Humble editors select standouts in 2018 (online) photography writing
In his introductory essay in Blindspot’s 2006 issue #32, Tim Davis wrote “people never read book introductions…,” a statement that, written more than a decade ago, unfortunately, continues to resound more than ever before and can be aptly applied to today’s “content” hungry landscape. We scroll rapidly through Instagram and eat listicles (like this one!) like Cheetos. Onto the next, onto the next, onto the next like an accelerated tangent of highway billboards in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And defensiveness among countless photographers to write about their work seems ever present – just search “artist statement” into any Facebook photo group (yes we know, FB is for “old people” - go watch some YouTube "influencers," kids..) and you’ll hydrate yourself on the haterade for weeks. BUT! BUT! BUT!
But the “don’t make me think” attitude towards writing is counterbalanced by a ton of thoughtful essays, interviews and long form think-pieces on the current state of photography, its evolution and key issues that tie it to the larger cultural landscape. Below are 22 pieces on photography that moved us, in no particular order. You’ll notice that many of the pieces we selected are heavy on discussion of “the gaze,” which seems to have garnered a renewed attention in criticism and popular discussion over the past few years, and likely has been on our minds gearing up for the BlueSky Curatorial Prize this May.
Grab a couple coffees, mute Instagram for a bit, and have a read.
XO, Humble Editors
On “Photography”: A Conversation with Charlotte Cotton
Author: Gregory Eddi Jones
Publication: In The In-Between
Date: January 30, 2018
The Skinny: Charlotte Cotton is one of today’s most influential thinkers, curators and writers on contemporary photography, consistently on the pulse of how the medium has, and continues to evolve. In Gregory Eddi Jones’ “ loose, freewheeling exchange of ideas,” he and Cotton discuss everything from the confusion and arbitrary-ness of photographic genres to the parallels between photographic trends and moments in art history. It’s a dense, three-espresso-shots-requiring read, but well worth your time.
Portraits of Retired Sex Workers: The Gaze Turned The Other Way
Author: Christa Olson
Publication: Reading the Pictures
Date: February 8, 2018
The Skinny: Olson’s read of Adriana Zehbrauskas’ portraits of retired Mexico City sex workers describes describes them as images that do not romanticize, exploit, or other-ize the lives of sex workers, but highlight their distance. Instead of glorifying them, Olson argues, the portraits empower the women by not letting us in, and in turn, prevent viewers from grabbing a kind of visual ownership over her subjects. “She is unavailable to me,” Olson writes, “ yes, but that inaccessibility is, itself, an assertion.”
National Geographic acknowledges Its History of Racism
Author: Susan Goldberg
Publication: National Geographic
Date: April 2018
The Skinny: If you've ever taken a media or visual literacy class, or are, well, just someone who pays attention, you've been aware that since its founding in 1888, National Geographic, beyond publishing some incredible photography and travel stories, has a history of damn racist depictions of native populations, the developing world, and really anyone who's not white. In their April, 2018 issue, Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg wrote a thoughtful, investigative acknowledgment of the magazine's problematic history and perpetuation of cultural stereotypes and clichés. It's long overdue, and worth a read if you missed it.
Tim Hetherington's Photos Are a Tender Look at Male Sexuality and War
Author: Miss Rosen
Date: April 20, 2018
The Skinny: We’ve been fans of Miss Rosen’s work and writing since her time at Powerhouse Books in the early 2000s and have enjoyed reading her regular columns and interviews in VICE this past year. While war photography and its photographers are often associated with macho bravado, Rosen, in her introduction to this interview with Stephen Mayes, the executor to the estate of the late photographer Tim Hetherington, sets up his work and life in a different light. It’s one swathed in tenderness and the ability to take “casual snapshots of soldiers in their most intimate and vulnerable moments.” Rosen’s piece is a sad, moving and unexpected commemoration of Hetherington’s life and work on the seventh anniversary of his passing.
Photographs that Refuse to Stay Silent on the Palestinian Catastrophe
Author: Nick Mirzoeff
Date: May 15, 2018
The Skinny: Nick Mirzoeff deconstructs two photographs captured by Palestianian photojournalist Wissam Nassar, emphasizing the need for intersectionality and relational analysis. Abandoning objectivity altogether, western media portrayed Palestinians armed with slingshots as terrorists who threatened Israel's military force during the May 2018 conflict. Wassam's photographs capture the drive for survival that motivates Gazans suffering under Israeli apartheid. Mirzeoff's argument for dedicated attention to these images serves likewise as a call to examine how vulnerable, colonized populations - including those in the United States - are treated.
Author: Blake Andrews
Publication: Blake Andrews Blog
Date: May 21, 2018
The Skinny: Blake’s blog is chock full of long form, super-meaty interviews and thought pieces on contemporary photography and photo history. It’s primed for students, educators, critics and anyone passionate about photography, looking for a smart, thoughtful, and sometimes snarky edge. But what we really love it for are posts like these. If you’ve ever run a blog with some level of traffic, you may have received strange solicitations from random, unrelated-to-what-your-blog-is-actually-about companies asking to place back- linked articles, (again, not related to what your blog is about) to bump their SEO and other fun online marketing tricks. When this happened to Blake, he engaged the solicitor in one of the most painfully hilarious who’s-on-first conversations we’ve seen in years. Read this, and then read everything else on Blake’s blog.
One Husband’s Loving Portrait of His Wife and Her Illness
Author: Ellyn Kail
Publication: Feature Shoot
Date: May 25 , 2018
The Skinny: Photographing illness can be tricky. It can risk the same weird outsider-y way of looking plagues many street and documentary photographers, can feel steeped in visual tropes we’ve seen a million times, or can also feel so close to the photographer’s chest that it’s difficult to engage as an outside viewer. Both this series by Rikard Osterlund, and this review by Feature Shoot writer Ellyn Kail defy those problems with a heartening portrayal of the intertwining of pain, joy, and devotion. Like much of Kail’s writing, her ability to tell the story behind a photographers work and integrate their own words give readers insight into the photographer’s journey in a way that’s incredibly accessibly, but never dumbed down.
Carmen Winant’s Radical Images of Women Giving Birth
Author: Alicia Kroell
Date: June 7, 2018
The Skinny: Carmen Winant's "My Birth" installation struck a primal cord with visitors and critics alike when it was installed in MoMA's Being: New Photography 2018. Presented on 20ft parallel walls, found images convey the graphic reality of new life entering the world and, by subtle extension, the stigma associated with women's bodies in this context. Kroell's review conveys the unfiltered responses many had to the installation (awe, disgust, steely familiarity) and succinctly juxtaposes those micro experiences with macro, brutal truths about how life begins.
Unlearning Decisive Moments of Photography
Author: Ariella Azoulay
Publication: Fotomuseum (online)
Date: June through October, 2018
The Skinny: Over five, critical analysis-packed blog posts Ariella Azoulay proposes that we consider photography's origin and impact apart from its established narrative. She suggests that readers "unlearn" decisive moments such as the 1839 announcement in Paris in which the daguerreotype (and all subsequent processes) were graciously "gifted" to the world. To do so, readers must acknowledge the wider modernist, mechanized, imperialist context in which everything and everyone was subject to the all-consuming western gaze via photography. Azoulay's posts to the "Still Searching" column, June-October 2018, introduce her book upcoming book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, which will be published by Verso Books in 2019.
Photographs Do Not Stop Wars
Author: Wilco Vertsteeg
Date: July 18, 2018
The Skinny: James Nachtway's recent retrospective, Memoria, at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, covers disease, war, famine, and death, from South Africa and Palestine to 9/11 and American prison system. It's hard hitting work that many would argue brings light to some of the most pressing issues over the past few decades. However, Wilco Versteeg unpacks Nachtway's work with a critical eye that considers the "chilling discrepancy between the intentions of this exhibition and the actual presentation of the work." Versteeg's exhibition review ultimately asks the age-old Sontagian question: does war photography help bring light to injustice or serve as eye-candy that makes us immune to it?
Risking Torture and Death to Save Jews During the Holocaust
Author: Jonathan Blaustein
Publication: NYT Lens Blog
Date: July 23, 2018
The Skinny: In 1986, children's book author Malka Drucker and photographer Gay Block collaborated on a project documenting “Rescuers,” non-Jewish Europeans who risked torture and death to save Jews during the Holocaust. Timed to the 30th anniversary of the project's completion, Jonathan Blaustein thoughtfully revisits the project, profiling Block's attempts to revive the project in the 21st century.
When We See Photographs of Some Dead Bodies and Not Others
Author: Sarah Sentilles
Publication: New York Times
Date: August 14, 2018
The Skinny: Sarah Sentilles ponders media coverage of dead bodies; those that are seen and those that aren't, and why. Privacy or ethics don't concern the deceased, but they are a concern for those who consider the circumstances that deliver death. Modesty and decorum determine how the American war dead are portrayed, because they died while in service of a cause. The same cannot be said of the mostly Black men and boys who are murdered for wearing a hoodie; for playing music too loudly on a car radio; for selling individual cigarettes outside a bodega; for playing in a Cleveland park on a winter day. Sentilles balances looking against seeing, visual violation of the dead Other against unquestioned respect for uniforms and the bodies that fill them in progressive, well-crafted statements. The choice to see, or not, should be ours, not one controlled by media outlets and the agendas they seek to fulfill.
TIONA NEKKIA McCLODDEN ON TEXAS ISAIAH
Author: Tiona Nekkia McClodden
Publication: ArtForum International (online and in print)
Date: Summer 2018
The Skinny: Tiona Nekkia McClodden's part essay, part interview with Los Angeles-based photographer Texas Isaiah centers on consent (a concept that a certain someone formerly at Artforum doesn't understand). McClodden focuses on the artist's relationship with his sitters, how conversation and comfort and safety are vitally important and all too often overlooked where representation is concerned.
There is Less to Portraits than Meets the Eye
Author: Teju Cole
Publication: The New York Times
Date: August 23, 2018
The Skinny: Cole's provocatively titled August 2018 piece teases out the ineffable qualities of photographic portraits. Given how much ink has been committed to this topic over the course of the medium's history, it was exciting to read his eloquent take on a familiar subject. Moving deftly from why and for whom the earliest portraits were made to pervasive digital data accumulation in the surveillance age, Cole inserts his analysis of Dawoud Bey's "Seeing Deeply" retrospective in the mix for contrast. Though the article probably started as a review of Bey's celebrated National Gallery of Art installation, it evolves into a short treatise on what makes portraiture so relatable amidst unrelenting image saturation.
Photographing Past Stereotype
Author: Teju Cole
Publication: The New York Times
Date: September 27, 2018
The Skinny; As you can see, we can’t get enough of Teju Cole’s sharp writing. And the New York Times, for that matter. Cole’s analysis of Spanish-Belgian photographer Christina de Middel's work serves double duty. First, he recognizes the ongoing series "Gentlemen's Club" (2015 - present) for flipping a familiar photographic script. When sex work is subject to visual scrutiny, it is the working women who are held up for pity or vilification. de Middel looks instead at the men who participate in transactional sex. Cole praises the photographer for candidly engaging her male subjects, and for the uncomfortable relatability the images portray. Cole then critiques the artist for retreating to stereotype when producing the 2012 series "The Afronaughts." Zambian Edward Festus Mukuka Nkoloso tried, and failed, to foster a space program without governmental support. Instead of digging into Nkoloso's motivation, de Middel reduces her subjects to the signs that represent "African" life; figures swathed and vibrant patterned cloth, elephants in multiple frames. Cole encourages an adventurously minded photographer, and gently warns her against deploying comfortable stereotypes as a visual shorthand.
Michelle Dizon & Việt Lê: White Gaze
Author: Daniel C. Blight
Publication: 1000 Words
Date: Fall 2018
The Skinny: Daniel Blight's review of "White Gaze" - a text and image collaboration by Michelle Dizon and Việt Lê - examines whiteness as violent social conditioning. Working with National Geographic archival material, Dizon decouples text and image, undermining NG's "educational" mission as justification for colonization world wide. Blight's writing conveys the nature of the artist's collaboration, and posits that constructed whiteness is a desire that harms those who project and are subject to it
Q+A: Kristine Potter
Author: Rafael Soldi
Publication: Strange Fire Collective
Date: November 8, 2018
The Skinny: We’ve been following Potter’s work since she was included in Humble’s 2010 exhibition “31 Women in Art Photography” and have enjoyed seeing it evolve, and in many ways culminate in her 2018 book Manifest. In this interview, Rafael Soldi digs through everything from the influence of Potter’s military family on her work, to how Potter uses visual language to communicate the nuances of masculinity in military life.
What Vivian Maier Saw in Color
Author: Andrea Scott
Publication: The New Yorker PhotoBooth
Date: November 8, 2018
The Skinny: It’s unlikely that you’re unfamiliar with Vivian Maier’s work. Or the captivating story of how she, while living as a nanny in Chicago, made thousands of pictures from the 1950’s until a few years before she died in 2009. Or how she only got the recognition she deserved when her negatives were discovered posthumously. But until recently, much of this late-celebrated work was her black and white photographs. In her profile of Maier’s book “Vivian Maier: The Color Work",” and exhibition at New York city’s Howard Greenberg Gallery, writer Andrea K. Scott not only relays Maier’s time-told story, but places her more substantially in photography’s historical canon. Scott draws connections to Maier’s contemporaries and photographers –like Thomas Struth – who succeeded her, and raises the often overlooked sexism in much of what’s been written of Maier to date. Most poignantly put: “One question that has dogged the discovery of Maier’s photography is how a lowly nanny could make such high art. Let’s call that sexism. I’ve never heard anyone ask how another exceptional Chicago outsider, the visionary writer and artist Henry Darger, could have produced his fifteen-thousand-page magnum opus while holding down a job as a janitor.”
Matthew Leifheit - Fire Island Night
Publication: Paper Journal
Date: November 12, 2018
The Skinny: Leifheit’s Fire Island Night, possibly one of our favorite series to surface in the past two years, depicts Fire Island with enchanting mystery. It’s a world steeped in fantasy and history, a haven where gay men have been able to express themselves in ways that they couldn’t in mainstream society. A place many thought was a thing of the past, Leifheit captures as alive with energy, bringing his own layered eye. What we love about this interview is its ability to balance the straightforward, history-clarifying questions with more personal approach - like opening the conversation with a simple “how do you feel.”
The Spirits of Fire Island
Author: Will Matsuda
Date: November 29 2018
The Skinny: OK, yes we realize we just included ANOTHER interview with Leifheit above, but this project is so strong, and the conversations around it have been so fluid and eye opening that we’re including this one too. So read them both and see the exhibition and get familiar with this work.
Found Poem/ After Careful Consideration…
Author: Kat Kiernan
Publication: Self (via Instagram)
Date: November 2019
The Skinny: While many artists and photographers let the photo-competition-industrial-complex get them down, photographer, curator and Don't-Take-Pictures founder Kat Kiernan got creative. She compiled and appropriated highlights from every single rejection letter she'd received, eloquently cobbling it into a hilarious poem. "While no one likes to be rejected," she writes, "it's a healthy part of the process that helps me to take a step back and look at my work in new ways."
Diane Arbus’ Cruel Gaze
Author: Joerg Colberg
Publication: CPH Magazine
Date: December 17, 2018
The Skinny: When first introduced to Diane Arbus' work, the reactions are often split between those who see her portraits as empathetic representations of social outcasts and so-called "freaks," and those who see her photographs as exploitive. Decades after first seeing her work, Joerg Colberg reconsiders her work and his reactions to it, describing in lengthy detail how despite its visceral wonder, time has made him increasingly skeptical of it, not just as othering or problematic, but as inherently "cruel".