personality).

MW:

There is a Feldmann association in the sense of summing up, choosing shoes or clothing. I considered it necessary to print the entire series, to show the couple’s obsessive behavior. Henry’s practice also reminds of Muybridge’s ‘Animal Locomotion’: sequences investigating subsequent phases of animal and human movement. I find the study and cataloging of human body positions fascinating.

MT:

At some point we see a white curly poodle on the bed. Their pet, isn’t it?

MW:

Yes. The dog appears multiple times. He’s a witness.

MT:

After the grids, on a double spread there is a handmade diagram, indicating dates, body positions and photographic techniques used. Henry mirrored different labels in order to read them on both sides of the chart. Is that correct? Where did you find this document?

MW:

He used carbon paper with a blue-pigment coating; the listing in blue was printed through carbon. I found the original document. It is one scheme whereby sections of the offprint were pasted onto the original typewriting.

MT:

Then follows the next act. We see a picture of someone in a raincoat, seen from the back, opening the door to Henry’s ‘workroom’, echoing the picture of Martha going upstairs. A foldout shows the room with nude pictures all over the place, like wallpaper. I also discovered some book titles, making me curious to what Henry read: The Amazing Laws of Cosmic Mind Power and Your Erroneous Zones. The latter meaning ‘If you’re plagued by guilt or worry and find yourself unwittingly falling into the same old self-destructive patterns, then you have “erroneous zones”’. The photograph of his workroom contains a wealth of information.

MW:

Like the other books, such as: I’m OK, You’re OK, they’re guides on how to gain control over life and how to foster optimism.The picture shows what has happened on Henry-territory, where besides having printed contact sheets he made annotations on a typewriter. His obsession, expressed through thousands of prints, is most tangible in his study.

MT:

What is depicted on the double page where the letters ‘taking off’, printed on a plastic strip, are blindfolding a picture of Martha?

MW:

That’s a section of the study with the strip glued to the wall. Henry made annotations and put them on the wall. These images are close to being collages already; photos pasted atop each other.

MT:

Then the window opens and pictures are thrown out onto the street. Some neighbors might have witnessed the scene.

MW:

Yet another pivotal image: Martha throwing it all out, beyond shame… neighbors made witness to these disturbing facts. Her liberation entails more than Henry’s: no more hiding, no matter what people think. She comes to stand above all this.

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MT:

We get to see a ‘liberated’ or ‘crucified’ Martha next, pale and tired, followed by a picture of a white peacock, seven blank pages and finally a picture of a roll of white paper towel. We move from black to white. What does ‘white’ symbolize?

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MW:

It represents a new phase: eruption. There’s a crack where the light gets in. The outside world is invited; a shift occurs. As for the paper towel: washing your hands clean refers to what I consider the most intriguing part of Macbeth: after Macbeth had killed King Duncan on Lady Macbeth’s behalf, she compulsively kept on washing her hands, in a ritual of purification.

MT:

Like Pilatus washing his hands in innocence…

MW:

Yes.

And here you’ll find the inserted loose-leafed letter, where it belongs.

MT

Why?

MW:

Because Henry wasn’t feeling well, unable to share his emotions. His room was chaos; he started cutting and pasting the tattered images. Everything shifted, but to the outside world he acted as if nothing happened. The letter expresses his attempt in keeping everything under control.

MT:

That explains why the typewritten letter is inserted here with the semi-demolished room.

MW:

‘Everything is fine, it’s all under control’ is what the letter seems to tell: ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’.

THB:

He wrote about himself in the third person; creating distance.

MT:

What about the provenance of all the material? In this trilogy it got detached from its source. You rely on making associations. To what extent, then, does the story qualify as ‘a real picture story’? (as quoted from your website.) In other words: what’s true or untrue?

MW:

What’s truth? Everything considered true might not be true after all. Maybe Martha did ask her husband to photograph her extensively… I also could have inverted the plot, with Henry being the slave. And what’s a real life story in the newspapers? Each of us filters news differently. This book is presented as a documentary and at the same time raising the question: what is documentary? In fact it’s part of a larger story and a way of editing, half-truth filtered through the eyes of one person. Moreover, what you remember has relatively minor value too. To what extent is what you remember true, distorted or manipulated?

 MT:

It always ends up being interpretation, whether by historians, journalists or photographers.

THB:

It’s a contradictio in terminis: ‘a real picture story’. Pictures are always ambiguous.

MT:

Those are your words: ‘a real picture story’.

MW:

Yes and I consider them to be plausible; real-images-in-a-book; a real storybook.

THB:

It doesn’t say it’s a picture story on reality.

MT:

The medium of photography is pre-eminently considered suitable for recording reality.

MW:

That statement is disputable too. What truth hides in a family album for example?

MT:

Exactly, it’s decorum. “All the world’s a stage; 
And all the men and women merely players.” (from Shakespeare’s As You Like it, 1599).

Now I better understand the notion of ‘truth’ in this context. Then what follows are the collages: cubist-alike, mirrored images of Martha’s body, in most cases ‘decapitated’. Some rather grotesque: ‘stacks of busts’ for example. And because in his annotations he uses words as ‘bound Bra good’. What could the qualification ‘good’ have meant to Henry?

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MW:

It meant a figure, a grade; he succeeded in making successful pictures. He also used marks like ‘xxx’, or ‘ok’, both in the diagram and the captions to the collages.

MT:

If I understand it well, he meant ‘good’ in terms of technically successful?

MW:

Henry sorted things out, labeled everything, made classifications, gave grades. Although each picture speaks for itself, he was preoccupied with categorization and classification.

MT:

I asked so because ‘good’ is a sesitive term in this context. One could easily discover a logical connection between the ‘clay figurines’ from the late 1980s (reminding me also of André Kertész’s ‘Distortions’) and the ‘cut-outs’ from the mid-1980s. From the epilogue I understand that Dorothy and Edward discovered the collages in the deserted home after Henry moved to New Jersey. Did he make the cut-outs before the divorce and the figurines while living a hermit’s life in the forest?

MW:

Martha left right away and Henry was left alone, while his workroom was a mess. That’s the moment he started making collages. Later on in the woods he used clay. It’s important to know that Henry stopped taking photographs after Martha had left. With the leftovers of the nudes he made cut-outs. Then he started making clay figurines with the collages as models.

MT:

That is very clear. And who wrote the captions to the figurines? An index describes the numbered figures at the end of the story.

MW:

Technical data were written by the Hackettstown Center for Arts & Crafts in New Jersey. Underneath are notes on the figurines, written from my point of view.

MT:

Why did you add these?

MW:

I felt encouraged because I was allowed unrestricted access to the material, and the existing captions only give technical information.

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MT:

You did that exclusively for the clay figurines and not for the cut-outs and the grids?

MW:

Because this material represents a different chapter, away from photography. Besides, these objects where later incorporated into a collection, which creates a distance, in particular because of the impersonal captions.

MT:

It reads like a personal interpretation, let me quote the description for Fig. 11: “Rather than a body, sculpture reminds of an object. Looking balanced and elegant; no aggressive shapes.”

MW:

Yes, these are my words….

MT:

Back to chronology. Henry disappeared from the stage and made clay figurines (unbaked, in his ‘second-to-last known home’), which eventually got donated to the aforementioned Center for Arts & Crafts.

MW:

That’s close to where the figurines were found.

MT:

This is the so-called ‘second-to-last known home’, right? Figurines were on display here before being donated to the arts & crafts center. Then there’s an intermezzo with several white pages, bringing us to the art-catalog-like ‘act’. The story’s apotheosis is also sombre; what are we looking at? We see a cabin’s interior; wildlife traps made of clay; a rat’s tail; ‘Fig. 9. The ‘Henry poison station’ […].’ And in the epilogue we read that Henry finally moved to a self-built ‘last home’ in the forests of Highpoint State Area in New Jersey.

MW:

Henry started with survival techniques at an earlier stage already, he cut pages out from manuals and pasted them to the walls of his rental. Later on he led a secluded life, trapping animals in the woods. He didn’t take pictures anymore, but became a predator in another way.

MT:

Thanks very much. Finally, Taco, I’d like to ask you to comment on this ‘matter’ and on the artist’s strategy of Mariken in general. What was your contribution? When did you ‘step’ in?

THB:

We met two years ago, when the final phase of Taking Off started. We decided to cooperate so to enhance the project and work towards publishing a book in one or two year’s time. Together we worked on grant applications and production-wise I was involved in the editing and translating of texts, as well as making liaisons with partners.

I knew Mariken’s work already; I’d bought Queen Ann four years ago and was intrigued. Taking Off is a more ambitious project: three times more pages than each of the other books of the ‘trilogy’ She takes time to build up both an elaborate and suspenseful picture story. You can pick up her books after months, and they still have the same suspense. Finally, I don’t think the term ‘strategy’ applies to Mariken’s way of working, it’s more intuitive than strategic.

Translated by Mirelle Thijsen, edited by Taco Hidde Bakker and Mirelle Thijsen

01

02

04

Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

I have never done a preparation for an interview in this way: I was leafing through your recently published ‘triptych’ Find a Fallen Star (2015), and enjoyed the ‘narrative’, or the lack of it, so much; I like your ‘style’. I made a random choice of pages, events, names from this poetic constellation, if I may call it so, your book project Find a Fallen Star, as the narrative unfolds and I discover links between pictures, documents, oral history and events. Three cited online sources accurately explain the facts about the three extraordinary events in 1954 in Alabama; in 1958 in Ramsdorf (Germany) and in 2006 in Kanwarpura (India): printed on the inserted text document, preliminary to the essay by Natasha Christia, which addresses personal memory, myth, language, cross-temporal conversations, the fragmented world and melodrama, rather than facts. Three plain hard covers in a carton sleeve cover the uncanny stories, respectively entitled: Stars fell on Alabama (Volume I), Fragments (Volume II) and The Indian Iron (Volume III). In the back of each book, a photo-index delivers captions in keywords. First, you published a text-oriented book, A Brief History of Meteorite Falls (2014), containing a collection of 100 eyewitness accounts and little stories on meteorite falls in different countries from different time periods.

To begin, please give us a short introduction to the book you started with, about a year ago: A Brief History of Meteorite Falls.

 

Regine Petersen (RP):

A Brief History is a collection of texts I gathered throughout the last years of my research. I started compiling it while still working on Find a Fallen Star, because the production of the photobook itself took so long, and I wanted to do something that produces quicker results. I knew I had a wealth of material and I didn’t want to leave it in the drawer. I went through all my notes and narrowed them down to 100 stories.

 

05

MT:

Why did the other book take so long?

 

RP:

The photobook? It’s my first photobook and there were so many decisions to be made. But that was mostly enjoyable; the hard part was finding a publisher.

 

MT:

A Brief History is self-published, am I right?

 

RP:

I worked with a small publishing house in Hamburg, Textem Verlag.

 

MT:

At the time, I presume, you already had collected and compiled all the material for the photobook publication, but had not yet found a way to make it public?

 

RP:

Yes.

 

03

Three Stories, Three Themes, Three Locations

 

MT:

Let’s now get back to the subject matter. Why these three stories? Why three themes, three different locations, three cosmic events. How did you get to them?

 

RP:

It started when I read about the story of Ann Hodges (1920-1972) of Alabama, who was hit by a meteorite in the 1950s. When I saw the image of Ann standing under the hole in the ceiling, surrounded by the mayor and the police chief holding the stone, it somehow struck a chord with me. Anything that followed in some way deals with similar encounters of ancient rocks from space and the fragile life on earth. Meteorites were formed at the time the solar system came to be, 4.5 billion years ago, and they offer us a very different idea of time when compared to our human time scale. The Hodges story was the one that illustrated this in the most direct and obvious way, as this is the first, and some say, only documented case of a human being hit by a meteorite. I was curious what had become of her, what kind of life she lived, and how the situation in Alabama was at the time.

 

MT:

Where did you see that image? Where did you encounter it, in what context?

 

RP:

That was on the Internet, where I did my initial research. There is another, more ‘official’ image of the same situation: in that one Ann Hodges is holding the stone herself and is looking at it. It was used more widely. I think I stumbled upon that press photo first. Then I found the other picture, in which she seemed to be more in a world of her own, confused by everything that happened. She had a big bruise on her hip and her hand got hurt. It must have been a dramatic experience for her. I think that this aspect is more visible in the image in the book.

 

MT:

What is the provenance of both images?

 

Police chief with meteorite, photographed by Harmon Mims, 1954

Police chief with meteorite, photographed by Harmon Mims, 1954

RP:

A police photographer called Harmon Mims took the pictures. He is no longer alive.

 

MT:

For now, would you please give a general sketch of the three stories? We will come back to each of them separately in the course of this conversation. Did you then already know you were going to touch upon the other two stories? And when were you confronted with the Alabama photograph?

 

RP:

That was in 2009 or 2010. I started to do more research and a whole new world opened up. There were so many stories about falling meteorites out there, so many witness reports, and the fact that it happens all over the world provided a colourful picture of these incidents. There were a lot of differences in the way people reacted. There were a lot of similarities as well.

 

I also felt a growing fascination for the meteorites themselves. At the beginning I didn’t even know that people were buying and selling them, even on eBay. I didn’t know that there is a community of people trading and collecting meteorites. Instead I contacted NASA. [Ha-Ha.] They said No to my query! So I found out that there are easier ways to get access to meteorites. I got to know a lot of people, became part of the ‘scene’… and in the end I even worked with NASA scientists.

 

MT:

How long did you stay with your fascination?

 

RP:

How long I stayed with it? Well, I am still at it! It’s the meteorite bug: once you have it, you can’t get rid of it. [Ha-Ha.]

 

MT:

It didn’t stop with completing the book project?

 

RP:

No, No. I am working on something else now, but I will always be interested in meteorites. I used to avoid Facebook, but I have a profile now for the different meteorite newsgroups. I try to go to the fairs and I’m in contact with people. It really is of interest to me.

 

MT:

Let’s make the step to the second volume: Fragments. When did you decide to take the German story as a major theme? What did you find?

 

RP:

I’m not sure anymore where I first read about it… but I heard that five children found the meteorite, they broke it into pieces and shared it among them, secretly. Someone got me in touch with the main eyewitness, Luise, the daughter of the village doctor.

 

MT:

Karl Meisohle…

 

RP:

Yeah, and I called her. She told me about some recent tensions between the people that initially witnessed the fall in the 1950’s. Back then Luise’s father took the meteorite fragments from the kids, for which he gave them 10 DM each; you can see the contract he set up is reproduced in the book. And I think, in hindsight, some of the children weren’t happy with the deal. I call them children, but now they are of course grown-up people! Some of them regret giving their piece of meteorite away. And it turned out that one of them actually kept a piece…

 

After I spoke to Luise I wanted to talk to the other witnesses as well. And I found them, one by one, and their testimonies were strikingly different. Each and every one of them told me a different version of what happened. Also, there were more and more people in town who claimed that they had been part of the story. It is interesting to look at the way things are remembered, and how stories and histories are being constructed, not just by these people but by all of us. There are always many perspectives on one and the same thing.

 

MT:

Exactly. To get a taste of it all, let’s move on to the third story The Indian Iron: When and where did you find it? Why did you choose it, in general?

 

RP:

I went to India several times. First I did some work at Lonar crater in Maharashtra and I included some of those images in the chapter. It’s a beautiful place, a unique ecosystem created by a meteorite impact tens of thousands of years ago. The crater is now a circular lake with a little jungle around it. There are also a lot of temple ruins around this lake. But I also did research on smaller witnessed falls in India, and found that there were many of them because the country is so densely populated. All three stories in the book have religious aspects, and in India it is so obviously different than in the other chapters.

 

Temple ruins at Lonar, R. Gill 1865

Temple ruins at Lonar, R. Gill 1865

MT:

You mean Buddhism, in India?

 

RP:

No, Hinduism…mainly. At some point I came across a newspaper article about the Kanwarpura meteorite fall of 2006 in The Hindu newspaper. It said that two shepherds had seen a meteorite fall, beat the meteorite with sticks and immersed it in water. I immediately thought there was some kind of superstitious motive behind it. When I got there the story was in fact totally different. The witnesses had been pushing the meteorite with sticks simply because they thought it was hot, and dumped it in the water to cool it down.

 

MT:

Interesting, this whole project is about truth.

 

RP:

Yes.

 

Stars Fell on Alabama

 

MT:

Let us first look at volume I, which you just now called a ‘chapter’. Is that how you deal with the stories? Do you rather see them as ‘chapters’ than ‘volumes’? I considered them different books.

 

RP:

I say ‘chapter’, but it is something in between. My first dummy had all the chapters in one book. It didn’t work. I wanted to keep the stories separate but also somehow connected, so eventually I decided to put three books in a slipcase. You may call it ‘volume’ or ‘chapter’. I don’t care.

 

MT:

Let us now look at volume one, or chapter one. Stars Fell on Alabama (the title refers to a jazz song composed by Frank Perish…

 

RP:

It’s the wrong name. It’s a mistake in the book.

 

MT:

Pardon?

 

RP:

He is called Frank Perkins. And the lyrics are by Mitchell Parish

 

MT:

I did find it on Spotify anyway! I considered it a nice footnote, in terms of the information.

And the origin of that song is an earlier cosmic enigma in Alabama, called: the Great Leonid Meteor Shower, that took place as early as November 1833 and was only visible in the south-eastern part of the United States, I read in a endnote of the essay by Natasha Christia. There are two versions of the song: by Doris Day, and Billie Holiday. You refer to that cosmic event in a text fragment from the personal journal, or logbook, by Prophet Joseph Smith. I think this makes it all so interesting: all these names that pop up, they are like actors! Volume I opens with that statement. My question is: Who is that Prophet? He talks about ‘fireworks of eternity’ to ‘entertain the Saints’ and ‘awe the sinners’.

 

Martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram Smith in Cartage jail June 27th 1844, C.G. Crehen 1851

Martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram Smith in Cartage jail June 27th 1844, C.G. Crehen 1851

RP:

I think he is a self-declared prophet! And he is actually the founder of Mormonism in America. He founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Joseph Smith talks about ‘sinners’ in that text fragment. Ten years later, in 1844, he was killed by a mob. You’re right about the names, they have a kind of poetic sound to them; I really like to work with the way a name or a text looks and sounds, how it works on the surface, how it becomes an image. 

 

MT:

As a component of the narrative, I understand, it’s very clear. I looked at specific pages in the book, and consider it helpful for the reader that we number them in our conversation, so they can easily be found.

 

Not only at the beginning of the book, but also in the very back of the publication, (I, 49) you included a religious component, if I may call it that, an oral account by Amanda Young regarding The Great Leonid Meteor Shower of 1833. It is about belief, racism, and fear of death, truth and Judgment Day. Where did you find this document? And who is Amanda?

 

RP:

Amanda Young was a slave. It is an account I found on an African-American history website. It’s a vivid memory of someone who was 7 or 8 years old at the time and listened to his great-great-grandmother. She was not a prophet or a historical figure.

 

MT:

How has that oral personal account been ‘preserved’?

 

The Meteor Shower of 1833, Woodcut from F.A. Grondal's Music of the Spheres

The Meteor Shower of 1833, Woodcut from F.A. Grondal’s Music of the Spheres

RP:

The memory was passed down in the family, as an oral account. This is a contrast to the written ‘historical document’ from the beginning of the chapter. Perhaps things got lost in the process of re-telling the story, but the Leonid meteor shower of 1833 must have been a truly impressive event, probably the most amazing spectacle that modern man has seen in the night sky. People had difficulties expressing what they actually saw, because it was so beautiful, terrifying and sublime.

 

 0102

MT:

Juxtaposed to that account is a scattered colour photograph showing members of the McKinneys family? And on the recto (I, 47) is a black and white group portrait of the McKinneys from the1900s, showing in the front row: Otha, William, Mary, Claude, Josephine, and Julius. In the back row: Thomas, William, Mary, Mattie and somebody unknown. How does the colour photograph relate to the black and white group portrait? And who are the McKinneys? 

 

RP:

Julius McKinney was a black farmer who found a second piece of the meteorite the day after Ann Hodges was struck. He was out with his mule to get firewood and found the rock on a dirt road. This is the same place where I photographed the bottle on page 39. As you can see, the road is still a dirt road. I got to know some of Julius’ grandchildren and they gave me some documents. Among them was a photograph of Julius’ father. I was surprised that he looked kind of white, and I asked the family about it and did myself some genealogical research. I learned that during plantation years, there had been complex relationships in the McKinney family between slaves and (married) slave owners. Several children came out of that relationship. Julius’ mother was dark but his father was, to put it that way, three-quarters white and one-quarter black. Yet he was still considered a black person. We know this from Barack Obama, who will always be considered black, even though he is half white. We have these categories for people; and I actually became more aware of my own whiteness, which is something that, most of the time, is invisible to me. I kept thinking about these things a lot. So I included the family photo with Julius’ more or less white father, and Julius himself is in it as a boy, standing on the far right.

 

MT:

He is the finder….

 

RP:

Julius is the one in the image of the newspaper clip and in “The Negative” on page 43, holding the meteorite. He was able to sell the rock, so his story had a happy ending, other than that of Ann Hodges. He was able to buy himself a used car and new property. That’s where I found the other image you mentioned: the decomposed photograph on page 48. On the land, there was a burned down trailer from one of Julius’ daughters, which had been abandoned for years. I found several photographs in there, which had been damaged by fire, by water, by mud. I scanned these images, enlarged them to see the fissures and grass and dirt, there was even a little insect under the top layer of the photograph, which had peeled off. It is all surface and the information of the image is lost. I like the materiality of it.

 

MT:

Definitely.

 

McKinney Trailer Find #6

McKinney Trailer Find #6

RP:

For me, there is a complexity here. I cannot access the whole story. These people had their private lives, something I know nothing about. I look at it from a certain perspective, from my point of view. At the same time, I want to visualize this gap, to show that there is another history below and beyond the surface of the image.

 

MT:

Thank you, that’s very clear. What kind of ‘unclassified document are we looking at here (I, 6)? I would call this a ‘forensic’ document, in a way. The text is also interesting in terms of grammar. Details are numbered and described, I quote the first ‘DETAIL’: “1. This investigation was requested by Commander, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, predicated upon unconfirmed reports of aerial explosions, alleged aircraft crashes and unidentified flying objects, one of which is alleged to have fallen through the roof of house, injuring civilian female occupant, on 30 November 1954.” My question is: And how does this declaration relate to the following four images in Volume I. I mention these titles explicitly because they are short, accurate, like in a police report, and sometimes funny. And representing nothing more than necessary:  (I, 7) Parent Body; (I, 8) ‘Hodges House; (I, 9) Dog (Impact Site #1); (I, 11) Sylacauga Marble City.

 

0304

RP:

The provenance of this document is ‘Project Blue Book’, which used to be a program of the U.S Government to investigate UFO reports. These were classified documents at the time, now de-classified.

 

MT:

Why did the document change status?

 

RP:

Because the incident was proven to be a meteorite fall. At the time the United States Air Force didn’t know what it was and confiscated the rock. It could have been a Russian bomb or a flying saucer.

 

Some choices I make are formal choices. I like the juxtaposition of the document and “Parent Body” (I, 7-8), because they almost look like reversed versions of one another, the crossed-out black text seems to be echoed in the white lines of the moving stars. The document attempts to describe everything in a formal and objective manner, and then there is this mysterious object in the night sky we know nothing about, or a mere representation of it. It’s just a pixel in the dark! It’s an image of the supposed ‘Parent Body’ of the meteorite. It is an asteroid named 1685 Toro. Scientists calculated the orbit of the meteorite, and they assume it came from there. But they’re not certain.

 

MT:

Really, this is its location in space? That little thing?

 

RP:

It’s one of the two images of the asteroid in existence. They were taken by David Richards, an amateur astronomer from Aberdeenshire, who allowed me to use the image. One has to believe in this thing being out there in its orbit; otherwise the image doesn’t provide any information.

 

MT:

We always need some visual proof!

 

RP:

The name ‘Parent Body’ obviously has a ring to it, which allows different interpretations. I’m interested in the idea of distance and closeness: These images somehow come together in that way. The image is followed by a picture of the house of the Hodges. The photograph of the dog was taken where the house used to be. It burned down; many houses in Alabama do because they are made of wood. It has been replaced with two trailers.

 

MT:

Is the little puppy dog alive or dead?

 

RP:

It’s alive! Many people ask me that. It’s just sleeping.

 05

MT:

And finally, please comment on the picture (I, 11) Sylacauga Marble City, the landscape?

 

RP:

Sylacauga is also called ‘The Marble City’. There are many marble quarries, some of them no longer in use, like the one on the image. Marble from Sylacauga has been used to build several monuments in Washington, for example. There is a relationship to the unclassified document we talked about earlier. But this is a connection I just made right now, talking about it. Many of my decisions are intuitive; I make certain associations while I’m taking photographs, others during the editing process, and some connections appear to me much later. So when you talk about certain aspects of my work, I might learn something new as well. It’s a nice experience.

 

MT:

It is very interesting: a moon landscape in itself, like an undiscovered planet. You visited a second Impact Site #2 (I, 39) of the meteorite, and photographed a bottle. You yourself classify pictures and documents, in a way, and numbered them, too. Also some of these echo in the book: McKinney Trailer Find #4 (I, 48); and Lawsuit #3 (I, 19). Why? And what do the numbers refer to? Maybe it’s an open door, but still I would like to know….

 

06

RP:

Yes, it is an open door to the fact there is more than one; I made several finds in the trailer, and I may use other images than the one in the book, in exhibitions for example. Same with the ‘Lawsuit’, Ann Hodges’ husband, Eugene, was a little ‘ill-tempered’, as Natasha Christia put it in her essay of the book. He wanted to make profit from the rock that fell on his wife, and of course claimed it as his own. But the mayor allowed the Air Force to take away the meteorite. So Eugene sued the mayor. Then there was Birdie Guy, the landlady of the property and the mother of Ed, whose picture is on page 13. She claimed the meteorite for herself, because it fell on her house. So there came another lawsuit. There had also been discussions with the lawyer of the Hodges to sue LIFE magazine because they had published an unauthorized photograph of Ann lying in hospital. People in town ridiculed her because of that image, because it showed the bruise and quite a bit of bare skin. But Ann herself was taken by surprise in that moment; the doctor had just lifted up the bed sheet for the journalist who quickly snapped the photo.

 

MT:

You’re revealing a much deeper story. So if I understand it well, you don’t always show the whole series of documents in the book? It’s not meant to be undivided.

 

RP:

Indeed.

 

MT:

What does ‘The Negative’ refer to (I, 42-43), which is also in itself a beautiful title? I understand it shows the McKinneys around 1900….

 

RP:

No, that’s actually the one on page 47. ‘The Negative’ is from the 1950s.

 

MT:

Oh, yes, the newspaper clipping, I mean the image on page 41.

 

RP:

It is the McKinneys, I agree on that!

 

MT:

It is such an interesting scene, everyone is looking down, and there is something humble in there. Also reflected in the position of the boy with his right hand on top of his father’s shoulder. It feels like something tragic…. Here we see a poor black family looking DOWN, really, at an odd object in the left hand of father McKinney sitting in a chair. I read ‘mighty proud’ and ‘black pearl’ and ‘found by a 60-year old Negro farmer’ on (I, 41) a newspaper clip echoing ‘The Negative’, of the same picture, printed on the next spread, and all related to: ‘a fragment of the same shooting star that struck Mrs. Hewlett Hodges (the first human being ever hit by such a missile from outer space).” And then that part of the meteor was sold to Stuart H. Perry, publisher of the Adrian Michigan Telegram.

 

RP:

You spotted that so well. The words that were used at the time are remarkable. You can read a lot into them and between them, they tell so much about the contemporary situation. It was a time before the Civil Rights Movement, and Julius McKinney was afraid that the meteorite would be taken away from him. At first he kept his find secret. The only person he told about it was the postman who arranged for a geologist to look at the rock. In the end he was able to sell it and make some money from it.

 

MT:

How much?

 

McKinney meteorite

McKinney meteorite

RP:

I don’t know. It wasn’t documented.

 

MT:

Sold to Stuart H. Perry?

 

RP:

Yes. The document says the ‘purchase price was not disclosed’, but it certainly was a lot of money for the McKinneys. When you look at page 41 you can see part of the only bigger newspaper article that was published about the McKinney meteorite. The image is cropped; I later saw the original negative, Julius’ granddaughter showed it to me, and it is printed in the book on the following double pages (I, 42-43). It shows that the background had been painted over. In those days negatives were retouched in this way, and you can see they did not paint the negative all the way. On the right hand side you can still see the original background, and the poor conditions in which the McKinneys lived.  We don’t really know why it has been painted over: Was it at the McKinneys’ request? Was the background simply too distractive? Was it censorship? I would say it has been ‘blackened out’, but it is quite the opposite: it is ‘whitened’ over. They were also a humble family, and sceptical towards white people coming by and asking questions.

 

0708

MT:

It brings us to the quote, and related to that is the striking picture of the vulnerable mule (I, 36): “the mule found it and showed it to me”, said McKinney. It reads like a phrase in a poem; it’s about the essence of life and being humble again: ‘I didn’t find it; it was given to me’. It has a spiritual connotation. And this cute animal: where did you find it?

 

RP:

It was standing on a pasture. There are many mules and donkeys in the area. Even at the junkyard, where I photographed the boy in the car wreck (I, 23).

 

MT:

I wonder if you already had read about the mule beforehand; did somebody tell you about the quote? Was there a link already with this particular historical document, before taking the picture?

 

RP:

In that case, yes.

 

MT:

And ‘Eugene’s Grave’ (I, 33), you’ve just introduced him: he is the husband of Ann Hodges. But I don’t understand the picture with the caption. Is it his grave?

 

09

RP:

Yes. Eugene died two weeks before I came to the U.S. at the age of 89. When I was in Alabama I decided to go and find his grave. I went to this small churchyard. There was nobody there, and I saw a fresh grave. Exactly at that time two workers came up in their car and started to assemble the gravestone. They started with the base, and this is what I photographed. Then they put some glue on top of it and mounted the tombstone. So this is the moment just before that. It was a weird situation. No family members were present. Eugene only had one son, but not with Ann Hodges. I don’t know whether it was disrespectful to take a photograph at that moment. There was, in any event, something sad about the situation.

 

MT:

The picture says it all. That yellow object in the picture looks like a bar of soap!

 

RP:

That’s a sponge.

 

MT:

And we have eyewitnesses of the cosmic event. Where did you encounter the ‘Eyewitness’ (I, 35)? Apparently more than one: A waitress; a Maxwell Air Force pilot – flying at high altitude; two men fishing in Paint Creek; a Sylacauga farmer. Please tell me more about these witnesses.

 

RP:

I haven’t met them. These testimonies are assembled from various sources. A report from a geologist, people’s personal files, other sources: many reports, found partly online, but mostly on paper. There is an archive at the Alabama Museum of National History, I got several documents from there, the postcard that was sent to Ann Hodges for example, papers from Ann’s lawyer. I also got a lot of material from a researcher, John C. Hall from Tuscaloosa. He is the most knowledgeable person about the Sylacauga meteorite, and he helped me a great deal.

 

MT:

It’s an impressive archive. And did you make a selection yourself from the existing documents and from the eyewitnesses’ accounts?

 

RP:

Yes.

 

MT:

And who is the person portrayed on the left page (I, 34)?

 

11

RP:

I tried to find Ann Hodges’ second house, the one she moved to after she divorced her husband. I couldn’t locate it, but I roughly knew the area. So I knocked at someone’s door. People were always very welcoming and the lady invited me in. She told me that she once shared a room with Ann in the hospital.

 

MT:

A more informal testimony… and not mentioned in the personal accounts written out on page 35.

 

RP:

No. To me her gaze is interesting. She seems very adamant. I found her portrait nicely contrasted with all the different descriptions and perspectives on the opposite page.

 

13

MT:

Now let’s look at the postcard you just mentioned. I read a hand-written note on the back of a postcard (I, 28). A reverend asked Mrs. Hodges “to donate the meteor to be used in sermons. “We will pay postage on it”, he suggested. A strange request, quite extraordinary, is it not?

 

RP:

I have another document for you, which I didn’t use in the book:

 

Letter to Ann Hodges, 1. Dec 1954

Letter to Ann Hodges, 1. Dec 1954

 

 

MT:

Incredible, lets illustrate this post with some of these unpublished documents. So where did you actually find the postcard? And what do you think of the reverend’s request? He wants to use the rock for his sermons and is willing to pay for the shipping!

 

RP:

He is being generous! It gives a feeling for the many absurd reactions towards these phenomena and the religious connotations that come with it, all over the world. Ann Hodges received many religious letters. People thought it was a sign from God, and before things took a bad turn for her, Ann Hodges said herself: “God sent it to me”. Julius McKinney said a very similar thing.

 

MT:

So there are these connections again, also within the storytelling, such as the religious component.

 

RP:

Yes.

 

MT:

I would like you to comment on a young boy photographed at Merkel’s junkyard (I, 23) while sitting in a rusty car wreck. This is close to one of the impact sites? Is that correct?

 

14

RP:

Most of the images are quite close; it’s a small community. But I take my own liberty to photograph anywhere I want. I went up North of Alabama as well to visit the U.S. Space & Rocket Center and Ann Hodges’ grave near Huntsville, and I took photographs on the way. But the boy was living close to the fall site. His last name is Merkel. I came across many German names in the region. Many of the inhabitants are descendants from Germans settlers. There were roads with my name as well: ‘Petersen Lane’ for example. And this boy happened to have the same name as the German Chancellor. His uncle was the mayor of the town, and his father owned the junkyard. There is a reference to the German chapter, but mainly I was just interested in this junkyard. It was such a pleasure to take photographs there.

 

Fragments

 

MT:

It’s a great picture. I am going to now close this book, and pick up Fragments, and continue with what you call Chapter two and I call Volume II. Let me now ask you a series of questions related to Fragments. In terms of timeframe, this is just four years later: a meteorite fell on Ramsdorf in Germany and caused ‘einige Probleme’ as reported in a special edition of Die Sterne (Zeitschrift für alle Gebiete der Himmelskunde) in 1959. The name of that magazine in itself is amazing, in this context! What problems is Die Sterne referring to?

 

Die Sterne, Jahrgang 1959

Die Sterne, Jahrgang 1959

RP:

It refers to scientific problems referring to observations during the fall of the meteorite. It seemed unusual that none of the witnesses heard an explosion. I made a couple of notes here… let me check those: There was no thunder. So now the assumption was that it must have come down at low speed, or at a shallow angle. The text also states that no light was observed. But I actually did speak to a witness who said she saw a red tail in the sky. Perhaps nobody spoke to her at the time. Those are the ‘problems’ Die Sterne is referring to, but for me, the problems in the story are of a personal kind: the apparent contradictions and tensions when looking at the testimonies of the witnesses.

 

MT:

Yes, especially in this case. We will get to these witnesses later in this conversation. Let’s first look at the very first picture in this book. It’s quite intriguing. I see a white tablecloth, a left-hand fist of a married woman, a beige coloured, could be leather, small casket, opened up and showing inside, probably, a fragment of the meteorite. It all makes it look very valuable in this way. What are we looking at on the frontispiece?

 

RP:

If you look at testimony on page 46, or read the translation…I don’t know, do you speak German?

 

MT:

Yes, I read German.

 

15

RP:

On page 46 you can read what Oswald has to say. He mentions that somebody in Ramsdorf still has a piece of the meteorite, but he is not allowed to tell who that person is. That was not a very satisfying answer for me, of course, and I quickly found out who that person was. I photographed the fragment, but kept the owner anonymous. It is a man. You see a man’s hand. It’s interesting though that you see it as a woman’s hand; it makes it more mysterious.

 

MT:

All right, this is the very opening of the book: HERE is the extra piece: nobody knows about it. Wow!

 

RP:

Yes.

 

MT:

As we move on, we read an accurate description of the fall and recovery of the meteorite, typewritten in Natur & Volk (I, 8/9). Where did you find this document? And what kind of publication is this?

 

RP:

Natur & Volk is also a natural science publication such as Die Sterne. The writer of the article, Dr. Mosebach, established a good working relationship with Dr. Meisohle, the village doctor who made the meteorite fragments available to scientific institutions. Meisohle got the draft of Mosebach’s article before it got published. Some words got crossed out, and corrections were made. I got the documents from his daughter Luise.

 

MT:

Do these materials originate from his personal archive?

 

RP:

Yes. His correspondence and other files…

 

MT:

Ok, thank you. Who was this group of young people and children that suddenly heard a noise? I think it is very interesting the way people express what they have witnessed, or explain in words the sounds, in all three cases. I kind of looked for that as well. In Ramsdorf: “like an incoming small propeller plane” on the evening of a sunny day. So we have a picture of what that is like. And this one is most incredible: “Zschhht, bumm, gone”.

 

Münsterländer Zeitung, 29. July 1958

Münsterländer Zeitung, 29. July 1958

RP:

Very different from the description in the Indian chapter.

 

MT:

This one reads like a text balloon in a cartoon like Lucky Luke! So, who was this group of people? Please give us an initial impression. We will speak in detail about several protagonists later on.

 

RP:

It is not clear based on the scientific text. They don’t mention anyone by name, except Luise, the daughter of the doctor. It is not confirmed who these five witnesses actually were. I know that Horst was one of them, I know Franz was one of them, but there are also people who say Horst wasn’t there when it happened. But I am pretty sure he was. Probably most of the witnesses were somewhere in the vicinity of the fall site. Some say that no girls were present, only boys. Some mention many witnesses, others only one or two. Some seem to be excluded because they were not part of a gang.

 

MT:

We go into the story now. This group of kids did not tell a soul about their discovery, and went back the next morning to the site and broke the thing in 5 pieces (one for each of the children). How they did that is explained as well: ‘with one blow from the back of an axe’. A nine-year-old girl, Luise, went home to tell her father, medical doctor Karl Meisohle, which led to the recovery of the ‘scientifically valuable find.’  The father assembled the other four pieces to its ‘original shape’. And then it is described as a sharp edged rock, which is smooth and the edges are blunted. And I wondered right away: Have you seen it?

 

RP:

I have seen the meteorite in photographs as an assemblage of pieces. On page 41 you can see a picture. Nowadays the pieces are separated and in museum collections. I photographed two of the fragments at the collection of the Arizona State University in Phoenix; the image is on page 15. I also photographed a tiny crumb at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I initially wanted to photograph as many pieces as I could, but it was an impossible task and way too expensive. I have seen some pieces in a private collection, and of course the secret fragment we talked about. The initial mass of the meteorite is completely in fragments.

 

16

MT:

How did that happen? After the rock was collected by Dr. Karl Meisohle?

 

RP:

The children had already broken the meteorite apart. And scientific institutions don’t need an entire rock for research purposes. There was one museum that wanted to display the whole piece, but Meisohle preferred to give it to different institutions, so it would be analyzed. He broke it further apart in small pieces, and gave them away without charge. Later on he traded them for other meteorites and started his own little collection.

 

MT:

You just mentioned how to identify this group of young people. We have several portraits in Fragments, of Franz; Ferdinand (an eyewitness paving the road on the day it all happened); the five boys: Helmut, Willi, Horst, Reinhard and Ludger; a boy holding a homemade ‘Sputnik’, I guess; Oswald; Luise and Karl (Meisohle). What is the relationship between these people?

 

RP:

That is difficult to summarize. All of these children lived in the same neighbourhood. Some belonged to a group of friends or siblings, others were more separate. The youngest was 9, the eldest 17 years old. There is a complicated web of inclusion and exclusion. Some of the witnesses became estranged from one another; some were annoyed about Luise’s father, because he took the pieces away from them. Others think it was okay: he made them available to science. And the question is now: what to make of the testimonies? They all say different things. Memory is complicated and so are historical accounts. Everything depends on perspective.

 

MT:

The people mentioned in the book, are they all eyewitnesses?

 

RP:

They claim to be. Except for Oswald; he said: “I wasn’t there.” He also said: “I know exactly what happened.”

 

MT:

I thought this was interesting: first I saw the image, and then I saw the quote. And I thought, yes, this is how things are related as well.

 

RP:

Which image do you mean?

 

MT:

Page 13: ‘Smoke’. I did not get it first: Why do you need ‘smoke’ in this story, I wondered. What does the ‘Smoke’ (II, 13) refer to? Then, I read in a testimony: ‘Smoke rising from a hole in the potato field’… It is a wonderful phrase, again, like a poem. And I realized, this is a phrase you ‘drag’ along, in your mind, in your research, during the time you read and search. Just now I realize ‘smoke’ might relate also to the moment the rock of outer space is coming down, and penetrating the earth: creating a lot of smoke and dust. What is your reaction to these multiple meanings?

 

17

RP:

It is also a child’s memory in a way; things seem to be bigger than they are and get even bigger over time: the memory of steam or smoke rising from a hole. It is a strange observation, because usually meteorites don’t give off smoke when they impact the ground. That happens much higher in the atmosphere. But some of the witnesses speak of smoke; maybe it was dust from the soil. I don’t want to claim there was no smoke, but it couldn’t have been a large amount.

 

MT:

Regarding the photograph itself, the one you made of a huge cloud of smoke: Did you encounter a farmer burning a pile of wood, or so?

 

RP:

Yes, people in the area were burning stuff in their backyard. And there must have been something toxic, or chemical in there… it made the smoke very dense and smelly.  

 

MT:

There are different interpretations of the event; oral history doesn’t always ‘match’. That is a wonderful component, and one of the multi-layered aspects, of your research project, Regine. So to make it a little more explicit I selected four non-matching observations. A) Ferdinand, living close to the Meisohle family, reports that Karl Meisohle ‘dug out the rock’ himself. B) Luise mentions another girl, Gisela, and the boys went to church before they shattered the rock. C) Franz ‘saw it happen’, and ‘smashed it with a hammer’. Another ‘object’ is mentioned and another person claiming to be an eyewitness, but he is not in the portrait of the 5 boys. D) Willi says they skipped church on Sunday morning. I guess, my central question regarding the whole project Find a Fallen Star is the following: What is ‘truth’ according to you in this context? It‘s like this is the main issue.

 

RP:

Yes, what is the truth? When I was speaking to the witnesses, I believed every single one of them; except for Oswald maybe… he wasn’t present on the site. On the other hand he was the one who told me about a secret fragment, and it existed. Every time I spoke to a witness I thought: this must be the proper version of the story. They definitely believed in it. Maybe they are selective in the way they see things. For example, Luise mentions that the boys went ahead and the girls had to stay behind. Do men write history because they get there first? Or did Luise take centre stage because her father was an important man in town? The boys might have completely forgotten about the girls because they were in a group, doing the hard work digging out the meteorite from the ground.

 

MT:

In the very moment.

 

RP:

Yes. So, it’s an image that they carry with them, in their mind. And even those get falsified over time. That is what happens with history as well, what we call ‘history’. To me ‘history’ is a word, too big of an idea.

 

MT:

It’s an ‘interpretation’ of events; a collective interpretation. And more than that, you might also call it ‘propaganda’.

 

RP:

Yeah!

 

MT:

And who is Gisela?

 

RP:

She really vividly remembers this event. Then again there must be some exaggeration because she explained the meteorite fell right next to her. And I think, this cannot be true. On the other hand I don’t want to be disrespectful, because I think it is just a very human thing to exaggerate. It was difficult for me to walk a line between making the representation of history an issue and not discredit the personal memories. People remember different things and those memories have value and should be allowed to coexist. I don’t want to pretend to have found the one true story.

 

MT:

We come to the different explanations, be it an axe, or a hammer, for example.

For now would you please comment on this quote by Luise: ‘those were the days of the first unmanned rockets, when the Russians were sending these dogs into space”. We all have a picture of that timeframe. And what did it mean for you, this quote?

 

RP:

It made me realize: of course, people hadn’t yet been on the moon. The way people saw the world must have been very different. Those were the days of the Sputniks, and chimps and dogs got sent into space instead of humans. I grew up with an image of the earth seen from the surface of the moon. These images gave us a different perspective on the world and on our society. Find a Fallen Star is about changes of perspective. Just as a meteorite can be looked at from different angles, depending on whether you are a religious person, or a scientist, a geologist or cosmologist or if you desire this meteorite to be in your collection, or…

 

Men with Meteorites #4 (Hoba)

Men with Meteorites #4 (Hoba)

MT:

A citizen!

 

RP:

Yes! So I really felt how different life must have been in the 1950s, the Second World War had been over for just a couple of years, and people hadn’t set foot on the moon yet. There are quite a few chimps and monkeys in these books, and there is also a little space capsule in chapter two on page 25, in which a chimp got sent into space. I photographed it in Alabama, in fact.

 

MT:

Did you take that photograph in a Museum of Natural History, or in a more scientific context?

 

RP:

It’s taken at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. That’s where I also took the picture of the Wernher von Braun portrait (I, 21), the ex-Nazi technician who went to Alabama to start a second career. The Space Chamber ended up in the second, not the first chapter, because it has a special relationship to the events.

 

MT:

What is the special relationship you are referring to?

 

RP:

Luise talks about the dogs that were sent into space, one of the newspaper articles provides information on some researchers from CERN who wanted to visit Ramsdorf, and we have the picture of the little boy with his handmade Sputnik built from a milk can.

 

18

MT:

I understand, that’s very clear. If I may, I would like to ask you to give a compact answer regarding a few pictures. You made a photograph of a smudged white egg lying in the mud (II, 20). Once again the black-and-white theme, we are dealing with here! Is this to be considered a metaphor for the meteorite?

 

RP:

I was thinking of what Hildegard remembers, she saw ‘a sparkling piece of rock’ in the hole. But the image is also about the beginnings of life, and about the story of the children. What really happened that day the star fell? There was also a point when I turned more and more to nature in my photographs. There were so many voices in this chapter and it was sometimes stressful for me to listen to all these different versions of the story. I needed some peace and quiet, and the resulting images became an important part of the work.

 

MT:

That is interesting to know. After all, it is really all about nature, and the elements!

 

RP:

Yes, thank you.

 

MT:

The International Institute for Nuclear Research in Geneva called Ramsdorf and asked for a sample – one of those examples in your book of sharing, claiming and keeping the valuable find. Dr. Meisohle saved the newspaper clipping and glued it with a strip of Scotch to his letterhead. That in itself is nice, that you show that: his way of archiving and collecting things. Did they get it?

 

RP:

Yes, they got a fragment.

 

1920

MT:

You don’t get that impression from the newspaper article; there is a kind of enigma there…

 

RP:

Yes, true.

 

MT:

Maybe the following images have to do with the answer you just gave regarding nature and such. The titles are quite striking. Why do we get to look at a ‘Lunar Eclipse’ (II, 27)?

 

RP:

‘Lunar Eclipse’ is a picture from an amateur astronomer’s club called ‘Sternenfreunde’ in Borken, the district where Ramsdorf is located. They have a very small observatory. One of the members, Günther Strauch, took this picture. I really wanted to include it.

 

MT:

We look at ‘Hills’ (II, 29) and ‘Weeds’ (II, 30) and ‘Dew’ (II, 43), and the incredible picture of the ‘Frog’ (II, 45)? A frog is walking in white mud, again, the darkness versus the light. To get a sense of it all, are these fragments of nature to be considered similar natural mystical phenomena?

 

21

RP:

Yes, you could interpret them like that. Thinking about something as extraordinary as a meteorite made me wonder even more about all the other strange things around me that we take for granted. It made me look at many things in a new way, perhaps from the perspective of a meteorite or an alien.

 

MT:

In this same context, I like to mention, what we already implicitly discussed, that images and events resonate, in all three volumes: stuffed monkeys (III, 20) and the Chimpanzee Space Chamber (II, 25). The Ant Hill (I, 14) and the Mole Hills (II, 37), more frogs (II, 45; III, 14). And the religious aspect, such as the Christian message coming to earth like a meteor (II, p. 40). In different ways the Christian message is there, such as the postcard from the reverend (I, 27/28). Would you please elaborate on this observation?

 

RP:

It’s again about the similarities and the differences. You can find a frog in India, and you can find a frog in Ramsdorf. It’s very basic. Maybe, just maybe, while looking at similarities and differences one might be able to get a bigger picture of things. Indians, Germans and Americans become people. People, animals and trees become living beings. I found these similarities and loved to bring them together, but none of it was preconceived. I liked the idea that there are two tiny creatures like the frogs so far apart from one another, and bringing them together by the means of photography, and also giving them significance.

 

22

MT:

And why these little anthills and molehills? To me they look like very sculptural shapes you selected for the book.

 

RP:

Very ‘earthy’… I took the pictures in the vicinity of the impact sites. Sometimes, I don’t feel like explaining too much.

 

MT:

The meteorite, the egg, the anthill, also have this round sculptural, ‘global’ shape.

 

RP:

The anthill is a world in itself: a colony, a society of animals and to me it looks a little bit like a planet. You can look at it in many different ways.

 

MT:

Would you tell me more about ‘The contract’ from August 8, 1958? 10 DM for each of the finders: ‘Einverstanden’. Or maybe this is it. That’s possible too!

 

RP:

That’s about all there is to it. I just find it absurd that the doctor makes children sign a contract. The handwriting on the contract is very… you realize they are children, and they don’t know what’s going on. They just signed because the village doctor, who is an authority, asked them to sign. And then their parents signed it as well. Some of their handwriting is very old-fashioned compared to the children’s. It’s interesting how different they all are, and what you can read from it.

 

The Indian Iron

 

MT:

That’s a strong statement. We close this volume and move on. And finally, get to The Indian Iron, volume III. To me, this chapter is even more enigmatic than the other two. For several reasons, I will come back to that aspect, in the course of the questions. We make a leap forward, from the 1950s up to 2006, the present-day. It’s a lighter story; less densely documented, compared to the five or more eyewitnesses in the German story, which feels more complex; less images occur: thirteen colour photographs and three black and white or sepia-tinted pictures. In The Indian Iron everything falls apart, it seems. That’s how I experienced it. Starting with the interview: just fragments really. Please don’t take this as a critique. Questions remain unanswered. And most of the text is in Hindi, I presume?

 

23

RP:

I don’t take your comments as a critique. ‘In The Indian Iron everything falls apart, it seems’, I actually think this is an amazing sentence. And a part of me would like to leave it uncommented. The interview printed in the book is mainly in Hadoti, a Rajasthani dialect. It is not even understood by people who speak Hindi. Printing it in its original is reconstructing my experience being there and trying to find out what happened. But also, the construct of history itself seemed to ‘fall apart’, because in India things are not documented in the same way as in Europe or the US. During the interview with the villagers, my translator started to get so interested in the topic himself that I got left out of the conversation more and more. Their answers were short and seemed misplaced. It was frustrating at first but while still doing the interview I realized how much potential there is in this ‘conversation’, because this is how we perceive the world, and other cultures, most of the time. It’s impossible to get into other complex histories and I became aware of how much I see things from a Western perspective. The pages are now full of symbols. I now know what has been said because it was translated for me afterwards, but I decided not to show it. If you speak the language you get a lot of information. In fact you get so much information, that my questions in turn seem out of place.

 

MT:

We encounter another document. What exactly is a [meteorite list]? I assume it refers to an online newsgroup? Please correct me if I am wrong.

 

RP:

No, that’s right.

 

MT:

Okay. The e-mail exchange between Jeff, Ruben and Mike (III, 22) is very much expressing doubt regarding the authenticity of, what’s called, the ‘new Indian iron’. It could as well be, and I quote: ‘a big chunk of slag from the nearby atomic power plant.’ To be compared with the quote by Luise about Russia, I guess.

 

RP:

This is one of the news groups for meteorite collectors. And they’re actually wrong; the iron is not ‘a big chunk of slag’, but a proper meteorite. It has been analysed and classified. We talked about a Western perspective on things. An American meteorite fall is usually very well documented. An Indian fall might not be documented that well, or the documentation isn’t available outside of India, so there is a lot of doubt. And in this case the meteorite itself is of a rare type and highly unusual. It also looks strange: very shiny. Some people from the village might have scrubbed some of the surface off. There was not a lot of information available about the meteorite beforehand. It also wasn’t clear where in India it was kept. I had to travel quite a bit to find it.

 

MT:

Where did you find it?

 

Records of the Geological Survey of India

Records of the Geological Survey of India

RP:

It was at the Geological Survey of India (GSI), but not in Calcutta at the main depository, where it was supposed to be. That’s where I went first. The meteorite turned out to be in Jaipur, 1.500 km away at another GSI branch.

 

MT:

Resonating in volume II and I are the way you photograph A) impact sites. Here in volume III we look at a ‘Tooth’ (III, 19). You have other objects from the here and now that are on this historical ground, like the bottle. B) The oral testimonies by eyewitnesses. In The Indian Iron there is just one person: Gisalal…

 

24

RP:

There is Mahender as well. He is the one describing the sound.

 

MT:

Now you refer to: C) the way people search for words and sounds to describe the impossible: ‘Dooooong. Like an aeroplane.’ Which also resonates in the other two volumes. D) And, as mentioned earlier, similar animals, and tools used to break the meteorites, like a ‘hammer’ (III, 15). Please elaborate on some of the similarities.

 

RP:

There is nothing to add to it really! I chose to photograph the tooth because it was in the vicinity of the impact site. It’s the insignificance of a tooth; at the same time it is the specificity of a tooth. I thought about teeth quite a bit. There is a song by Baby Dee: ‘Teeth are the only bones that show’. They’re an anatomical oddity: they come out of our face, and we take them for granted.

 

MT:

That is remarkable. Thank you.

 

RP:

I want to add that the eyewitnesses who initially handled the iron were nomads, and they were never seen again. I only spoke to people who saw the fireball, who spoke to the nomads after the meteorite had fallen. There is distance and opacity everywhere; false memory, people who seem to live outside of history, barriers of language. The work is about that frustration. But it’s also about its potential: allowing space for the other.

 

MT:

Very beautiful, the way you put it, really.

We go to the most remarkable information, in terms of historical context. This is one of these historical interpretations, which is echoing in the book: ‘They thought that Pakistan had fired a bomb (III, 16).’ The thought the Pakistanis wanted to hit the Atomic Power Plant nearby. Would you please comment on this hypothesis?

 

RP:

Somebody said that in the interview, they thought it was an attack. And again, I realized a situation: Rajasthan is next to the Pakistan border. There had been the Kashmir conflict in the north, a Pakistani terrorist attack on the Parliament and other incidents. So, there was a lot of tension. They used to practice ‘blackout’ situations: people had to turn off all lights to prevent Pakistani aircraft to see them. I’m not surprised people thought of a bomb in the first place.

 

MT:

Yes. The population must have been faced with immense fear.

 

RP:

Yes, especially because they live close to a power plant.

 

25

MT:

On September 6, 2006 The Hindu (III, 18) reports – which I can’t read of course, as part of the hidden storytelling- ‘the meteorite which fell at Kanvarpura village’. We don’t know anymore: no measurements, no scientific findings. And how does this ‘stripped’ information relate to the newspaper clip (III, 7), carrying the caption: ‘A Researcher from Germany.’ I don’t get it.

 

RP:

The local newspaper article is actually written about myself. They somehow found out I was there, investigating the fall. It was apparently something special.

 

MT:

[A-ha], You’re the ‘Researcher from Germany’!

 

RP:

Somewhere among these symbols there is my name! And I don’t know how they knew I was there. A friend found it in the local newspaper and translated it for me. There is a reference to the fall of 2006. It mentions the meteorite and bemoans the fact that it is locked away and not accessible to Indian researchers.

 

MT:

Yes. Kind of funny, and you are part of history now, related to the local event!

Hanuman(III, 13) is the name of an art book publisher, founded by Francesco Clemente in the 1980s, I recall. It is also the title of a photograph you took. What do we see? Oddly looking painted stones on a wall?

 

26

RP:

Hanuman is a Hindu god, represented as a monkey. He is known for his courage and power. The type of monkeys photographed in ‘Hanuman Langurs’ (III, 23) are considered his incarnations. So there are various manifestations of monkeys: as creatures that have been sent into space, as deities, as badly stuffed ones in the museum (III, 20). The orange blob you refer to was located in a shrine inside an impact crater in Rajasthan, called Ramgarh. It is probably the weirdest representation of Hanuman that I have seen.

 

Hanuman fetches the herb-bearing Sanjivini mountain, Ravi Varma Press 1910

Hanuman fetches the herb-bearing Sanjivini mountain, Ravi Varma Press 1910

28

MT:

I would like to conclude our conversation with a final question. Which is really a kind of interpretation, or guessing from my part!

 

RP:

Oh, I like that observation so much! It is so, so nice…

 

MT:

Let’s look at it closer then! Why the photograph of a ‘Chameleon’ (III, 8)? Let me guess… for me it refers to the metaphor the animal itself is representing.  The animal ‘can change the color of its skin to look like the colors that are surrounding the lizard’. But the notion is also referring to ‘a person who often changes his or her beliefs or behavior in order to please others or to succeed.’ In a way, I see it all related to the colorful testimonies, I think.

 

29

RP:

I haven’t thought about it like that before, which is nice. It also refers to myself; I often wished to be in India without people recognizing me as a foreigner. I didn’t like to be the center of attention at all but I stuck out like a green chameleon that couldn’t change color. There were hardly any private moments. It also looks a little bit like an alien. But first and foremost, I was just really touched by it. When a chameleon walks, it has this kind of hesitant step. It walked on the concrete road; this was close to Lonar crater. It was a bit of a dangerous situation. After I made the photograph I took the chameleon to the side. I is a very emotional image for me, maybe similar to the one I took of Ed (I, 13), the elderly man from Alabama. I cannot explain that too well.

30

all images © Regine Petersen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mirelle Thijsen (MT)

Because it is such a historical subject, the introductions to my questions are more substantial than usual. In that manner I – and the readers – may get to know Mozambique. This all based on your recently self-published book: Looking for M. Looking for M. is a beautiful small book, in an illustrated sleeve, a detachable outer cover that catches the eye. We see a pitch-black silhouette of a black young woman, a schoolgirl from Mozambique, freestanding against a white background. That silhouette is also printed on the cover of the cardboard packaging in which the photobook is shipped. All these aspects are small design matters, which are very pleasing. The moment you pull out the booklet her personal identity shows up on the front cover. That in itself is a striking motion and revelation. On the back cover is printed, what looks like, an emblem of the combative ‘Republica de Moçambique’. What is the relationship between both images on front and back cover?

AANTEKENINGENBOEKJE003 DSCF2042

Ben Krewinkel (BK)

My initial idea was to use the picture of the schoolgirl for the front cover, but the photograph turned out technically imperfect, blurry. Only later the same picture came out to be quite usable. I adored the picture. While I was shooting pictures, this girl was distracted by a number of other college girls she was gathering with. She seems very quiet, but also a bit tense. That is indicative of how I’ve made these pictures in Mozambique in a relatively short period of time. In the previous book I’ve issued, A Possible Life (2012), I had ample time to pay attention to someone I encountered, while during my last trip I met people for ten minutes at the most.

AANTEKENINGENBOEKJE001 DSCF2040

MT:

How long did you stay in Mozambique, in 2013?

 

BK:

Three-and-a-half weeks. In a relatively short period of time we have traversed the entire country, we were pretty naive: the distances were misjudged…

 

MT:

WHO are ‘we’?

THE SUN FRELIMO DSCF2052 THE STRUGGLE FOR MOZAMBIQUE002DSCF2048

BK:

I travelled together with an old college friend of mine from South Africa, his name is Jan Bezuidenhout. He has accompanied me and spoke Portuguese. To get back to the cover photograph: when I found out that the picture was actually appropriate for the front cover, it symbolizes, although in a somewhat clichéd expression, the new Mozambique. And subsequently the relationship with the symbol on the back cover is created: the emblem of the State of Mozambique. The logo, which was a variation on the original flag of Mozambique, (including the red star) has subtly changed regularly over the past few years. In 1983 the Marxist flag became more prominent. The gun is a symbol of the struggle and the defence of the country; the heel stands for agriculture and the book for education. The star on the back of the book and in the logo stands for Marxism. Voting took place whether the illustration of a rifle, an AK-47, had to be removed from the flag. A variant of this logo is included in the national flag. The opposition claims that this emblem as well as the flag has direct links with FRELIMO, (for discussion of FRELIMO, see text later in the interview) and therefore this flag is not representative for all residents of Mozambique.

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This is a country where civil war has raged for a long time, so a lot of reconstruction works take place. At the same time, I think it’s a very striking emblem, and using it on the back cover is an ode to a book I bought some time ago, which is included in The Photobook: A History (Volume III) by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr: a propaganda book of the MPLA from Angola Resistencia Popular Generalizada [1977]. The book is also fitting into a sleeve, and on the back cover the logo of Angola is printed, which is similar to this one. That Marxist symbolism is echoing in all sorts of shapes and sizes. In the propaganda machine of FRELIMO, use is often made of silhouettes; even on murals you recognize abstracted human shapes. I considered it interesting to draw together these two notions. Because the photobook is about photographs made in 1974-1975, at the start of a new phase of independency and reflecting the country’s political future. There was hope. And forty years later, in 2013, I returned and made photographs. That era is bridged, and merged.

 

That girl is a schoolgirl. In the logo on the verso an illustration of a book is included: a symbol of education, at the time national education reform finally became accessible for Mozambicans. As in many other colonies the population had little right to education; restrictions were imposed and people had to assimilate, as e.g. in the Belgian Congo. The girl is wearing a school uniform and partly under her arm, just barely visible, is a schoolbook. If I create a silhouette, I pondered, it tends to go along with the FRELIMO imagery.

 

I visited Mozambique three times. The first time was in 1997, when I was graduate student History in South Africa, in Pretoria. I went on a trip with the same fellow student: Jan Bezuidenhout. He then was gaining work experience as an intern at the South African Embassy. From Pretoria I went by train to Mozambique and visited him there.

 

MT:

How far away is that?

 

BK:

A one day trip by train: 12 hours…16 hours, maybe. It depends how frequently you are stopped for questioning and inspection at the border. That first trip was an introduction to Mozambique. I discovered a very different country than South Africa. South Africa stands for a pleasant gateway to idyllic ‘Africa’. What a lot of people expect from the continent. South Africa was already very modern, comparable to Europe or the United States.

 

MT:

And why the title: Looking for M.?

BK:

That ‘M.’ stands for the return to the Mozambique that I encountered in 1997 and hasn’t been recorded at the time. In the meantime I learned a lot about the country Mozambique. That ‘M.’ is perhaps partly mirroring the ‘memories’ that I have of my visit to the country. Even more so, the capital letter ‘M’ represents a search for Mondlane, the founder of FRELIMO, … his successor Machel perhaps …For that ‘M.’…, you can fill in a lot of things.

 

Practically without any structure and orchestration I went to Mozambique. The visit was also a search for what I considered attractive about that country and a quest for the history and how it relates to the present.

 

MT:

I was all the while assuming that the title was linked to the silhouette of this girl, but it is now very clear that the ‘M.’ is representing the country Mozambique and the revolutionary fighters in that period.

 

BK:

 

Indeed, I encountered her, and a group of school girls, at the end of the trip, on Ilha de Mozambique – an island, the former capital in fact, in the North of the country. At that time I was alone and because of the language barrier I could not converse with them. This in itself was fascinating.

 

MT:

At first glance you make the connection between the title and images on the cover, but eventually there is an option of going deeper into certain layers, another kind of affiliation.

 

Let’s take a look at the back cover. The publisher is mentioned in a tiny letter font:

f 0.23. publishing. Is this a form of self-publishing? And how does this book compare to earlier editions such as Il m’a sauvé (2014) and A Possible Life?

 

BK:

‘f zero. Twenty three’ it is! It’s the name of a publishing house that I have been setting up myself and needed in order to barcode a book; to reserve ISBNs for the production of self-published photobooks. ‘010 Publishers’ inspired me to pick the name ‘0.23’. ‘023’ is the area code for Haarlem! I linked the phone area code to the f-stop scale on the camera body. I had to quickly come up with a name, in reference to a grant application. During the production of A Possible Life I picked the name for my publishing business. Likewise, I would love to publish other people’s books. It is, though, always a question of money.

 

MT:

How does this booklet relate to the publications Il m’a sauvé – a beautiful title by the way – and A Possible Life? I am not acquainted with either of these publications.

 

BK:

A Possible Life was nominated for the DutchDoc Award. The book is about a friend of mine from Niger. He has lived in the Netherlands for a period of ten years as an illegal immigrant. I have taken pictures of him, and combined them with family photographs and personal documents, as well as with letters from his children to him. It was a violent subject; the book is about illegality. And what it means to be separated from your wife and children.

 

I choose a nimble approach to Looking for M. Although I’ve been engaged for a long time in Mozambique, and it is a serious matter, I wanted to make this book project feel effortless: to travel around and see what happens. To approach Africa differently: to shed new light on the Dark Continent.

 

Il m’a sauvé is a sequel to A Possible Life. With the designer of the book, Annette Kouwenhoven, I went to Niger. By then Jean Gualbert had returned to Niger. He currently lives in the Netherlands, where he has been granted a temporary residence permit. In Niger, we have spoken with his family; therefore Il m’a sauvé is complementary to A Possible Life. We have interviewed his children and other family members: What is the impact of father absence on the family? It is usually about money, small lies are being told, and you name it. The sequel to Il m’a sauvé will discuss informal economy; how people are staying illegally in the Netherlands to maintain their families. We want to explore all these dimensions of the project. Looking for M. is between A Possible Life and Il m’a sauvé.

MT:

Then a pamphlet has been enclosed; I consider it is an elusive document: a rich text document. The front page of the attached brochure on grey paper is a reproduction of, what looks like, a letter of recommendation intended for your stay in Mozambique, in August 2013. What was the purpose of the document?

 

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BK:

The document is intended for photojournalists to be able to work straight-forwards without any restrictions in Mozambique. In principle it is possible to photograph in public without accreditation, which is issued by the Ministry of Information, but in fact there are a number of restrictions. Sometimes corrupt soldiers stop you and ask what you are doing. And in case you do not master the language…the letter of accreditation would help. You need to make a request for accreditation in Maputo. The procedure is slow.

 

Initially we thought: we don’t do it. The document was an obligatory requirement for photographing the ex-combatants of FRELIMO. Officially these people are still affiliated with FRELIMO and have been assigned a living accommodation. And I definitely wanted to photograph the Veterans. In order to do so an authorisation is granted from FRELIMO, the party that is still in power. For a day we have been awaiting the accreditation, which usually costs 30 euros. Finally a senior official showed up and signed the document for which we didn’t have to pay after all. Then I could get to work.

 

MT:

Yes, a beautiful start of the publication: this document will provide impetus to get to the subject matter. And then we come to that funny name: ‘Eisenloeffel’. Should there be an umlaut on the ‘o’? Doesn’t the surname mean ‘spoon’ in German?

 

BK:

No, Frits’ widow, Immeke Sixma, told me this; the association with the Germans is still a rather sensitive one!

 

 

MT:

And who is Frits Eisenloeffel (Frits E.), whom for the first time travelled to Mozambique in 1974? You immediately can take that information from the ‘timeline’, as I call it. In the pamphlet is an article reprinted that Frits E. wrote in Het Parool of 28 July 1975, the year that Mozambique was declared independent.

 

BK:

Frits studied political science at the University of Amsterdam. He graduated in international relations. In those days he became interested in the struggle for independence in African countries. During his studies he ran into radicalized Portuguese deserters in Paris. He became interested in and wrote journalistic pieces about Portugal, then still a fascist state. At the time the Carnation Revolution took place (25 April 1974) in Portugal – a rebellion of low officers who had had enough of the price that they paid for the colonial wars – a regime change occurred. That resulted in the dismantling of the fascist state. Together with professional photographer Han Singels, Frits E. made different trips to Portugal. During the Carnation Revolution he joined a military transport to Mozambique (in May 1974), Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands (in August 1974). It is here that he started writing stories about these countries in transition. Frits E. worked at the time as a freelance journalist for e.g. Groene Amsterdammer, Het Parool and Avenue.

 

MT:

This specific interest stemmed from…?

 

BK:

In 1965, after taking part in a study tour to Egypt, during the Nasser regime, Frits E. grew increasingly interested in resistance movements in Latin America and in the struggle for independence in Africa. Apparently, while he was a graduate student, he also had contacts with Portuguese conscientious objectors who dealt with the colonial wars. 

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MT:

Okay, this is a perfect backdrop to the following issue. ‘A brief history’ is a timeline in the pamphlet, based on the BBC website and FRELIMO Terceiro Congresso, published in 1978. What kind of sources are these?

 

BK:

Look, I brought the publication with me: this is a propaganda book published on the occasion of the third congress of the liberation movement. Here’s where you may find an extensive timeline. The political party FRELIMO has held several congresses. In 1977 the Marxist-Lenist doctrine was officially adopted. And as for the BBC, I have consulted a time line from a BBC website; the data records I copied integrally. Actually that is a form of plagiarism, of misconduct. I am well aware that I have invited criticism, but I start the timeline in 1891, the year in which the current border of Mozambique was drawn up.

 

MT:

Why?

 

 

 BK:

Because of the ‘resistance’ that existed even before that time; the history of Mozambique reaches much further back anyway.

 

MT:

Yes, 734 Anno Domino!

 

BK:

Yes, those are the very first historical sources, from oral tradition.

 

MT:

That is clear. Good to realize that scans from these rare documentary photobooks and magazines are available to visually enhance this post. Is your time line interwoven through it? And why did you make your first trip to Mozambique in 1997? In 2000, three years later, you made a second visit to that country; and in 2013, much later, you go back once again.

 

BK:

I’ll be very concrete: I needed the time line to provide me with a historical perspective on events that have taken place; not many people know the country’s history. The personal data of Frits E. are interwoven into the timeline, so it becomes clear that all situations, ideas and events are related to each other. In 1997 I studied in South Africa, as I explained earlier. I made my first visit to Mozambique, and was overwhelmed by the kindness of people throughout the country. The trip took place relatively shortly after the civil war had ended. At the time Mozambique was a more pleasant country than South Africa. Apartheid was just abolished, but still it was a fundamental part of daily life in college: I was visiting the history department of a real Afrikaans University. You had to watch your words. Europeans who came to tell the Africans about their own history were of no benefit to the population. This was, and still is, a sensitive issue. In 2000 I graduated from the VU University Amsterdam; my Master’s thesis was about the role of women in the struggle for independence in Mozambique. In the meantime I went to South Africa several times, and made a photographic series on HIV (my final project for the Royal Art Academie in the Hague (KABK) and another series on poor whites, as a continuation of my thesis for the Master’s degree program in Photographic Studies at KABK.

 

MT:

Why did you go to South Africa in the first place?

 

BK:

The trip was part of a first exchange between the VU University Amsterdam and the University of Pretoria. Despite the cultural boycott, the VU retained the existing ties. This helped me to enrol, and being the first student of the Faculty of History of the VU in the exchange program. After my study in 2000 I wanted to make a trip from Johannesburg to Nairobi, by land. I had written a thesis about Mozambique and now I wanted to see it all with my own eyes: to travel across the country.

 

When I got there, major and disastrous floods had just occurred, I had not realized how serious the situation was. The Internet wasn’t that big a deal yet… I wanted to hitchhike to Nairobi and joined a group of backpackers. I was forced to travel to the Northern part of the country, but reached no further than a spot where the road was washed away by the water. We spent a night between refugees, sleeping on the street, and then were sent back by state soldiers because of the danger of the natural disasters taking place. I did not know how to assess the circumstances at all; I was pretty naive. Subsequently I travelled back to the North of Mozambique, crossing Zimbabwe. I would like to have stayed longer, but due to the floods my stay was confined to Maputo and Tete, a city in the North.

 

After 2000 I started a photojournalistic project in South Africa, completed the Master Photographic Studies at Leiden University, determined and disclosed the provenance for the oeuvre of Eisenloeffel, and wanted to go back to Mozambique to photograph what I missed at that time. The memories, which I was not able to capture then, I wanted to capture now.

 

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MT:

Meaning you focussed mainly on your own photographic work, and the present?

 

BK:

My father died during my graduation year. He introduced me to medium of photography. My dad had, like a number of people during the 1970s and 1980s, a darkroom. As a child, I was already intrigued by analogue photography. Sahel (1982) by Willem Diepraam was the very first photobook that we had at home. We received the photobook from the development campaigning organization Novib, as well as a calendar every year. Maybe through those publications in my subconscious the connection was made with young black (school) children who stare at you, radiant with joy! It was a turbulent time, I had to get out there, get away from the straight jacket of university life. I wanted freedom.

 

The trip we took to Mozambique in 2013 was quite different: I went together with a friend, in a car. I was older, I had kids … more responsibility: a different experience altogether. When I investigated the archive of Frits E. and looked at his photographs of Mozambique again, I thought that I had to pick it up, this ‘story’, to close the loop. It was then, in search of the Mozambique that I had encountered myself, the Mozambique that Frits has seen with his own eyes, and that I had never documented.

 

MT:

Let’s get back to the historical context: Frits E. describes the establishment of the transitional government of FRELIMO. Could you explain what that name of this liberation movement means, what it represents? It sounds like a brand name of a soft drink!

 

BK:

FRELIMO is an abbreviation for Frente de Libertação de Moçambique: the liberation front of Mozambique, resulting from the merger of three political parties. And the movement is still in power.

 

MT:

Yes, that’s incredible…FRELIMO then worked illegally to facilitate the transition from intra-state of war to democratic peace, to solve material problems, and diaspora – maybe the concept did not exist yet, but that’s what it was all about – and famine. And what are the so-called ‘Dynamisation groups’? Frits E. talks about ‘autonomous units’, similar to committees within FRELIMO. (Frits describes it nicely: “the most decentralized expression of popular power”).

 

BK:

The rise of FRELIMO is complex. FRELIMO initially operated from the North of Tanzania, which was liberated area. The circumstances were less spectacular than one reads in the propaganda fliers and books of FRELIMO. They exerted influence on the population. FRELIMO wanted to create a socialist society, down from Tanzania. And the so-called ‘dynamisation’ groups are organizations that were set up in areas that were not yet released by FRELIMO. This has everything to do with the stage of transition. As for the dynamisation groups, members had the right to choose their own leaders. They were represented in factories, agricultural collectives, and villages. The population appoints its leaders.

 

MT:

A type of trade union?

 

BK:

Yes, similar to trade unions. And the dynamisation groups have long been tightly controlling parts of the country. The leaders usually had membership of the FRELIMO party. Officially they operated independently of the social doctrine of FRELIMO and they strived to create a new society. They operated mainly from areas where no battle was waged between Portugal and FRELIMO.

 

MT:

Sounds a bit like missionary work…

 

BK:

Yes …These change groups were a type of buffers; people were prepped for the socialist ideology. One of the priorities of FRELIMO was the moral crusade against prostitution. When the liberation movement came to power prostitution was banned. In theatre plays opposition against prostitution, capitalism, etc. was propagated. To make sure that Portuguese citizens would not radicalize or start exhibiting reactionary behaviour. Furthermore, many Mozambicans did not want to be involved with FRELIMO whatsoever because they were not genuine socialists. in 1969, the head of FRELIMO, Mondlane was murdered, probably by dissidents within the movement, in collaboration with the secret service of Portugal (PIDE). Various forms of power play were conducted in the open; In short, this transitional period was quite turbulent. In 1977 the doctrine has been officially implemented in government policy. The ‘dynamisation’ groups were also deployed to run factories at the time the Portuguese had fled the country. The question is whether the dynamisation groups were in a position to take on such tasks. In fact, the groups were directed to prepare the country, also economically, for what is to come.

 

MT:

Some things one doesn’t really know… During the mid-1970s, some 200.000 whites lived and worked in the Portuguese colony. Since then, about half of the population has left, is what Frits wrote. We talk about people that were highly educated: European doctors, engineers, teachers, real estate agents, officials and public servants. This development was highly criticized. I read a revealing comment in the pamphlet: “An average departing Portuguese family has as many cubic metres or baggage as the total living space of an average (much larger) African family living in a slum”. (This is a statement from a young FRELIMO supporter Frits E. had encountered in the harbour area of the capital). Would you like to comment on that statement?

 

BK

The Portuguese were of course better off than the native people, just as was the case in other colonies. The power was unequally distributed. At the time the transition took place they were requested to leave; it was a politics of hate and envy. The statement refers to fleeing Portuguese citizens who were afraid of a ‘day of reckoning’. During the transitional period, there has been a lot of fear among the Portuguese population, which led to a mass exodus. The Portuguese had not been expelled, unlike media coverage announced. Especially many young Portuguese left; whole families had been torn apart, because children who were born in Mozambique remained.

 

We talked to a woman who as a girl fled from Mozambique, in 1975, and recently came back to open a hotel. In the hotel a kind of museum display on Samora Machel had been set up, but she suffers from all kinds of restrictions. In any case, because of the crisis in southern Europe (PIGS) many Portuguese returned to the former colony. That’s where there is more equality of opportunity for them. However, the government immigration policy is quite reluctant regarding Europeans. People are being stopped for questioning at the border. The most poignant photographs are those of fleeing Portuguese people. At the same time I sympathize with the statement by the African FRELIMO supporter He was incensed by it all. The Portuguese had better houses, more facilities, and much better opportunities than the Mozambicans.

 

When I was in Mozambique the former Minister of Home Affairs in the government Machel, Armando Guebuza, had presidential power. Guebuza had a decree pronounced: ‘24/20’. Every citizen was allowed to carry luggage weighing up to 20kg and had to be out of the country within 24 hours. That happened to be categorically incorrect: Portuguese citizens were welcome to stay, apart from reactionaries, landowners and capitalists; those groups of people were forced to leave. A lot of myths were circulating. Things like this: The Portuguese were supposed to have poured concrete in the elevator shafts of a large hotel in order to disable the escalator system.

 

The exodus had become catalytic by the fall of the fascist regime and the failed coupe attempt of September 1974 (a coupe by Portuguese reactionary military units). Eisenloeffel has written about this period, too.

 

MT:

Yes, you sense that this often led to friction. Samora Machel was the new president, who shortly after the declaration of independence travelled throughout the country and personally discussed the future of Mozambique with his citizens. Frits E. describes this media event as an “impressive circus”. What does he mean by that?

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BK:

Eduardo Mondlane was succeeded by Machel. He was the military leader of FRELIMO and president of the first Republic. Machel made a triumphal march throughout the country in the run-up to independence. That march was a kind of media circus; he delivered speeches and attended a place where a massacre had taken place. In addition, he visited the strategic Cahora Bassadam, a power plant that FRELIMO tried to destroy as it delivered power output demand for the Portuguese population. The triumph was of huge symbolic significance. Machel was a media-genic: a handsome man who was able to fire people’s imagination. During his regime the military struggle expanded enormously. As late as today he is still honoured. Eisenloeffel traveled along with the media circus, as a member of a film crew.

 

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MT:

Interesting, to realize how these things correlate. Let’s hold on to that image: Machel and his media circus. The small pamphlet – that is compact and offers much information – includes a numbered photo-index. What is striking is that Looking for M. opens with a newspaper photograph and copyright stamp of Frits Eisenloeffel, and as such demonstrating an act of modesty. Why?

 

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BK:

It is an excerpt from the weekly De Groene Amsterdammer. The copyright stamp is of Frits, the caption ‘photographs must be returned’, relates to a portrait, a press picture of Machel, showing him side by side with Mondlane. And that image: the double-portrait appears again in one of my photographs. From a historical and legal point of view, the procedure is not correct, but it corresponds with the people’s wish: not back to the photographer, but to the country. Curiously enough, a military soldier stopped us and started to rant, raving about the fact that photographers simply came taking pictures from the people in Mozambique and gave nothing in return.

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Only later I came up with the idea to combine photographs by both Frits and me. And at the same time the book project is a tribute to his work; a way to make his work more publicly known. He went to Mozambique in the first place, hence the story begins chronologically with photographs by Frits and it ends with a small document of mine: the entrance ticket to the Museum of the Revolution. Frits was engaged in African history and culture for a period of ten years. At the time his journalistic work has been frequently published in magazines and newspapers like Avenue, Het Parool and De Groene Amsterdammer. Thus, that part of his legacy fitted into a new context. My book concerns his earliest work.

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MT:

I would like to pose one more question about the text you wrote for this publication. You continue describing in the pamphlet contemporary Mozambique 40 years later. And you start by mentioning a paradox between, on the one hand, showy capitalism in the streets, and on the other hand, the signs of the armed revolution at the time and of the now abandoned Marxist-Lenist ideology, visualized in statues and murals. Can you please explain further this paradox?

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BK:

The murals: outdoor paintings directly applied onto a wall, are very much part of public life in Mozambique and of the history of the country. This is well explained by Paul Fauvet who I met in Maputo. In all major cities and towns you may find those big propagandistic murals. In a wonderful way these paintings agitated against the bourgeoisie and told the story of the revolution. As in a comic book, that history is elucidated. Maybe the visual stories are meant for illiterate people. Many of these wall paintings turn out to be based on journalistic photographs, allpictures that were circulating in the press. It’s really beautiful.

 

The previous leaders are still in power. That’s fascinating. Under president Chissano FRELIMO rid itself of the Marxism-Lenist doctrine, but many of the old gentlemen are still in power. Further, Samora Machel – he is still considered the father of the Nation – still captures the people’s imagination. He is charming, has sex appeal; He’s definitely the symbol of the country. This form of personality cult was not in vogue in the time Mondlane led the movement.

 

Now you see a huge influx of capital. The people of Mozambique are nowadays not necessarily interested in the history of the revolutionary struggle. Especially young people are interested in a career, earning money and in having a mobile phone. That is quite visible in the streets. People are walking along the wall paintings, without taking notice. For Frits E. these paintings meant the future, for me they rather represent the past. That is why I have deliberately selected the mural of R. Kelly for this book. That painting touches the Heart of Youth. I included an advertisement and billboards, also in the shape of murals.

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Around a statue of Machel in the city Beira, huge replicas of Coca Cola bottles are situated. This bizarre monument is not included in my book. And by now you may find more murals of the mobile phone providers mCel and Vodacom than of Samora Machel. These providers are more present than the revolutionaries. Thus, history seems to fade somewhat; you need to look for it. And where previously Mondlane came to the fore, it seems as if today you notice mainly new statues of Machel.

 

MT:

Would you please elaborate some more on the founder of FRELIMO, the prototype of the modern opposition leader, Eduardo Mondlane? He is now considered just a shadow, a vague historical figure, is what you write.

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BK:

Eduardo Mondlane was an intellectual; he achieved a doctorate degree in anthropology, he spoke fluent English. He was educated in South Africa, worked for the UN in the United States and married an American woman. Afterwards, he returned to Mozambique, in order to lead the liberation front from Tanzania. When FRELIMO originated in 1962 from the merger of three other political parties, Mondlane was nominated as future leader by president Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Mondlane is the founder of the party, but at the time FRELIMO operated mainly out of Tanzania.

 

He was different from Machel, who was trained as a nurse. I was curious how the Portuguese Mozambicans experienced the difference in leadership between Mondlane and Machel. According to a Mozambican bartender, Mondlane was the academic who had to build a theoretical framework indicating how to make the first steps towards independence, and was the commander of the armed forces; Machel, the person who actually conducted the war.

 

When Mondlane was in power, constant internal power struggles were taking place. Mondlane is murdered in 1969 by a parcel bomb in Dar es Salaam – probably sent by the secret service of Portugal, and by FRELIMO dissidents. After his death a power struggle between Uria Simango, the Vice-President, and Samora Machel developed. The latter won. Simango was accused of betrayal and executed after a show trial. The unconventional event is somewhat reminiscent of the story of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky.

 

Mondlane turned out not to be a devotee of some politicians who came to power after him, and in his book The Struggle for Mozambique he stands side by side with Simango. In a later visual narrative, a cartoon version, Simango is out of sight. Yet, Simango belonged to another camp than Mondlane and Machel, who made attempts to reform the country towards a socialist state; however, Simango wanted to swap the white elite for a black elite.

 

I’ve always felt that Mondlane is a somewhat more moderate figure than Machel and I am wondering how he would have led the country after achieving independence, which direction FRELIMO would then have followed subsequently.

 

MT:

You mean…because of his sudden death?

 

 BK:

Yes …And as for the process of Mondlane fading gradually as a historical figure … Not only Machel has a statue, there is also a statue of Mondlane, donated by North Korea. In 2010 in all province capitals exact replicas of the original donated statue of Machel by North Korea were installed, and in Maputo itself, about a hundred metres from the original, a huge new copy has been erected. Machel has become an export product, a kind of Che Guevara. Mondlane does not have that status. He used to be the historical figure depicted on the Mozambique banknotes, but now that is Machel. Only occasionally, he emerges on a mural, or in a school building a portrait of Mondlane is hanging on the wall.

 

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MT:

When we started our conversation, you explained why you, at the time being a student in history, decided in 1997 to travel to Mozambique. Yet, I would like to refer back to that document that you inserted into the back of the book. It represents, it seems to me, a special moment for you. You were at that time the only visitor to the Museum of the Revolution in Maputo. The building was dilapidated, a former revolutionary fighter, dressed in rags, gave you a tour of the ‘history of the struggle for independence’.

 

BK:

I have visited the museum twice. In 2013 it was closed. In 1997, I studied, as I said before, in Pretoria and had by then completed the degree program. A study friend lived in Maputo and I was invited to visit. During the day he worked at the Embassy. With the travel guide Lonely Planet in hand I visited all kinds of places, including the run down Museum of the Revolution and the Museum of Natural History. The museum is such a typical artefact from the revolutionary war. I like museums that are not particularly attractive to most tourists. In El Salvador, I encountered those too. That’s where you find awkward signboards, strange objects (such as weapons, ID’s, photographs, flags, but also a jump rope and the running shorts that belonged to Machel). Some room texts were copied word-for-word from Mondlane’s publication. Only when I started to deal with Mozambique at the VU University Amsterdam, everything fell into place.

 

The fact that the person at the museum, a veteran dressed in what looks like part of a uniform, went ahead to turn on the lights of the exhibition rooms, triggered certain feelings. Like going back in time, like an archaeologist making unique discoveries. The museum was founded in the 1970s. The museum collection includes cannons, and Korean paintings. Fascinating to see nothing had changed since its opening. It’s all past glory. I returned to Mozambique in 2000, after achieving more historical knowledge, so as to better appreciate everything on display. The museum was closed in 2013, because of a renovation. And as for the entrance ticket: inflation caused an increase of the admission fee; the prior fee is deleted on the entrance ticket.

 

MT:

Could you please elaborate a bit more on the publication that the veteran, I call him the ‘guard’, out of convenience, pointed out to you: The Struggle for Mozambique, that was written by Eduardo Mondlane himself. And please explain to what extent the publication is the foundation for your MA-thesis in History, in which you examine the role of women in the struggle for independence.

 

BK:

The Struggle for Mozambique is often referred to as an autobiography, but in fact it contains a clear statement about the history of the liberation struggle in Mozambique. To a large extent the Museum of the Revolution in Maputo is based on this publication. Entire sections are retrieved from the book and are on display in the museum. This is how I became interested in The Struggle for Mozambique. I was specializing in modern African History, in relation to the ANC in South Africa, but as a result of the museum visit and getting acquainted with the publication by Mondlane, I realized I wanted to publish on this topic.

 

Mondlane was in favour of improving empowerment and status of women. This is the subject and scope of my thesis. Contemporary propaganda magazines like Mozambique Revolution gave rise to concern with the women’s movement. I examined this more in depth. Initially in the liberated areas, women gained more rights. Also, women were included in the so-called ‘Destacamento Feminino’ led by Machel’s first wife: Josina Machel. In Looking for M. a portrait is included of a woman who has been a member of such a brigade.

 

MT:

This took place in 1999. Six years later, you discovered the archives of the Dutch journalist Frits Eisenhoeffel (1944-2001). It is not clear to me what his profession was. Was he a photojournalist or a journalist writing for newspapers and magazines?

 

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BK:

Frits Eisenhoeffel was a journalist, a reporter writing articles, and needed pictures to illustrate his pieces…

 

MT:

I ask you this, because you put Frits E. as a photojournalist in the foreground.

 

BK:

That’s right. Yes, I studied his photographic archive.

 

 

MT:

In the early 1960s Frits E. was interested in Portugal, then a fascist state and losing its grip on the colonies. Whence the particular interest of Frits E. in this country, and in these political issues?

 

BK:

As I explained earlier, Frits E. met some Portuguese soldiers, deserters. His oeuvre can be divided into two parts: Southern Africa on the one hand, and on the other hand, in the 1980s the wars in Africa, particularly the liberation of Eritrea. For ten years he documented the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

 

MT:

How did you get in touch with his legacy?

 

BK:

On the recommendation of Flip Bool (former chief curator collections/archives Netherlands Fotomuseum NFM, Rotterdam). I had an internship at the Netherlands Fotomuseum. I conducted research on Dutch photographers in Africa from the 1840s to the present. Flip Bool had already been in contact with Frits’ widow, Immeke Sixma, because of her request by the institute to purchase her husband’s photographic archive. At the time Flip Bool did not consider it suitable for acquisition, but recommended the estate to me in terms of thematic content. Subsequently, Sixma commissioned me to investigate the content of the archive, describing and making it available to the public. To that end, a foundation was created to highlight the photographic work of Frits E., which he made in Africa, and to bring the provenance to a wider audience.

 

From a total of 300.000 photographs a selection of 3.000 copies was made that have been scanned. Later I have described the selected photographs in a database, by means of book publications, magazines, newspapers and journals. ‘Mozambique’ constitutes a significant section of about 200 photographs. Part of this section is made available by the International Institute for Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam, in the framework of a digital exhibition. The IISH has acquired the integral collection of Frits Eisselloeffel.

 

MT:

You have prepared a database?

 

BK:

Yes! I made use of FotoStation, a software program that is actually used by photo agency Hollandse Hoogte.

 

MT:

How long did it take you to prepare the database?

 

BK:

One day a week, for about one-and-a-half years.

 

 

MT:

Later in this conversation, we will focus more on single images by Frits E., also in comparison to your work. Frits introduces yet another notion. What is meant by the term ‘Carnation Revolution’ that took place in April 1974? I understand it was a military coup d’état without bloodshed, organized by left wing parties.

 

BK:

Carnation Revolution is the aforementioned non-violent Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974. This revolution brought years of fascist rule to a conclusion. Lower ranking Portuguese officers revolted in Portugal out of frustration over the high price that was paid, especially by them, during the colonial wars. Frits E. had interest in the liberation struggle and he was in contact with its members. He decided to travel with a military transport to write a post-event report. First to West-African Guinea Bissau and then to Mozambique. Later he visited other Southern African countries.

 

MT:

Frits E. travels to Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau to report on the political upheavals for Het Parool and De Groene Amsterdammer. And where is Guinea-Bissau?

 

BK:

On the West coast, close to Ghana.

MT:

Photography was used for party political propaganda. You mentioned that in relation to the magazine Mozambique Revolution. How was photographic material put forth?

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BK:

FRELIMO also needed assistance from abroad. Many foreign anti-imperialist action groups (such as the Eduardo Mondlane Foundation – later merging into the NIZA) distributed magazines (Mozambique Revolution is widely circulated), and posters. Mozambican photographers frequently published their journalistic pictures in this kind of propagandistic publications. Kok Nam, Ricardo Rangel and others represent a strong photo-journalistic tradition in Mozambique.

 

The question is to what extent their photographs were reproduced in the propagandistic magazines of FRELIMO, which were sent to Anti-Apartheid organisations around the world. And in there, photography played an important role in showing the misdeeds of Portuguese colonial era and the way FRELIMO operated in liberated areas. Nevertheless, many international photographers took pictures in the area as well. To mention a few: the Swede Anders Johansson, the well-known Africanist Basil Davidson, the forgotten Japanese photographer Tadahiro Ogawa, as well as Koen Wessing and Frits Eisenloeffel. Some photographs by Frits appeared back then, if I recall well, on a political poster. However, the work by Frits, was not distributed or used by FRELIMO, nor by the MPLA.  

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MT:

Tell me about the nephew of Frits E., the professional photographer Koen Wessing. In 1974, De Bezige Bij in Amsterdam published his seminal photobook Chili September 1973. And, as I read in Wessing’s biography, he left the same year for Guinea-Bissau, Here this brings you both together and your perceptions of both periods of Mozambique, there is indeed forty years in between. You describe its value, in rather heavy terms. The approach is ‘personal’, ‘anachronistic’ and ‘substantial’ and ‘aesthetic’, commissioned by the Angola Committee. Who joined him?

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BK:

Actually, Frits E. and Koen Wessing were not present in Guinea-Bissau at the same time. Initially, Frits has arrived there with a crew to make a film, commissioned by the VPRO. Koen Wessing is a first cousin of Frits Eisenloeffel. Han Singel, Joost Guntenaar and Koen Wessing taught Frits how to take pictures. Following his distinctive publication about Chile, Wessing compiled Djarama PIAGC, commissioned by the Angola Committee, on the occasion of the one-year existence of the Republic.

 

The publication, in appearance very similar to a cahier, has the same size as Chili, September 1973, but the book design is of less quality. I consider the zeal present in Chili, September 1973, lacking in Djarama PIAGC. I read somewhere that at the time Wessing took these pictures, Angola was, like Mozambique, already a de facto state. Finally, Portugal recognized Mozambique’s independence in September 1974. At the launch of Djarama PIAGC Guinea-Bissau celebrated the declaration of independence of the republic, which officially took place in 1973.

 

MT:

I wondered to what extent a publication like Chile, September 1973 might affect someone like Frits E.?

 

BK:

I think they shared the same political and social commitment, although Frits never made photobooks. Frits had written a story about Guinea-Bissau in De Groene Amsterdammer on May 15, 1974, which has been illustrated with press images by Koen Wessing. All this took place before Djarama PIAGC was published.

 

MT:

They cross-pollinated so to speak!

Why was cataloguing the photo-journalistic work of Fritz E. a catalyst to return to Mozambique in 2013?

BK:

Archiving his work recalled all kinds of memories. While leafing through stacks of pictures I felt the need to go back again. The affiliation with the images, the memories that Frits’ images, texts or diaries stimulated, as well as reflecting on my MA thesis, enticed me to visit the country again and to capture what I had encountered during my previous trips, but had not been able to document at the time. In that sense, the ‘M.’ in the title of the book definitely refers to ‘Memories’ … but also to ‘Mondlane’, ‘Machel’, and ‘Mozambique’. Investigating and cataloguing Frits’ archive offered a variety of opportunities for me to close this chapter.

 

MT:

The following quote is appropriate at this point in the conversation. Could you please explain it further?

The concept of Looking for M. is a conscious departure from the traditional journalistic method, being rather a personal and almost anachronistic approach in which both substantive and aesthetic synergy arises between the artistry and perception of two Dutch photographers working in different areas.

In this quote you bring the two of you together, and you try to juxtapose both yours and Frits’ perception of Mozambique, despite an age gap of 40 years. You value it, in terms heavy with meaning. You access both yours and Frits’ approach as being: ‘personal’, ‘anachronistic’, ‘substantial’ and ‘aesthetic’.

 

BK:

I juxtapose journalistic images taken in the 1970s with my documentary photographs. Sometimes the pictures reinforce each other, such as in the case of pictures of people entering or leaving the ports of Maputo. Then again, there is similarity in terms of formal elements. So here on the left you see a portrait of a veteran, and it’s very plausible he has been fighting against this soldier, depicted on the right page.

 

In my first dummy I had not yet included pictures by Frits.

For subsequent dummies, I have made selections based on aesthetics (to be compared with the way Stephen Gill compiled Let’s sit down before we go by Bertien van Manen). There were some striking similarities between the scenes in the pictures of both Frits and mine; I absolutely had not thought of this beforehand.

 

MT:

Let’s discuss this further while looking at the spreads. How do you re-contextualize the work of Fritz E., in Looking for M.? And tell me, what is your work about; What are we looking at? To come naturally to speak about the portrait of the school girl, wearing a yellow button on her dress. Let’s look at a number of double page layouts. Unfortunately, the numbering of the pictures, related to the captions in the photo-index, is missing on the illustrated pages, which makes comparing both a bit troublesome.

 

BK:

Fritz worked as a journalist and his photographs were originally intended to inform people about the political situation in situ in those days. In this book context, in Looking for M., his pictures gain a different meaning, because his journalistic images are linked to my documentary photographs. The cultural historical context is changing and with it, perhaps, the interpretation of images in the documentary mode.

 

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Double page spread 002-003

The caption ‘return to sender’ is stamped on the back of a frequently used press photo made by an anonymous photographer, which I’ve bought at some point. The stamp refers to returning the photograph to the ‘source’, either the photographer or the archive. Frits himself very much wanted his pictures to be returned to the people who actually were the main actors in the pictures.

The press photo showing a double portrait of Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel, is made in Tanzania. And look, this is what I mean regarding the wall paintings: this shows again that Machel is indeed the logical successor of Mondlane. There are not so many pictures circulating in which they show up together.

 

 

 MT:

A master-apprentice relationship, so to speak. Ah, the mural is actually based on this picture!

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BK:

Yes. Many people, those who know the history of Mozambique, will recognize this picture. The South African specialist Albie Sachs has even released a publication about the Mozambican murals: Images de Mocambique (1983). Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas made the pictures in this book. In the colophon her surname is spelled incorrectly as: ‘Maiselas’.

 

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MT:

Nice that you mention this detail!

 

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And… What number? I should have continued numbering the photo pages! I suspect this is a so-called ‘dynamizing group’. Construction workers are working on a road. Frits did not always write photo captions, short descriptions accompanying the illustrations. So it’s just the picture that speaks for itself. And this picture, I consider a beautiful landscape photograph. Crossing Mozambique, you’ll encounter road construction works everywhere, supervised by Chinese inspectors. Frits E. shot almost exclusively in black and white, as many of his contemporaries did. However, this particular image is in colour; and therefore, many people assume that I took that picture!

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Double page spread 010-011

Here you see society in stark contrast. This is a pool on the roof of an expensive hotel in Maputo. We look at a migrant maintaining the pool. And this picture was taken at the Grand Hotel in Beira, a Portuguese megalomaniac project from the 1950s. It’s a huge hotel that has never been successful and, therefore, immediately declared bankrupt. And later squatters moved into the building. The story is similar to Ponte City in South Africa! This is the first Olympic swimming pool in Mozambique. Today, people wash their dirty clothing here. During the transition period, FRELIMO resided here. Both pictures are mine.

 

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MT:

So the modus operandi is not always showing the difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’ on a double page?

 

BK:

No, not always.

 

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I suspect this is a performance related to these ‘dynamising groups’. Which were established to explain to people, for example, what was wrong with capitalism. It could just as well be a festive gathering. And here you see children playing in the streets in Beira.

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MT:

The playfulness, the liveliness is what both images have in common….

 

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Double photo spread 016 and 018-019

This is an old FRELIMO veteran, who is still considered the ‘boss’ and people stand in awe of him. He is still the commander in chief, and did the talking. He lives in a veteran’s village. And the woman depicted opposite the page with the schoolgirl is a former fighter, a veteran, from the women’s detachment. Yesterday I looked again at the Sahel book by Diepraam, and the backside shows a portrait from a blind woman. This picture reminds me of that image. Maybe a cliché reference which slipped in unconsciously.

 

MT:

This is one of the few examples showing a small black and white picture on the top half of the white page. The man on the right, in uniform, is a Che Chevara type.

 

 

BK:

It’s a panoramic image; you don’t need to make a quarter turn with the book in order to ‘read the image’. And the military men both look sad and act in a similar way.

 

MT:

They both use body language in a same way.

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Double page spread 028-029

Yes. This silhouette of the woman carrying a baby fades away against such a monumental background. I just stood there for a while with my camera. People pass along the mural without noticing it. On the opposite page you see a black and white photograph of Portuguese soldiers listening to a speech by Machel.

 

MT:

It is Machel depicted in the mural?

 

BK:

Yes, in that sense, the pictures match. And these men are criminals, right?

 

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Double page spread 032-033

Those guys are standing on top of a rubbish dump and are looking for processed materials to make toys. This picture was made on a tourist spot in the North, called Pemba. Mozambique has a beautiful coastline. And these kids, portrayed by Frits E., are posing the same way.

 

MT:

That doesn’t change over time….

 

BK:

No…

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Double page spread 034-035

On the left you see a photo store run by a Chinese. A portrait of the new president is hanging in in the window display, but not visible in the image frame. Here’s a portrait of Mondlane. I intended to buy it, but the shopkeeper asked 100 EUR for the picture. The influence of the People’s Republic of China in Mozambique is growing. The EU is Mozambique’s fourth economic partner in this regard after South Africa, China and India.

 

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A cut-out from De Groene Amsterdammer. Anyway, I considered it relevant to print in the heart of the book an image similar to the very first picture, to demonstrate the layout of photographs by Frits E. on double-page spreads in newspapers. And from these two people, an older couple now, I’ve made individual portraits in Looking for M.

 

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Double page spread 041-042

These documents imply job employment … This kind of portraits of African people are often linked to genocide. So pictures like these initially have a negative connotation, but these are ID’s from workers in a bakery, which is run by a Moroccan from Fes.

 

 

MT:

Yes, I think it’s a wonderful double-page spread.

But why are these portraits of bakery employees exposed in this way? We’re looking at IDs you said?

 

BK:

Yes, similar to IDs, kind of health certificates from the employees hanging in the store. The picture on the opposite page was taken from a moving car and is therefore somewhat blurred. Mozambicans are burning coal. And the young woman in the picture is a coal saleswoman. A kind of market economy, a street trade, you could say. And the colours in both pictures coincide.

 

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Double page spread 055-056

These people are the shoemaker and his wife, who are depicted – when you open the book to the middle of the signature – on page 038-039) in the press photo by Frits E., that I just described.

 

MT:

parents mourning’ is the caption of that picture.

 

BK:

Machel referred in his speech to the anniversary of the massacres in which their only two sons were killed. And the juxtaposed image is an anachronistic advertising picture of R. Kelly, a contemporary R&B singer, meant, as opposed to the more propagandistic murals.

 

MT:

So this wall painting is much more contemporary than political in nature. And then finally the schoolgirl … It starts and ends with her!

 

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Photo page 059

She is one of the schoolgirls I photographed on Ilha de Mozambique, at the end of my trip. I don’t know her name. I wrote it down somewhere, but I lost that piece of paper. I’m pretty sure the yellow button she is wearing has a clip to hook on a cell phone. Everyone has cell phones in Mozambique. Everywhere you look you see mobile phone commercials, even the houses are painted in the colours of cell phone providers.

 

 *See for links the Dutch language version of this conversation on theloggingroad

 

 

 

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Today, one month before the first day of Christmas, I decided to make a selection of thirteen author/photographer books and one exhibition catalogue to represent the high quality of photobooks issued in the highly productive calendar year 2014. What is remarkable is that, except for the children’s book and the photo magazine for kids, all covers are extremely sober, some sheer gloomy. And one way or the other all of the bookworks deal with history and hierarchies, political issues, both local and global, with gender and everyday life, with surveillance and leisure. I will mention the publications in no particular order.  

 

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1. FRIET speciaal. Schrift voor kinderen over archeologie in Amsterdam en omstreken (French Fries special. Notebook for Kids on Archeology in Amsterdam and its Surrounding Areas) published by Van Zoetendaal and BMA. This booklet in a plain cardboard cover, is designed and published by Willem van Zoetendaal and reads like a primer for kids. It is a photo magazine for kids, containing numbered and free-standing objects (meticiously reproduced by Harold Strak) made of plastic material discovered at the Damrak and Rokin during the construction of the Noord/Zuidlijn (North-South Underground)  in 2003-2012. In the index, in the back of the cahier all the objects are clearly described, dated and measured. It goes like this: [25] Cracked red spoon 8,5cm long, 1950-2005; [23] Four dirty fries forks, of which two manufactured by Veriplast in Apeldoorn; [9] Two fragments, in different sizes, of a  broken comb. Red plastic, 3,3cm high, 1900-2005; [21] A piece from a KPN telephone card for 10,00 euro’s, decorated with a scene from a painting by Jan Steen. 2,5cm long, plastic, 1996-2005; [16] several fragments of celluloid film and black plastic holder, 1950-2005.

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2. I adore accordion folded photo books. Flipping through the pages of Contemporary Archeology, I wondered about various topics: ‘mental reconstruction’; usage of found and vernacular objects as well as personal documents; a self-made photographic reportage about the mummy transfer of Ramesses I; and the book project itself. I understand everything in the book relates to a CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) program in Karnak, in the south of Egypt where Olivier Cablat been working since October 2003.The way in which archeological findings from the Amsterdam Underground are reproduced and presented in FRIET speciaal is very similar to the method Olivier Cablat used in Contemporary Archaeology, published by RVB Books. Olivier started from raw material, found objects related to everyday life in contemporary Egypt; he made no hierarchical judgments about the nature of the material, and applied the same treatment to it as scientific researchers do to ancient artifacts. Olivier Cablat: “In the afternoon I used the same tools, the same light, the same technique, to record found objects in the street, in the garbage can at the office, or vernacular objects I bought at the corner shop, like my cigarettes packages”. Read all about it: A conversation with Olivier about this accordion fold.

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3. Southbound by Knut Egil Wang, I discoverd it at UNSEEN/Offprint art book fair. The funniest documentary photobook, I already spotted it online, is published by Journal in Sweden. This is a publishing house that makes exquisite photobooks (such as Trying to dance by JH Engstrom), but maintains low profile; e.g. Journal doesn’t attempt to increase its exposure through a website. Knut Egil Wang is a Los Angeles based Norwegian photographer with a surname that sounds Chinese. His documentary style has both a Martin Parr and Alec Soth edge to it. The narrative in this publication is related to local culture, warmer climate and simple amusement during ‘long dark winters’ in the Northern hemisphere. A small cute illustration of an aeroplane landing on the French title page and the bright yellow flyleaves introduce you to sunny destinations. We see elderly Western people in groups with Christmas hats on, poles in their hands, small backpacks on passing through a white wooden porch that looks like a misplaced prop in a movie like Paris Texas.

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4. The same counts for a three-volume publication Vienna MMix 10008/7000 in a sleeve published by Scheidegger & Spiess, I discoverd that numbered limited edition of 600 copies at East Wing Gallery during UNSEEN festival. Jules Spinatsch made 10.008 images, as part of what he called Surveillance Panorama Project at the Vienna Opera Ball. The Vienna State Opera was not amused with the end result, but did give permission for the project. Volume I, entitled Every Three Seconds, is bulky and dark green. It contains the integral sequence of the ten thousand pictures chronologically arranged in grids of 36 pictures on a spread.The images were made during an opera performance with two camera’s that moved every three seconds in a vertical line six positions downward along a rail, and up again after six shots. In this manner neither image selection nor editing took place. Volume III is a cahier containing two essays. One by neuroscientist Wolf Singer, who is exploring the transition of human perception in this age of social media and big data, and surveillance technology. Volume II entitled 71 photographs contains this exact amount of selected images, grainy and faded in colours: purplish, reddish, and yellowish, making them appear voyeuristic in nature.

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5. One more discovery at the UNSEEN festival/fair, last September in Amsterdam was a large-size children’s photobook, both conceptual and documentary in nature by the Slovakian female photographer Lucia Nimcova (1977). Animal Imago, published by sitcomm.sk & cee photofund, is containing pictures of abused, stuffed, encased, and misplaced animals in eastern and central Europe. We see a stuffed Nile crocodile in a shabby (what look like a natural history) museum presentation next to a stuffed monkey on the back of a scooter. Another double page shows a gracious grey cow’s head popping up behind a tree, opposite a sticky dead duck attacked by horseflies and dumped on a garbage can along a park lane. As is done with children’s books, the publication opens and ends with empty coloured pages, to make a drawing or take notes. There are no captions, and no other text. The publication Animal Imago is an ode to the photographer’s deaf-born son.

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6. And there is Pieter Hugo’s brand new oblong Aperture publication KIN. I bought at the gallery booth of Stevenson during Paris Photo. It reads like an album, I am pleasantly surprized. On the very first page Tasmyn Reynolds (it doesn’t say ‘my wife or girlfriend’) poses naked, with wet hair and pregnant with their first child. On another page his parents are portrayed, together in bed, all dressed, the mother with glasses on, the father with coffee cup in hand. After 10 pictures we see Hugo naked, lying down with his new-born daughter on his lap: a squirming little baby on top of his huge tattooed athletic body. While leafing through the pages I see his grand mother, his nanny, his second kid, and his extended family, and then the photographer just walks into the gallery booth. I turn around and there he is in person: the healthy looking tall blond Viking! I would not have recognised him otherwise. I say: “You must be Pieter Hugo, I just saw your portrait in your new book”. I asked him whether he speaks Dutch. “Ja”…. “My father was a French Huguenot”, he says in Afrikaans. I don’t get it all, but he continued explaining something like his family roots are in Denmark. Than I asked him how this publication came about. “Well, … in fact after the birth of my daughter six years ago. I’ve just seen the book once…well printed …paper a little thin.” I ask him what the three capital letters of which the title consists actually means: KIN. “Family in a broader sense… medemens!” [Fellow man], he exclaims. ‘KIN’ refers to ‘KINSHIP’, my partner explains a few days later on the phone. I requested Pieter to write that Dutch word in the copy of his book that I purchased on the spot, paying cash. With ‘medemens’ Paris Photo 2014 in Grand Palais starts. 

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7. 17.15 Friday November 14th, I am receiving an email in which Aperture announces The winner of The Photobook Awards. The First Photobook Award is for Hidden Islam (2013) by Nicolo Degiorgis and with good reason (even without the recommendation and foreword by Martin Parr). The publication was also awarded the author’s book award in Arles during the very last edition of the R.I.P. Nicolo was signing his books at Dirk Bakker’s booth at Paris Photo. Dirk handed me his plain textbook accompanying the already second edition of Hidden Islam. It contains 479 posts on an article entitled: ‘Arles 2014: Nicolo Degiorgis lifts the veil of Italy’s Islamophobia’, written by Sean O’Hagan for The Guardian, and published on July 15th, 2014. People had five days to leave comments. The insides of the fold out text pages show schematic drawings and coordinates, corresponding exactly with the number of pages, themes and locations in the awarded photobook. This is new; this has never been done before, to my knowledge. I buy the textbook in situ ( I purchased the first edition of Hidden Islam earlier this year) for 25,00 euro. He signs it with a pencil: ‘keep looking, Paris 15/11/2014.’

 

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8. Since the 2014 Paris Photo – Aperture Foundation Photobook Awards is including ‘The Photography Catalogue of the Year’, I decided to select one: MODERN TIMES RIJKSMUSEUM, designed by Irma Boom and published by the Rijksmuseum in association with nai010publishers. Not everyone may know but a large collection of photography is in the keeping of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. A cross section of different formats, techniques and genres selected from the growing collection of 20th century photography is now exhibited in ‘Modern Times’. Divided over nine rooms of the brand new Philips wing 300 black-and-white and color photographs are mingled. Small insignificant work prints, prelimenary studies, advertising and vernacular photography are combined with  war-, street- and art photography. Dummies of photobooks, photo albums, scrapbooks, magazins and posters are displayed in window cases. Amateur- photography is intertwined with professional photography, as a token of equivalency. Irma is also responsable for the clear and clever environmental design of the exhibition. Knowing Irma Boom, she gets ‘carte blanche’, blowing up a detail from a nude portrait by Ger Fieret and juxtaposing it to a sliver from an icon of the New Photography. These full bleeds are like gongs banging in your eyes, both in the front and in the back of the bulky catalogue. Spreads from books like Naked City (1945) by Weegee, reproductions from magazines such as LIFE,  and even the front and back of the sleeve of Brian Ferry’s LP record Another Time, Another Place (1974)  are nicely clustered in the essays. And emerging from the matt black front cover is Olympic High Diving Champion Marjorie Gestring in 1936, photographed during class by John Gutmann. Her stretched out left arm and hand are an omen of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich. And what a contrast between the black surface and the coloured page edges in fluorescent yellow.

 

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9. I nominate two books by one author/photographer, Valerio Spada, as Best Photobooks of 2014. One is to be considered a re-worked and re-issued existing book title. Twin Palms Publishers just released the third edition, which is a first American edition, of Valerio Spada‘s well-received book Gomorrah Girl, and has issued his next publication entitled: I am Nothing. Both publications are dealing with the Mafia in southern Italy, both photobooks are telling a grim story on a father-daughter’s relationship, one in Naples (Gommorah Girl), the other in Sicily (I Am Nothing). Both titles are remarkable for their outstanding documentaries, graphic design and bookmaking. Read more in the conversation with Valerio about both publications.

 

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10. Karaoke Sunne by JH Engström and Margot Wallard (I don’t know who did what) is published by SuperLabo. I like the size of the booklet, the choice of paper, the swopping format from landscape to portrait on a spread. The beautiful black hard bound cover with the title embossed in silver. Just imagine a pizzeria turned into a karaoke bar on Saturday evenings, in the outskirts of Sweden. Color photographs show this mixture of sadness and joy in Karaoke bars: people drinking, smoking, showing their tatooed bodies, clinging to each other, hands grabbing body parts, grubby faces loosing themselves for a second in front of the microphone. Just on the fly leafs, a small white cross scribbled on a google maps reproduction of Sweden indicates where it all happens.

 

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11. Max Pinckers‘ recent publication Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty is just like The Fourth Wall self-published, designed by Jurgen Maelfeyt, and India is the focus. The edition of 1000 copies was commissioned by Europalia International Arts Festival / Centre of Fine Arts in Brussels. First the portfolio and then the book have been praised by both Martin Parr and Alec Soth. The author Hans Theys describes the project and levels in the layout so well in his essay ‘Photographs as Poems’ printed on salmon pink thin paper in the back of the book, resonating the commercial slogan ‘visit colourfull India’. Here is a quote:

For his most recent work, Max Pinckers (born in Belgium in 1988, but raised in Asia), traveled to India for months, accompanied by his partner Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras. There he has attempted to document, capture, stage and bring to life various specific aspects of love and marriage. Searching through newspapres and magazins, watching films and roaming through cities, he has been looking for subjects  that suited his theme, such as couples on their honeymoon at the foot of the Himalayas, men on white horses, Victoria’s (carts on which newlyweds strut around), photo studios where couples have their portraits taken, strange decors for marriage ceremonies, a stranded photograph of a married couple (which is offered to to a river, lake or sea after their death), a set of discarded photos from a studio next to the Taj Mahal and many other things. […] Another series of ‘images’ consist of vertically arranged, bleeding texts, extracted from the weblog of the Love Commandos. Together with the documentary sequences, they seem to weave a basic grid for the book. There is also a set of ‘images’ consisting of found material. These can be found documents, but also found photographs or ‘found footage’ such as inscriptions in bamboo trees or on posters on walls. […] A last series of images consist of idealized digital landscapes retrieved from a photo studio, where they are used as backfrops for portraits.  

 

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 12. In my copy (#185) it reads published in October 2013 by the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in London, and RM Verlag in Barcelona, and Editorial RM in Mexico City. On the website of AMC it says Party. Quitonasto Form CHANMAIR MAO TUNGEST (the funniest and most cryptical title ever for a contemporary photobook) by Christina De Middel has been published in March 2014. Party is the English language title on the spine of the book, in gilt debossed patted boards. This cleverly created artist’s book, this cute and well designed – by Jose Luis Lugo (cover design) and Nova Era (additional design) – booklet just has to be on this list.  

‘Party’ refers to Mao’s Little Red Book. That publication is the most reprinted literature after The Bible, but can only be found nowadays in China at some tourist shop. De Middel’s appropriation of the famous booklet (print run 1.715, all numbered), is already a collector’s item. In fact, any publication she compiles turns into a collector’s item. The booklet itself contains reproductions of text pages from The Little Red Book, from which the actual text has been mostly wiped out with correction fluid Tipp-Ex, before reproduction. The remainder of the text fragments reads like: ‘change the enemy’; ‘over and over again in endless spiral’; ‘it is impossible to get work done’; ‘the bandit gang… achieved great discipline’; ‘propaganda is not good’. Party is interleaved with loose-leaf small and square colour photographs in perfect binding to the spine of the book: most are self-made, some have been selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC). During Paris Photo at Grand Palais, ‘The Party’ was presented as a series of ‘spreads’ in golden frames on the wall, about 40 by 60 cm each. In the frames you look at, on one hand, the censored Tipp-Ext text page, on the other hand, a colour photograph showing e.g. a portrait of a Chinese woman in profile, or a broken Mao figurine, or a table tennis table without a net.

 

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13. It is a typical American colloquial expression: ‘calling it a day’. I Am About to Call it a Day is a book on A-3 format. No. 169 in the row of books published by Patrick Frey in Zürich. This particular publication has been issued in cooperation with Hannibal Publishing, I read on the cover and in the colophon on the inside of the Brown minigolf cardboard cover. You can hardly call it a ‘book’; it has the appearance of an oblong calendar in a carton sleeve. And the title (in a large bold Franklin Gothic Condensed font) printed in black on the front cover slays in your face. Why did you and the Dutch designer Mevis van Deursen choose for this format? This is one of many questions for Bieke Depoorter in the upcoming interview with the Magnum nominee, soon on theloggingroad.

 

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14. I have been debating for quite a while which titles not to include (e.g., FROWST by Joanna Piotrowska, because it has been widely praised in the press; Peter van Agtmael who puts a spell on you in his well written chronicle of America’s wars from 2006-2013, entitled Disco Night Sept. 11). So finally I chose Something like a Nest, self-published by Andy Sewell. Because indeed, it is a ‘visual meditation’, ‘quieten our illusions’, and because the very first (color) and very last (black and white) picture of a kitchen sink with the window in front looks pretty much the same as the one my parents have, and still have, since 1973. In that year I was 13. They bought an old brewery in the province of Brabant. Our neighbors were farmers. I loved to visit them, get fresh milk, smell the cows, climb on a tractor. I like the serenity of the layout, the textual and visual puns in this documentary photobook. The kitchen sink is a returning theme in the book. A sign on the wall reads ‘product waiting area’ showing rows of stainless steel charts on wheels filled with… I don’t know what … chopped carrots? An egg carton filled with six eggs is placed on a plastic table cloth covering a kitchen table. The fabric is decorated with roosters, chickens and youngsters. The vastness of cultivated rural Norfolk, Yorkshire or Kent is so captivating. The cruelty and beauty of killing feasants or a dear are stunning. A rhythm of one picture per right page, landscape mode, and you may find only twelve photo pages on the left. All of them classically framed. The design is by Ivan Markovic. I love the transparant celluloid wrappers, with the title printed on the inside of it, in corn on the cop yellow. It reminds me of Dutch post war company photobooks like vuur aan zee (1958) and De draad van het verhaal (1960).  

I appreciate your comments.   

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Paris Photo 2014 opens its doors in the Thalys on Thursday morning at 9:17h. I happen to sit in front of Mariken Wessels (I recognised her voice after a while and stood up) and got acquainted with Scarlett Hooft-Graafland, who happened to have reserved a train seat next to me. She was reading De Volkskrant of that morning November 13, 2014. I read a headline with her, while the newspaper was lying on her lap: ‘400 photographs and artworks by Man Ray auctioned at Sotheby Paris on behalf of a new generation of heirs. On this particular day, the very first day of Paris Photo, a portrait of the very good looking ‘Lee Miller – with necklace of sea sponges from 1930’ (his muse, lover and friend, par hazard also his co-inventor of the rayogram, and herself an active wartime photojournalist) is being auctioned. The estimated yield is 40.000 to 60.000 euros.

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After a while I asked my neighbour if I might read the full article, and she sifted through the pages in order to hand the spread over to me with a generous smile. That was the moment to introduce us to each other. In the article is mentioned that Man Ray made a pipe with a glass bubble. On the pipe is written: ce que manque a nous tous (what all of us are missing). According to Ray the right answer is: ‘fantasy’. Ray made the pipe in 1927, two years before Magritte‘s Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Ray was one of the first of his contemporaries who worked in series.

 Scarlett Hooft Graaftland used to live right next to Jacqueline Hassink in New York. Something prompted me to ask rather bluntly: “Are you of noble descent?” “Yes, that’s right”, she confirmed. It was her double surname, linked to a moment, a few days ago, when my neighbour lady, associated with nobility herself, during one of our daily routines of walking-the-dog, talked about Scarlett’s work (“…a bright blue painted zebra in the middle of a herd […] somewhere at a remote place on planet Earth…Madagascar…A red iglo…nothing is photo shopped …large formats”). She attended a reading of Scarlett at Insinger de Beaufort and was intrigued by her work, even considered a purchase. I asked Scarlett whether she has issued a book publication. She mentioned Kehrer Verlag, and the title Soft horizons (2011).

Then she described a scenario in which Bolivian women pose in traditional costumes with the typical black bowler hats on their heads, figuring as the centrefold of a crystal white salt mountain on a crystal white salt pan, holding (what looks like) pink cotton candy in hand. Dali-like, surrealistic photoworks Scarlett creates, and in almost every picture you stare at a wide horizon.

 

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Grand Palais

The very first gallery booth I visit at Paris Photo is Stevenson from Cape Town. Works by Pieter Hugo on the wall, his brand new oblong Aperture publication KIN on the worktable. It reads like an album, I am pleasantly surprized. On the very first page Tasmyn Reynolds (it doesn’t say ‘my wife or girlfriend’) poses naked, with wet hair and pregnant with their first child. On another page his parents are portrayed, together in bed, all dressed, the mother with glasses on, the father with coffee cup in hand. After 10 pictures we see Hugo naked, lying down with his new-born daughter on his lap: a squirming little baby on top of his huge tattooed athletic body. While leafing through the pages I see his grand mother, his nanny, his second kid, and his extended family, and then the photographer just walks into the gallery booth. There he is in person: the healthy looking tall blond Viking! I would not have recognised him otherwise. I say: “You must be Pieter Hugo, I just saw your portrait in your new book”. I asked him whether he speaks Dutch. “Ja”…. “My father was a French Huguenot”, he says in Afrikaans. I don’t get it all, but he continued explaining something like his family roots are in Denmark. Than I asked him how this publication came about. “Well, … in fact after the birth of my daughter six years ago. “I’ve just seen the book once…well printed …paper a little thin…”. I ask him what the three capital letters of which the title consists actually means: KIN. “Family in a broader sense… medemens!” [Fellow man], he exclaims. ‘KIN’ refers to ‘KINSHIP’, my partner explains a few days later on the phone. I requested Pieter to write that Dutch word in the copy of his book that I purchased on the spot, paying cash. With ‘medemens’ Paris Photo 2014 in Grand Palais started.

 

A little further, at the Fraenkel Gallery booth, hangs on the main wall facing the public a tableau by Nicholas Nixon, covering the entire wall: ‘40 years Brown sisters’, in 8 x 5 = 40 white frames. Every year, since 1975, Nixon makes a group portrait of the four sisters (one of whom is Nixon’s wife Bebe) consistently in the same setup (Heather, Mimi, Bebe and Laurie), jam-packed in the frame. A canary yellow linen cloth hardbound, published by MOMA, is placed on top of a small table in front of the mural. The latest image in the series is published on October 3rd for the first time in The New York Times. Close by, on a narrow back wall of the booth another striking, but small tableau is resonating the large grid on the main wall: eclipse totale de soleil 30 August 1905. It’s a geometric collage of square contact prints, 6 x 5= 30 vintages glued on carton. At the bottom of the grid the full sun is depicted, on the left before, and on the right after the eclipse.

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Christina de Middel

Her work stands out, even at a giant fair like Paris Photo. ‘The absence of monsters’ is what I read in a monumental piece by Christina de Middel, who is represented by Black Ship gallery from New York. The phrase shows up next to a poster showing Mao wearing an Afro hair wig. Glued onto that poster is a typewriter letter by ‘the assistant of the ministry of Power, Transport and Technology’. You recognize ‘Afronauts’ in parts of the installation.

 

On the inside of the fair booth the series ‘The Party’ (2014) is shown. This work refers to Mao’s Little Red Book. That publication is the most reprinted literature after The Bible, but can only be found nowadays in China at some tourist shop. De Middel’s appropriation of the famous booklet, entitled Quintonasto Form CHANMAIR MAO TUNGEST (2013 – print run 1.750), is already a collector’s item. In fact, any publication she compiles turns into a collector’s item. The booklet itself contains reproductions of text pages from The Little Red Book, from which the actual text has been mostly wiped out with correction fluid Tipp-Ex, before reproduction. The remainder of the text fragments reads like: ‘change the enemy’; ‘over and over again in endless spiral’; ‘it is impossible to get work done’; ‘the bandit gang… achieved great discipline’; ‘propaganda is not good’.

The booklet is interleaved with loose-leaf small and square colour photographs in perfect binding to the spine of the book: most are self-made, some have been selected from the Archive of Modern Conflict (AMC) in London. ‘The Party’ is a series of ‘spreads’ in golden frames on the wall, about 40 by 60 cm each. In the frames you look at, on one hand, the censored Tipp-Ext text page, on the other hand, a colour photograph showing e.g. a portrait of a Chinese woman in profile, or a broken Mao figurine, or a table tennis table without a net.

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De Middel’s most recent series ‘Jan Mayen’, deals with the re-construction of a fake expedition. I don’t think that has ever been done in photography: Re-made and re-vived found fake photography. A crew, mainly people that reacted to a newspaper add, acting as scientists (only the captain and the photographer were real), was trying to discover a new island between Iceland and Greenland, in the early 1900s. The whole thing was a disaster. The boat could not dock, the island was never found. For the sake of honour, the expedition was staged in words (from a logbook) and images. De Middel basically made a visualisation of the fake expedition based on the record of events, collected in the fictional logbook that is in the keeping of AMC.

The manager of AMC happens to be posing in clothes that have been purchased on eBay, mimicking the outdoor fashion of a century ago. A pseudo vintage picture of a flying shark has been Photoshopped. In another image, simulating a hand coloured vintage black and white photograph, blue jelly candy is dispersed in creeks. Next to that a picture of red jelly candy scattered on a gravel beach. Microscopic samples from the AMC are reproduced with an iPhone. Adding to the cosmic elements in the project is an astronomical map from 1900. This specific cartographic representation of the galaxy was the result of one of the most costly astronomical projects ever in Belgium; trying to establish the galactic coordinate system, it turned out that incorrect research findings were provided. Thus, this project is yet another example of scientific failure. Reproductions from herbaria are pasted on the wall. Timothy Prus wearing a bowler hat, his son, and other AMC staff members took part in the imitation of the expedition, sitting all together, with binoculars and oars, in a dugout canoe.

 

The sister of Christina (enthusiastic and knowledgably about the work) shows Polyspam to me, pulling the publication out of her purse. This most recent publication, in an edition of 150, looks like a thick envelope, with a counterfeit airmail stamp in red: ‘thisbookistrue’. The artist’s book consists of envelopes containing, printed on an A-4, original spam mail Christina had received. It’s content inspired her to take pictures. Eight envelopes contain eight colour photographs.

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Open Book

Sebastian Hau and Pierre Hourquet curated the Open Book exhibition, a yearly event during Paris Photo. This is their statement to the public: “The exhibition presents a selection of art books published between the 1960s and today. Since the release of “Twenty-six Gasoline Stations” in 1963 by the American artist Edward Ruscha, the reproduction of photographic images is one of the preferred media for numerous international artists such as Andy Warhol, John Baldessari, Gilbert & George, Hans-Peter Feldmann and many others. This new type of book, whether a multiple object, a limited edition or unlimited publication, directly designed by the authors, has been adopted and taken up since the 1980s by photographers and contemporary artists such as Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Wolfgang Tillmans, Sophie Calle, Mike Kelley, Gerhard Richter, Christian Marclay or Anselm Kiefer”.

 

A selection of about 75 artists’ books is presented in the ambulatory of Grand Palais. Strangely enough hardly anybody went there, I noticed. The title of the exhibition is ‘In Place’. A few quotes by Ed Ruscha (considered the initiator of low profile and self-published artist’s book for the people) are silkscreened on the wall. Samsung screens display numbered video clips showing hands leafing through several of the books, which are on view in window cases right below the screens, displaying the books with the corresponding numbers. I realized this is a short-lived exhibition, only up for the few days of Paris Photo. The artist’s books are cramped in the showcases. Kippenberger; Kosuth; Anselm Kiefer; Les Krims; Fiona Tan’s booklet vox populi, and, literally, lying on top of that is Dark Shadow by Gilbert & George, published by Art for All. One of my observations was, Hans Eijkelboom and Peter Downsbrough have something in common.

 

Brutus killed Cesar (1976) by John Baldessari is a revelation that stayed with me: an oblong spiral bound booklet, like a stretched postcard, inside of it a repetition of reproductions – or fragments from film stills – of two male portraits (politicians, film actors maybe?) facing each other. And in between them, in the middle of the triptych, a freestanding picture of a potential murder weapon (kitchen knife, a dart, a pipe…) pops up. On the website of the Paris Photo program I read this booklet is a visual pun referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s cynical phrase: “Let’s bring murder back to the family where it belongs”. On the website you may find more in-depth information on the specific publications (book title, place and year of publication, size, number of pages and a short annotation). You don’t find that in the exhibition per se.

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Gary

Before 11.00 A.M. visitors are already forming a long queue in front of the entrance of Jeu de Paume, where a major retrospective of Gary Winogrand is showing his ‘tirages d’epoque’ (French for ‘vintage prints’). Winogrand, being the autodidact he is, continuously growing and influenced by Robert Frank and Walker Evans, photographed the physical aspects of all kinds of parades, cabaret, opera, and most of all, street life in the 1950s and 1960s in New York, Los Angeles, and several cities in Texas. He called it ‘the circus’. ‘Down from The Bronx’ captures his aproach: the photographer eagerly on top of his subject. Gary is drawn to physical action. In the picture entitled ‘Richard Nixon campaign, New York 1960’, people, stacked up in the photographic frame, carry signs with election slogans. ‘NY World’s fair, 1960’ clearly is a good example of how he kept dramatizing body language, facial expressions, and ultimately, the Carnival of Life. The most famous picture fitting in that description is this one: In Central Park a white blond woman with a scarf around her permanent and a tall well-dressed black man both carry dressed chimpanzees into Central Park Zoo. It is the year 1967. All kinds of family photographs are in display cases: Gary as a tough young guy with a tie and a wide greedy mouth, a Leica in front of his chest, and wearing a trench coat. Arms folded, hands behind the head, one leg on a table: All part of Winogrand’s circus. “The photograph is more dramatic than what happened”, he explains during a recorded Question-Answer session with an audience (we don’t get to see the audience). He can’t sit still. He has his arms folded, hands behind his head, two legs on the pedestal, on both sides of the microphone. He left 6.600 rolls of film that he had never reviewed. Or that he edited in haste. Diane Arbus said the following about him: “Gary Winogrand is such an instinctive, nearly primitive ironist, so totally without malice, so unflinching…”

 

Offprint

Following the Seine, towards Saint Germain des Pres, you enter Rue Bonaparte where Offprint is held at the amazing Neo-classicistic Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts. I stumble on Eastern Trouble Press Boston; presenting a self-published booklet by Polish Photographer Karola Mech with two spines (perfect binding), like two booklets facing each other, and a blind print in the very heart of the thing. It will surely be a good weather tomorrow is the title of this reflection by the photographer while on her trip to Japan with her ex-boyfriend. Two perspectives in black and white.

 

I greated Johan Deumens, standing behind a large table in the far back of the fair. And talked to Anne Geene (met her when she was a student at Master Photographic Studies at Leiden University). The English edition of her book Plot 235. was piled high on the table. Visiting her website, which is well designed and a real treat for those people loving biodiversity research, I realize Anne has already published two more editions since the Dutch edition of Plot 235. Johan shows me Arjan de Nooy’s fake feministic magazine from the 1970s Haarscherp containing found amateur photographs of women inspecting their sexual organs. We laugh a bit, timidly at first. I write the title down in my digital notebook, considering the publication for my database in progress on Photobooks of Found Photographs.

 

 

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Polycopies Bar & Books

Polycopies is more like a ‘bar and books’ event situated on a boat docked on the Seine river. This new initiative by Sebastian Hau and Laurent Chardon has its premiere at Paris Photo. You may find here such esteemed publishers as Journal and Nobody, and Akio Nagasawa. More intimate, close to too small for a book fair, is this meeting place on the ship Concorde Atlantique, louder too. More specialised maybe as well: Kaunas Gallery is present with nationally renowned photographers, like Sutkus, and Rakauskas. Names I remember that appeared in Camera International, a high quality heliogravure printed photographic magazine, issued in Paris in the mid 1980s. Odee is there, and Fw is present at Polycopies and at Offprint as well.

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Awards and more

17.15 Friday November 14th, I am receiving an email in which Aperture announces The winner of The Photobook Awards. The First Photobook Award is for Hidden Islam (2013) by Nicolo Degiorgis and with good reason (even without the recommendation and foreword by Martin Parr). Nicolo was signing his books at Dirk Bakker’s booth. Dirk handed me his plain textbook accompanying the already second edition of Hidden Islam. It contains 479 posts on an article entitled: ‘Arles 2014: Nicolo Degiorgis lifts the veil of Italy’s Islamophobia’, written by Sean O’Hagan for The Guardian, and published on July 15th, 2014. People had five days to leave comments. The insides of the fold out text pages show schematic drawings and coordinates, corresponding exactly with the number of pages, themes and locations in the awarded photobook. This is new; this has never been done before, to my knowledge. I buy the textbook in situ for 25,00 euro. He signs it with a pencil: ‘keep looking, Paris 15/11/2014.’

I read a post or two, it goes like this:

2          Italy is a Catholic country.

3:2       What point are you actually making? – Apart from stating the obvious?

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Photobook of The Year Award goes to Imagenary Club (2014) by Olivier Sieber, for what you could almost define as a reference work on the topic (Individual head-and-shoulders portraits, sharp and well lit, and in colour, depict a young generation of punkers appearing in bars and night clubs in major cities like Dusseldorf, Tokyo, New York and London over the years 2005-2012. The busts are juxtaposed to murky black and white pictures of ‘street views’ and urban landscapes. All images are compiled in a roughly bound colossal, but clearly sequenced and well-designed publication. (Did Katja Stuke, Oliver’s partner in life and work have a say in this? I wondered; she is not mentioned in the colophon). The bulky book is the size of an old fashioned telephone directory and is held together with two black rubber bands, which, I know from experience, will disintegrate in the coming years. In the back of the book you may find a state-of-the-art directory compiled of tweets referring to e.g. punk rock bars in Dusseldorf, ‘multiple personality’, ‘transgender’, and ‘skinhead culture’. The evolution from Frau Bohm to Imaginary Club has definitely been awarded! And more surprising, in terms of the definition of a ‘photobook’, is The Catalogue of The Year Award that goes to Christopher Williams’ exhibition catalogue published by MOMA, with the splendid title: The production line of happiness.

 

On Saturday morning, sitting at a café, I am reading in Le Parisien that the building located at 7, Rue des Grands Augustins (VI arrondisement) where Picasso in 1937 painted his mural Guernica possibly will be converted into a hotel with 25 rooms. Charlotte Rampling is a member of the Advisory Committee. And Jean Nouvel has in the periphery of Paris built Le Philarmonie already praised for its phenomenal acoustics. The opening is planned for January 14, 2015. I look at a newspaper picture of a wide wavy auditorium, which looks far from finished.

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Sunday at noon I take the elevators to the sixth floor of Centre Pompidou to visit the Marcel Duchamp retrospective. I am not the only one. L.H.O.O.Q. dating from 1919 is the very first icon you encounter after entering the exhibition. Mona Lisa with a moustache and goatee has the size and layout of a 19th century postcard or carte de visite, those sturdy carton ones. The surprise in making this association lifts my spirit. Tzara just came from Switzerland that year, I read in a caption. In a window case I try to decipher some autobiographic notes by Duchamp scribbled on pieces of paper torn from a notepad: “lhooq elle a chaud au cul comme des ciseaux ouvertes”. On Wikipedia I read that it is a pun: the letters of the title when pronounced in French sound like ‘elle a chaud au cul’ (‘she’s got a hot arse’). I didn’t know that.

Further on in the exhibition I discover a second version of L.H.O.O.Q dating from 1955, reproduced on, what looks to me like, a tea towel: l’Envers de la peinture. What I discovered too is that Duchamp aspires ‘non retinal’ painting; making a painting of the idea. Duchamp and his contemporary critics talked about ‘extra retinal radiations’, and ‘the electric halo’, and about ‘the question of fluids’. Depicting the ‘astral body’ of Paul Nadar or a nude from 1910 is very similar to the way Odillon Redon did. Nowadays this ‘astral body’ could be considered the energetic body, also know as the etheric body: the first layer around the physical body. I really feel exited about this discovery! Something he also tried to realize through ‘anaemic cinema’ in 1929. Marcel Duchamp painted his brothers in muted colours while playing chess at gaslight. The work is considered a rebellious act against the violent colours of fauvism. His brother Raymond Duchamp-Villon was a sculptor. Duchamp liked Cranach, his elongated nudes and the colour of flesh.

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Back to Grand Palais one more time on Saturday afternoon. By foot, the same way back. Once more, there were queues in front of Jeu de Paume, and Grand Palais. The first photograph I encountered in a crowded booth, which was substantially larger then most of the others I visited, is a miniature portrait of Margaret Bourke-White while she is taking pictures in the early 1930s with a large wooden view camera (still standard in those days) from the rooftop of the Chrysler building in New York: the selling price is 34.000 euro’s at Daniel Blau Gallery. Just before leaving the booth, I see a portrait of an elderly woman, wearing glasses, reminding me of a similar one by Alexandr Rodchenko. Apparently, Bourke-White made a portrait of Stalin’s mother in 1931. A kind of Quaker portrait and on offer for 7.000 euro’s.

 

After pitching my book proposal (An Anthology: Photobooks of Found Photographs) to some publishers/editors of content, among the crowds of people, I went out to get some fresh air, and walked back to Rue Bonaparte, to Offprint, a ‘disarming’ art-publishing fair that stretches from photography to experimental music. Yannick Bouillis, the creative mind behind it all and director of Offprint was engaged in a talk (to me he represents the philosopher in the world of photography), standing outside in front of the entrance to the fair, smoking a cigarette. Recently he moved with his family from Amsterdam to Paris. He looked happy, and Parisian.

 

From a table at Offprint fair I could, just like that, pick up from a small pile artist’s books by Christian Boltanksi. I was thrilled. Kadish, Les Suisses Morts, Scratch (still sealed), and in particular Inventaire des Objets Ayant Appartenu A Une Femme de Bois-Colombe. I knew the artist’s book, which is also a catalogue, existed, but never had a chance to leaf through it. And after a short introduction Laurence Dumaine Calle from Editions 591 – the CB-publications were on her table – handed to me a publication written by Bob Calle: Christian Boltanski artist’s Books (2008, still sealed). After reading carefully her business card I wondered: Is the author her husband? And are they, Bob and Laurence, somehow related to Sophie Calle?

 On the way back, arriving at Central Station Amsterdam, I stumble on Bas Vroege collecting his large duffel bag, and his partner Hripsime Visser. In the drizzle rain he offers me a present: an oversized photobook in a  cotton bag, he zips out of his luggage: Maydan – Hundred Portraits by Emeric Lhuisset on ‘the face of the revolution in February 2014’, in the centre of Kiev. A potential award winning publication. Thank you Bas.

Mirelle Thijsen (MT):

We start from Christian Boltanski in this conversation, his oeuvre and artists books, and compare those with your private collection and book projects. I will address the two simultaneously as they raise similar issues. I also find Boltanski’s biography particulary interesting. We will be talking about his personal history at some point. We will also discuss various aspects of your way of working as a curator, collector, and publisher and as director of Kesselskramer an international creative agency doing things differently in the field of communications.

Christian Boltanski spread Kaddish

I assume a large amount of Boltanski’s publications are represented in your collection. And I would like to clarify why his artist’s strategy is so fascinating to you. When did you first encounter artists’ books by Christian Boltanski, which, by the way, all happen to be exhibition catalogues?

kaddish cover 

Erik Kessels (EK):

Yes, indeed. When I was 20 years old I became interested in the work of Boltanski, after seeing a number of exhibitions. That had mainly to do with a different use of imagery, which has a specific intent and a different meaning is assigned to it. Boltanski played a lot with that. That part was for me very interesting. It all comes together in the book Kaddish, in which he makes a story in pictures, and is trying to depict the history of the Holocaust. And he does that with images deriving at times from that period, as soon as you see for example soldiers, but otherwise, fictional pictures are what we see. By putting these images in that historically charged context, you assume it works. In Kaddish a lot of pictures are collected coming from that period. In the back of the book you will see people depicted, these are victims, shown in dark photographs, in fact they are just found photographs from a Mexican newspaper in which many accident victims are depicted. He [Boltanski] has re-used and re-worked this material in other artwork as well. He (re-) uses images to help convey a particular story. For me that was the first interesting point of reference.

boltanski_christian_parkett_22 cover

MT:

Is this found material referring to El Caso (1988)?

 

EK:

Yes, some of that footage is reflected in Kaddish.

 

MT:

Exactly what happened? You were 20 years old and what did you run into? Kaddish was not the first acquaintance with the work of Boltanski, I imagine?

 

EK:

No, I had not seen his first books, but his first exhibitions. In the Van Abbe Museum for example. So that is the way I encountered it.

 

MT:

Had you already started collecting his artists’ books in those days?

 

EK:

No, not really…

 

 

MT:

But you did buy the exhibition catalogues?

 

EK:

No, not at that time …

 

MT:

When did you start collecting Boltanski’s artists’ books and why?

 

EK:

First of all, COLLECTING as such is not something that is of interest to me. It is something that I do, but not along the lines of “I have a collection of…” I bought these books, in order to gather and to record knowledge, and because of the tactility of such an object. To accumulate knowledge about the way Boltanski deals with that aspect of book making. To find out how the editing is done. Those are for me more important reasons to acquire the books than to suggest I’m working on collecting his catalogues.

boltanski les abonnees du telephone

For example, Boltanski has made a phonebook in Malmö. The artist’s book [Les Habitants de Malmö] is a phone directory of the city of Malmö. He simply puts that phone directory as his book on the market, several months after the city phone book was printed. And the only thing that Christian Boltanski has added is a rectification because people had already died during that period, and the facts no longer matched the data in the phone book. Getting acquainted with his work is one thing, but the object in itself: how he makes such a rectification and puts the appendix into the publication is what I find interesting. Many of those artists’ books come into view much later, with the rise of the Internet, with eBay, when you suddenly have access to many more countries and people who started selling their things.

boltanski-christian les-habitants-de-malmo-cover

MT:

But when did you actually start collecting? You said that when you were 20 you visited that first exhibition…  

 

EK:

About ten years later or so… Since I was 14 years old, I went to the Documenta in Kassel. My parents were not art-minded people, but considered the international art manifestation interesting to visit. They had heard about it, and we lived near the German border, and in Munster there was a kind of out- door exhibition; from there we went to Kassel. I felt it all being very interesting; a lot of information tumbles over you, when you’re out there for a few days.

 

Again, the fact that I later started buying these publications, was because I was aware of them; how many books he had made, in the different forms of expression: newspapers, to which Boltanski had contributed for example.

 

MT:

Were you informed about his publications? How did you know they existed? Where did you find his artists’ books?

 

EK:

Once you’ve committed yourself to reading, and seeing what Boltanski has produced, you notice that he has made such publications as a catalogue of his own artists’ books as catalogues. You look and start searching for the publications mentioned. And I often went to Walter König bookseller in Cologne, which is near my parents again. These are the places you may find his books, and of course on the Internet, on eBay.

 

MT:

How large is your collection of Boltanski books? And to what extent do you strive for completeness? How many books did Christian Boltanski actually make?

 

EK:

Not that I am aware of the total amount, nor am I tracking numbers, but this section of my collection is quite complete. I think I have something like over 300 books by Boltanski. Let’s see; no I have 230 publications.

 

MT:

And you purchase at regular intervals?

 

EK:

Now he no longer brings out so much new work. Again, in the beginning of the Internet, with the advent of eBay, when there were many bids, I looked every day … just a few minutes … I chased multiple artists’ books, for example Japanese photobooks. In the early days of the Internet, which was also a new trading platform to the Japanese, they put integral book auctions on the Internet, and many people were not aware of that. That’s when I bought a lot and it was very affordable.

 

MT:

So eBay was a source, you mentioned Walter König … Are there more points of supply?

 grosse_hamburger_st_installation Boltanski

EK:

Yes, and of course I went looking at his exhibitions, in France, in Paris. In Berlin, on Grosse Hamburgerstrasse, a building is cleared away; one in a series of terraced houses has been demolished. On both sides of the excavation, on the facades of the houses that remained, Boltanski has put the names and occupations of the people who used to live there. That is a permanent artwork.

 

MT:

A kind of installation art in public space? I think you refer toThe Missing House (La Maison Manquante) in collaboration with Andreas Fischer?

 

EK:

Yes … and I keep up with the development of his work and ideas. He is not the only one. I do that as well with musicians, other artists and photographers. I have a top-100 people I find interesting, and who I follow. And that top-100 artists changes occasionally. At the bottom of the list people are dropping off and at the top people are being added on.

 

MT:

What’s Boltanski’s position now in that list?

 

EK:

Well, I consider his work still interesting, partly because he continues to surprise his public. I once visited an installation he made in a museum in Milan. Where he had put up a large library, all the shelves were filled with phone directories. These were all phone directories of all cities and all places around the world. Maybe not exactly right, but you got a sense that everyone, every single citizen, was represented in that library. I wasn’t familiar with that art work yet, so I went to have a look…

 

 

MT:

But what exactly in Boltanski’s work keeps you enthralled?

 

EK:

Such a work is very much about life and death … the ephemeral. Those are things that appeal to me … and also … how he physically constructs these installations. I’ve been present when he had made an installation in Grand Palais. That was fantastic! In a huge space, establishing a strong idea, making a statement. There were all compartments, filled with clothing on the floor, which stood for German concentration camps. And in the middle was a huge mountain where a crane was placed to pick up and drop clothes.

 

It is all about ideas…Boltanski has been innovative: bringing ideas from the margins into the mainstream. For example now, somewhere on an island, probably paid by some collector, in a house, similar to a kind of blood bank, or image database, he has collected heartbeats: recordings of heartbeats. At Grand Palais in Paris was a room, where you could pull a number, and wait, and then your heart rate was measured. Boltanski collects that kind of personal information. He collects authentic heartbeats of people. And that material he had used for the installation in Paris, as audio sound in the museum space. What you hear is heartbeats from different people. But at the same time he also works on a kind of database. Yes, he has strong conceptual ideas. At least, that’s what art critics call it…

 

Biography CB by Grenier

MT:

Ha-ha…Yes!

Did you read his biography: The impossible life of Christian Boltanski (2009)?

La Vie Impossible poster

EK:

No!

 

MT:

I am referring to the book by Catherine Grenier…What do you know about him, his life, on a personal level?

 

EK:

In fact…I know he has Polish ancestors …And that he is Jewish … The entire history of the Holocaust seems important to him; I understand that plays a fairly large role in his artwork.

 

MT:

Did you know that his father during the Second World War was hiding for, if I recall correctly, a year and a half under a plank floor in his home?

 

EK:

No, I’ve never read it.

 

MT:

It is impressive. Realising that Boltanski had lived at home as a child, until he was 30. He was a big kid. Everything he has done since is in a way dealing with his childhood, him as a child…

 

EK:

Indeed he has created works on that topic. For example he made different effigies of himself as a child. I did not get into his biography. I have not expressed strong interest in that. I’m interested in what he makes, for example, last year or so in Rotterdam, the installation art was also exhibited in the Venice Biennale… showing these production lines with these kids. It’s phenomenal to see. I met Boltanski once, briefly, in Arles. We don’t know each other. It was more that he was there in person.

 

MT:

I would like to recommend you reading the biography The Impossible Life of Christian Boltanski, while lying in bed, so to speak. It is very impressive.

 

EK:

Oh yeah …Yes, I have that book too…

 

MT:

It’s an incredible revelation of a person’s life. How Boltanski, almost claustrophobicly, lived at home with his parents …The immense fear to go outside into the streets.

 

EK:

Yeah…

het telefoonboek van Ben cover

MT:

He is putting his own life at the service of his work. How does the work of Boltanski ‘resonate’ in your work as an ad creator? I am especially thinking, for example, of het telefoonboek van Ben [The phone book by Ben] (1999) and the aforementioned edition, Kaddish, released in 1998.

 

EK:

No, no … I also don’t know if that’s really the case. Perhaps it is said, that he does that, but he is also someone who plays with things. The funny thing is, now in June 2014, an exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen is being shown, entitled: (Mis)Understanding Photography. And the bizarre thing is, that all those people whose work I collect, and over the years have considered interesting, and some of them I know personally, are represented: Tacita Dean, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Richard Prince, Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle … but Peter Piller and Joachim Schmid as well. It goes on and on. It’s a large group exhibition with all those people, and I’m in there myself with my work, in a fairly large space.

I curated a new installation. This is marvellous! Since I always feel like I’m an outsider, because I have other professional work as well. Although I do my commercial work with passion, and can delegate a lot, and collaborate with people, I don’t have to produce all of it myself of course …But that I get the opportunity to exhibit together with these people: Non-photographers working with photography, in a major retrospective, that in itself I find delightful!

 

MT:

Who curated the exhibition?

 

EK:

I am referring to the director of the photographic collection of Folkwang Museum Essen: Florian Ebner.

 

MT:

But how does your work and collecting photobooks relate to your life experiences?

 

EK:

Well, this is a story I have often told… when I was 11 my sister died, she was 9 then. She was run over by a car. Someone had driven through a red traffic light while she was crossing the street. That catastrophe had a big impact on me. Since then I became an only child at home. My father and mother spent a long time to cope with that loss, and incorporate the grief: 5 years. After 5 years there might have been one day of the week they did not think about it. Then slowly, it started to get slightly better. In those days I have withdrawn myself and spent a lot of time in my room, I made drawings all the time. That creative spurt was stirred up, also by the fact that I was convinced I should stay with my parents, but still have my own place. I could concentrate fully on what I liked to do …It was a kind of loophole …No, not a loophole, a distraction from what was going on. When I was 12 or 13 years old, I started making fanzines, heavy metal-like fanzines. The sequential aspect I considered exiting.

 

MT:

A fanzine? What does the term mean… a magazine, a newsprint?

 

EK:

You don’t know what a fanzine is! It’s a stapled booklet …I published an edition of 50 or more. I can still remember I made a display on the stairs in my parent’s house, and took a picture of that. The making of the actual print run, the fact that you have a private edition in circulation, was extremely interesting to me.

Useful Photography 1 cover

Again, the point is not to collect, but I gain inspiration from the items which I collect. That stems from the fact that I’m professionally working with visual memory, receiving many visual stimuli, and get excited by image processing projects. Over time I have developed all kinds of outlets for that material. Such as Useful Photography and In Almost Every Picture. These series of publications are channels for my passions.

In-almost-every-pictures_covers EK

MT:

Let’s get back to that personal experience in your youth. To what extent is this life experience reflected in your visual narratives? Or to put it differently, to what extent does your work reflect what has been handed down from your childhood? And I am particularly referring to the sudden loss of your sister at an early age.

 

EK:

Well, every now and then, I have returned to that experience. I’ve made a movie with Marlène Dumas and Ryuitchi Sakamoto. Marlène and I made a movie, independently of each other, accompanied with music composed by Sakamoto. I made a movie about my sister, based on existing film footage. I offered Marlène a hand-held Super 8 camera, and she made a film of her daughter, and that was the connection between the two film productions. Her film came out first, showing her daughter, who was then 14, lying half naked in bed. The result was a fine balance between eroticism and death. For me, that was the first time I had re-worked the subject matter of my sister. It was based on film footage which my father had shot while we played table tennis. It’s good that I’ve made that.

 

MT:

When exactly did that happen? Could you mention the date or the year?

 

EK:

In 2007 or so…? The film has been shown in many places, recently at LE BAL in Paris.

 

MT:

That is much later. I actually want to go back to…

 

EK:

Yes, yes … I cannot make that connection quite literally myself, but … I can still remember my parents, after my sister’s death, were looking for the last picture of her. That was a colour photograph, just a snapshot, which showed my mother, my sister and me sitting on a terrace in the sun. At one point they had part of the picture clipped, the section showing my sister, which a professional photographer cropped, reproduced in black and white, and blown up. I’ve always been puzzled how such a photograph, becomes a kind of monument in the living room. That picture is still there.

 

MT:

Some sort of icon?

 

EK:

Yes!

But originating from a simple snapshot, cropping the very last moment of what is recorded of my sister. I’m not saying that this is the reason why I started later looking for photographs of anonymous people, or started to crop pictures: like snapshots showing myself and some other people and then cutting them out of the picture. Perhaps there is a connection.

 

MT:

I do notice that you gather pictures of other people, which seem insignificant. Amateur photography, family albums … and these are the point of departure for you to re-write a life history. Giving a new direction to their lives. You give kind of an iconic status to these snapshots.

 

EK:

Yes, that’s what I am doing. Yes.

 

MT:

These are people we do not know at all. People who have no story to tell. But you create a new story line of their lives.

 

EK:

Yes!

 

MT:

I can understand that, with regard to that personal history you just told me. You get to see a good example of the way you bring somebody that has been photographed, a loved one, to the forefront. To someone else the same operation might seem something small and insignificant. Boltanski actually works the same way! Some portraits of anonymous people are blown up, enlarged, as a way to highlight someone’s existence, take the person out of his/her context and say: LOOK HERE! You bring it to ‘life’…

 

EK:

Yes!

 

MT:

Maybe so, in that respect that one traumatic experience, and the way your parents have dealt with the tangible recollection of your sister in a picture…for you this must have been a very formative process.

 

EK:

Sure…

 

MT:

Yes, I can imagine that this has been a key moment in your life. And it is a child-persona, if I may call it such. That experience is actually quite central, in you being young and at home. And this is also the case with Boltanski; something once personal becomes collective data. Even his own name is presented in quotation marks! For years it was the one central theme in his work and books: a child-persona ‘CB’, in which biographical facts and found histories intersect and mix. I see that reflected in your way of working…

 

EK:

Well look, in the series In Almost Every Picture, however, I am looking for a particular personal experience. Unravelling the story that’s inside. I think in his [Boltanski] case, it’s different; the way he works with photography is more conceptual. Like recording all the possessions of a single person. Boltanski is investigating things, delving into personal matters and presenting them as a part of a whole. At one point, he has made light boxes showing faces lit up from behind, which were hanging on the wall. That’s more of a decorative artwork, in order to sell in a gallery. I consider that… Well, for me his conceptual work is most intriguing.

 

MT:

Yes. Would you please mention certain key works? The ones you consider impressive?

 

EK:

Well, Kaddish for example, and…

 

MT:

Why?

 

EK:

That book contains over a thousand pages and Boltanski is telling the history of the Holocaust through photography, as I explained earlier. He builds a history with photographs only, without using any texts. Some are authentic images, historical photographs, and many others are not.

spread het telefoonboek van Ben EK

MT:

I look at het telefoonboek van Ben [The Phone Book of Ben], released in 1999 and, again, Kaddish which was published in 1998. Has the latter been a source of inspiration?

boltanski-kaddish spread 2

EK:

No, no …That book was produced, simply because of the fact that a provider of mobile communications, in principle, doesn’t need any phone directory, that’s exactly why we made one. You see: made in order to make things a bit awkward.

 

MT:

In terms of content was the association with the phone directories by Boltanski was not there?

 

EK:

No, no…Certainly not in terms of content, No.

 Menschlich spread 1

MT:

Menschlich (1994) is actually a kind of phone directory, too. The publication is comparable to Kaddish.

 

Reprint of Lessons of Darkness (until 1987), 1988. “Menschlich” is Christian Boltanski’s massive 1994 publication (rather like a small telephone directory) that collects in printed form the pre-existing photographically based series of works ‘Le College d’Hulst’, ‘L’Album famille D.’, ‘Le Club Mickey’, ‘La plage de Bercy’, ‘Les Enfants de Dijon’, ‘Detective’, ‘Le Lycee Chases’, ‘La Fete du Pourim’, ‘El Caso’, ‘Le Suisses Morts’, ‘La famille de Berlin’, ‘Grosse Hamburger Strasse’, ‘Sans Soucis’, ‘Ces enfants recherchent leurs parents’, ‘Les Regards’, ‘Avant – Maintenant’. From: Abebooks bookseller’s description.

 

EK:

Menschlich is a … part of Kaddish. The section is literally ‘pulled out’, and implemented differently.

 

MT:

Yes, one of the chapters, you could say.

 

EK:

Yes, exactly!

Ost:West Boltanski cover Ost

MT:

That child-persona I find very alluring in Boltanski’s oeuvre. And it is common in his books. For example in a booklet on youth-culture in East and West Germany: Ost/West.

boltanski-schenkung Katalog cover

EK:

Yes, that is a nice booklet. And where East and West meet, folding open in the middle of the book, is a grey page. That page is symbolic of the Berlin Wall as it used to be there… Then there’s another book that is called Bilder [Schenkung Christian Boltanksi: Bilder, Objekte, Dokumenten aus der Siebziger Jahre] that is practically an image catalogue… not really from a catalogue, but images as they are supposed to be: model photographs. Not literally, of course, in terms of a fashion models…

 

MT:

Exemplary pictures, you mean?

 

EK:

Yes. 

10 portraits photographiques de CB 1946-1964 cover

MT:

In my opinion, this is a very early publication: In 10 portraits photographiques de CB 1946-1964 different children are depicted suggesting ‘CB’ at different ages. All photographs happen to have been shot on one and the same day. That little booklet indicates that the figure ‘Christian Boltanski’ is really only a collective reality; he does not exist as an individual. Do you have that booklet?

10 portraits photographiques de christian boltanski 1946-1964 spread

EK:

Yes, these are different children indeed. He plays with that identity issue. Yeah…I have that booklet, too.

 

MT:

Did you ever hint at this idea of self-portraiture, your own childhood reflected in someone else’s portraits? Did you ever want to do such a thing? Or does it not work like that?

 

EK:

Again, it doesn’t work that way… For me it’s a kind of acquiring knowledge through study. All those projects, all those books. And you wonder about them; you charge yourself, so to speak. And then, if you try to do things yourself, to a certain extent you try, in a way, to be unique.

 

MT:

It supplies you with information, feeds you with new ideas.

 

EK:

Yes! It all comes together, because I am interested in graphic design, editing, and printing matters.

 

MT:

I would like your opinion about a quote from Boltanski: “photography doesn’t prove anything”. Is that the case?

 

EK:

Yes, he says that because it coincides with what he is doing … In Kaddish, as just discussed: Any photograph of a child he makes a bit out of focus, suddenly becomes a victim. I also once noticed a book, but I don’t think Boltanski compiled it… maybe it doesn’t even exist… I refer to a book with two portraits side by side; on every two-page spread are two portraits and one of the persons depicted is a perpetrator, the other a victim of the same case. But you never know who who is. That’s an interesting given in relation to the question that you pose: ‘photography proves nothing’.

 

MT:

It’s about interpretation…

 

EK:

 Yes.

MT:

That imagined self-biography has become the premise of Boltanski’s work. I find this highly interesting: how Boltanski deals with truth. He says: “I have found so many false memories, that were considered collective memory” … So what does it mean tangible reality?

 

EK:

Things that I am working on, regarding these photo albums …The family album is simply a form of propaganda. In case a man or a woman of a young family takes a picture while they are on a holiday, then everything should be perfect: everyone is laughing, beautiful sunshine, the couple is standing close together. All is well. Family albums are created to promote a particular family. In terms of: Look…! We are doing all right.

 

MT:

A perfectly polished life…

 

EK:

Yes, that perhaps is what he is aiming at with the notion ‘false memories’, because it is standard in family photography. Though it is referring to some extent to a collective memory.

 

MT:

Which over time is distorted in our memory.

 

EK:

Yes, but you also have to consider a particular framing. Probably the most interesting moment took place outside that photo frame. And that is what you DO remember of that particular moment in time.

 

MT:

But tell me, why are you, being yourself a private collector of amateur photography and photo albums, so much interested in the photographic memories of other people?

 

EK:

There are a number of reasons: one thing I find interesting is the typology you discover in this genre. In case you collect all albums of a specific family, the typology is the following: two people meet each other in the first album, in which the man photographs his girlfriend up close. They are totally in love with each other. The second album is a wedding album. The third is made at the time the first child is born. The fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh album is a great mix of everything. What you see is chaos: the birth of a second and third child, vacations, children’s parties. That sort of thing… The last album will be created when the children have left home. And both parents go on a holiday with each other again. In a way, it is a kind of remake of the first album.

 

Also the rituals and customs that people have, I find interesting. As well as the boring routine in such an album: pages with pictures of mountains that are totally non-descript. Which just indicate: look there is a mountain! I’m interested in errors, for they are amateur photographers of course. These people are just enthusiasts.

 

MT:

A bit clumsy, in a sense…?

 

EK:

Yes, yes… and there is great beauty unfolding in that innocence. This genre of photography is an inexhaustible resource, which makes you recognise new things over and over again.

 

MT:

Boltanski once remarked on this issue, and this may explain why Boltanski liked to visit for example the Musée de l’Homme where insignificant utilitarian objects, commodities, are shown to the public. What he saw there were e.g. kitchen knives, used by ordinary people to cut with, or a dinner plate used to eat from. In his words: “I want to express simple ideas, from the point of view of tradition and history”. That’s basically what he’s doing. Is that what you pursue in making books, and in the way you collect books?

 

EK:

What counts for me is that I allow people to look at already existing material, which they considered very common and unobtrusive. At the moment these images are placed in a different context, you make people marvel at them again. Along the lines of: “I have never seen it this way”. It is a renewed look at simple snapshots and discovering the story in there. That’s basically what I do. I urge people to watch the story, compiled in an exhibition or a book. Extracted from its original context, making you look again and to assess the vernacular differently.

 

MT:

In a sense that is what Boltanski does, too. In 1973 he made a 16mm film entitled: l’Appartement de la Rue de Vaugirard in which he introduces for the first time a narration: a completely random story line. I see a parallel approach to your way of working. You also re-construct a story line that did not exist originally, for example, in a family album you have purchased. You pull out the material and create a new plot.

 

EK:

Sometimes a story line is already there, but I twist things, distort and emphasize them.

 

MT:

And now we are discussing ‘found inventories’, Boltanski is dealing with that too. He has released several books on this topic. It’s a very dry concept: a typology of things as found in situ…I link that to what you do with found material. To which extent is your series of magazines Useful Photography an ‘inventory’?

 

EK:

Yes, yes …Such a publication of Boltanski is a kind of ‘hatch’, a channel to show things. In Useful Photography we present images that people are dealing and working with everyday. In fact we are not aware of them anymore. We consume those images daily. By placing them together in a magazine you literally take them out of the initial context, that works. The images are created for a utilitarian purpose and once you pull them out there, and cluster them, or make them clash with other images published in there as well. You urge people to look again at to the beauty of it and be amazed. The magazine Useful Photography is at the same time a kind of ode to the creators of that type of photography. In general you will not encounter this kind of material because you just will not notice it. But if you strip it of its environment then it stands out.

 

MT:

As in Usefull Photography volume 1: an anonymous photographer makes pictures of coffins with pin-up-like ladies on top of the phallic shaped caskets, for some product catalogue, I presume?

 

EK:

Yes, the series was photographed for a calendar, commissioned by an Italian company that makes coffins. The photographer plays with the myth that once you’re in heaven that there are all naked women appearing on your coffin! Then a commercial photographer made pictures of that subject.

 

Such a topic is subject to change. We now live in an image-Renaissance …A moment in time which is quite unique. That’s not comparable to, let’s say, 15 years ago. It almost reaches a high point…

 

MT:

Why a high point, why now?

 

EK:

The amount of images we deal with every day …Say you would place a person of a 100… no 80 years ago in this timeframe, he would die within the hour, in a manner of speaking! Because he should have to handle so much imagery, and so much information, that he would not survive. I once read somewhere that we now see more images before lunch then would be seen by someone in the 19th century during his enrite life. Today we live in a time in which you can watch continuously, associate, copy, and give new meaning to images.

 

MT 

Is this another way of dealing with visual language?

 

EK:

Yes, and now that plays a major role in the lives of young people, both artists and amateurs, who are dealing so much easier with pictures. If 20 years ago a person edited some pictures and associated with them, he was immediately ranked an artist, but now a lot of people do that kind of thing. Just like writing a blog, devoted to a particular subject is also a kind of exhibition, right? Only it is not framed, but basically it is framed!

 

MT:

And it’s all cross-border in nature, such as civic journalism. Any amateur photographer can make the 8-o’clock news.

 

EK:

Yes! You know the phenomenon that someone takes a picture of a few people, sometime in the past, and then much later again takes a picture of the same people. In each country of the world you may find someone that works exactly in the same way. There is a large amount of copying behaviour in art. That in itself is not at all problematic; it’s not plagiarism. There are people who do that very well and are extremely original. Such strategies become a global phenomenon, which happens very quickly.

 

MT:

Yes, especially the latter: a wave motion of a new phenomenon. May I once more make a comparison with Boltanski? Boltanski makes a kind of photographic readymade, as in the key work Fotoalbum der Familie D. (1972) in which he constructs by means of authentic family photographs a fictional history. Isn’t that what you are doing? You seem to be no longer drawing the line between fact and fiction in the series In Almost Every Picture?

Good Luck cover

EK:

Yes. I once made a book, that’s called Good Luck, the essay for the Dutch Book Week in 2011. They asked me if I wanted to do an essay, departing from photographic images. My idea was the following: I had an envelope with 50 pictures in it, of a family that in a strange way collected all kinds of dolls at home. They were little people and who apparently had no children. The spouse of the woman was relatively small and had a twin brother and frequently she stood next to him on a photograph. There was mystery involved.

The visual narrative plays in Northern France, in the 1950s. Colour photography was just on the market. On several pictures a black man appears. The people who are depicted have meanwhile deceased. To me, it was interesting to treat that story as a fiction and give the protagonists a new life. A novel writer, Christine Otten, has created a fictional story. These kind of mixed modes and hybrids I find fascinating. In this case you have a photo booklet with text in it, or, if you wish, a textbook with lots of pictures in it. Interestingly, such a pretty complicated edition of 50,000 copies was sold out in three weeks. And that such a subject reaches a mainstream public.

 

Constantly associating with existing images is what he [Boltanski] does as well, and thus ventilating his ideas. I wonder sometimes about the fact that so many people find this interesting …As in the series In Almost Every Picture. That people are considering found photographs authentic again. Just like today you can buy a lot of vinyl. The tactile aspect of an old photograph, an existing image, affected by time…

 

I myself have been taking Polaroid pictures for a long time. Every now and then I look back at them, and take some pictures out. But at the moment I have taken the Polaroids, I haven’t used them at all. It never occurred to me as: This is a nice idea; this I want to photograph. That works too fast for me, the photograph is just there then…I have no affinity with that.

 

MT:

What you do seems always linked to the past, to a history.

 

EK:

Yes, although, it does not apply to a project like ‘24-hour Flickr’ … Or maybe it does. It is the history of the day before.

Le Lycee Chases cover

MT:

To finalize our conversation, may I mention a number of artists’ books by Boltanski? I would like you to indicate if they are part of your collection and invite you to briefly comment on the content. What I find interesting is that Boltanski highlights anonymous people, individuals, such as students at a Gymnasium in Vienna. These pupils were killed in the 1930s and otherwise unknown. And the only thing there is, is the class portrait when they were 17. That’s all we know.  is the title of the book. I will mention a few more titles. Please tell me briefly what those publications stimulate in you.

 

Le Lycee Chases 1987 [“That in 1931 there has been a Gymnasium in Vienna was all we know. Photography is the only document – perhaps evidence, about the fate of these students …In any case, photography poses pressing questions about our prejudices and our conscience”, Christian Boltanski].

 

EK:

Yes, I am familiar with the book. Yes, I have it in my collection. What fascinates me, in this case, is the history of these schoolgirls and schoolboys, and that Boltanski makes an artist’s book based on a single image. And then again he created multiple images starting from that one image. That is interesting.

 

MT:

Menschlich is a massive publication. Several series are reoccurring in this compilation, such as: ‘Le Club Mickey’, ‘Les enfants de Dyon’, ‘Le Lycée Chases’ is also reappearing. ‘El Caso’ is in there, ‘Les Suisses Morts’… What do you think if I say ‘Menschlich’? And is the book also included in your collection?

 

EK:

Yes, yes … of course. The title itself says a great deal. Actually, he poses a question. What is ‘human’ and what is not? I think he continuously raises concerns about social issues within his work.

 

As I indicated earlier regarding that phone directory …its implementation…Boltanski picks up a phone directory, pastes a sticker with his own name on the front cover, and then it suddenly turns into an artist’s book, because he’s added an errata to it…a rectification: a folded A3 sized sheet of paper, with names on it. That is also ‘Menschlich’. The moment a new phone directory is released, and you leave it for six months in your closet, then it is no longer representative. His work is all about life and death; the ephemeral of humanity.

Ost West spread

MT:

And then Ost/West, we have mentioned it earlier, contains reproductions of relics of youth-culture in Berlin.

 

Ost/West (1998) Relics of youth-culture in Ost/West Berlin in the 1970s

 

EK:

You will find no people depicted in there. The bizarre thing is, in that booklet, that actually the human presence is made very tangible. What he has done is select other stuff than the calibrated effigies of ‘East’ and ‘West’. This is how he made an attempt to incorporate the citizens of Berlin. That makes it a strong idea.

Scratch spreadscratch cover

MT:

Let’s focus on another booklet, similar in size and sobriety, called Scratch. Have you scratched and looked? What makes these pictures so ‘forbidden’, once you have brought them to the foreground?

 

Scratch (2002) This thin, stiff artist’s book contains ten duotone illustrations of purportedly disturbing and forbidden images, but one wouldn’t know since each page has been completely covered with a layer of silver material that must be scratched off to reveal the photograph beneath. Presented in a way that evokes a family photograph album, the book has interleaving sheets between each page spread. From: Photo-Eye book description.

 

EK:

I do not know how he has come across these pictures. They are pornographic pictures. Also in this case he plays with the medium photobook. The fact that you buy an artist’s book and as soon as you open it, there’s nothing to see, except when you scratch the silver, but if you do, the book is partly damaged. Just imagine, it would be great if Boltanski would print all his books on ink that is impermanent. After ten years, they’re all gone. Then you have his collection of books, but on the pages is no ink; everything is gone!

 

boltanski les suisses morts lausanne

MT:

Interesting idea! In Les Suisses Morts are pictures of obituaries cut-outs from Swiss newspapers. What I found funny and cynical at the same time is that he chose Swiss people because they had no historical reason to die in World War II. In general the brutality of death is pivotal in his oeuvre.

 SONY DSC

EK:

Yes, yes…

 

MT:

Les Suisses Morts is similar to Le Lycee Chases. Would you like to comment on that publication? And may I ask, do you have El Caso? A remarkably small first edition of 80 copies. Do you have the version with a large ring binder?

 

El Caso 1988. Ring bound booklet, 5x7cm with a Perspex cover, in edition of 80 ex. containing 17 images. “This small artist’s book was produced by Boltanski for the deluxe issue of Parkett magazine No. 22. Themes central to Boltanski’s oeuvre find devastating expression in this tiny piece of pocket pornography containing images of brutal murder re-photographed by the artist from the Spanish detective magazine El Caso”. From: Abebooks bookseller’s description.

 

EK:

Yes! The imagery is derived from such a Mexican newspaper focussing on disasters. He just clipped them out of a newspaper. Gruesome pictures his choice of victims and dead people.

 

MT:

Mutilated bodies, I read somewhere that these pictures came from a Spanish detective magazine.

 

EK:

Yes! Well, Spanish… In Mexico you have them, too.

 

MT:

At what point did you buy El Caso?

 

EK:

Just let me think … 10, 15 years ago?

 

MT:

How much did this rare book cost then?

 

EK:

I don’t know…Ha-ha.

frau aus Ludwigshafen CB cover

cover Boltanski Christian_Inventaire des objects ayant appartenu a une femme de Bois-Colombes

CB inventaris Oxford spread

MT:

Another early publication is Inventar des objets appartenu a une femme de Bois Colombes (1974) and similar titles related to ‘inventories’ of people’s homes and lives: Inventar der Objekte, die einer Frau aus Ludwigfhafen gehört haben (2000) and Inventory of the objects belonging to an inhabitant of Oxford introduced by a preface and folllowed by some answers to my proposal (1973). Would you please elaborate on these publications? He has made several of this kind of books.

autobiography sol lewitt spread 1

EK:

During that period there were more artists who covered the same sort of topics. Like Feldmann, … and Sol Lewitt. The latter has released a book [Autobiography, 1980] in which he documented all objects and furniture in his own house. Very beautiful.

 

 Sol Lewitt autobiography spread 2

MT:

I recently happened to have held it in my hands, at Johan Deumens Gallery. Yes, it’s a diary of his own home. Lewitt walks through his entire house with a camera and records all objects: a dry documentation it is of books, jackets, shoes, kitchenware, house plants.

Specific Object

EK:

This probably was something in the air during that period, like All the Clothes of a Woman /Alle Kleider einer Frau by Hans Peter Feldmann for example. And afterwards, it’s also still very often done of course.

 

MT:

Boltanski started this artist’s strategy? 1972 is pretty early…He was the first to publish an inventory in photographs in book form?

 

EK:

I think so…yes.

sans souci boltanski cover

sans souci album page

MT:

And finally: Sans Souci?

 

Sans Souci “In this book, found snapshots of several Nazi families have been reproduced. Although the represented people did not know each other, the book presents itself as a traditional photo album of one family”. From: E. Van Alphen, ‘Nazism in Family Albums: Christian Boltanski’s Sans Souci’, p.32.

sams souci 2 album CB

EK:

That’s a family album: a facsimile of a family album. And that’s it. It’s an album, which you hold in your hands, containing photo-pages interleaved with spiders-rag papers, and you find out yourself what the story is about.

box reconstitution CB

MT:

Allright… I would like to mention another book: Reconstitution (1990) Content wise, I don’t get it: Is it a kind of box, a kind of catalogue?

 

Reconstitution (1990)

This box-catalogue consists of the following content:

Christian Boltanski, Reconstitution, 1990

Christian Boltanski, Biography and Bibliography

Christian Boltanski, an interview by Georgia Marsh

Reconstitution de gestes effectués par Christian Boltanski, entre 1948 et 1954

10 portraits photographiques de Christian Boltanski, 1946-1964

Recherche et présentation de tout ce qui reste de mon enfance, 1969

Inventaire des objets ayant appartenu à une femme de Bois-Colombes, 1974

Saynetes Comiques, 1975

2 Letters

Lettre de demande d’aide, 1970

Lettre aux conservateurs de musée proposant le projet de Inventaires, 1973

Dispersion à l’amiable

Christian Boltanski a l’honneur de vous faire ses offres de service

2 photos

Christian Boltanski à 5 ans 3 mois de distance

Christian Boltanski et ses frères

3 Colour postcards

Poster, 1974

Image modèle (La régate), 1975

Composition Décorative, 1976

Colour poster

L’Ange d’alliance, 1986, photo by André Morin.

boltanski_reconstitution inhoud 

EK:

Yes, then the project was also exhibited at the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, as well as at White Chapel Gallery in London. Reconstitution is a collection of his letters, postcards, booklets and posters. One single box is containing everything. Some 15 or 20 different publications are put together in the box. He has made more of this type of multiples; for example another box is called Livre. Boltanksi has a high level of production, and as soon as he has an exhibition coming up, he assembles all those publications in a new publication form: a box. Or he simply makes a reprint of an existing publication.

 

MT:

Yes, everything constantly revives, isn’t it? Things keep popping up; a new life is donated to them. He also seems to be playing with that aspect.

 

EK:

Yes…yes!