Marks Of Honour

'Don't talk bullshit what are you doing'

Reflections on the unique homage project Marks of Honour

There are statements that can cause considerable embarrassment. Harvey Benge experienced this when, on a November evening in 2001, he was invited to a party in Paris. The photographer from New Zealand suddenly found himself sitting next to William Eggleston, the old master of New Color. “Bill remembered me... and asked me what I was doing. I told him 'photographing urban social landscape.' He retorted 'Don't talk bullshit what are you doing'. 'Making strange pictures in cities', I gulped trying to recover the situation. I hope he understood...”

Such a sharp remark is an excellent reason to take a look in the mirror and think honestly and in concrete terms about the criteria one should actually use to assess one’s own photographic work. All quasi-intellectual attempts to justify it cease to be valid. Instead, two unpleasant questions force themselves upon us: what is the benchmark for our work? And who is actually the “Guide”? In the case of William Eggleston, it did not take Harvey Benge long to find the answers. For him, this “remarkable man and remarkable photographer” has remained a shining example and, today, is still the anchor in the various phases of his career. It is not only the personal meetings, but above all the photobooks on the bookshelves at home that are within such easy reach and, at the same time, are a source, inspiration and gauge. For the project Marks of Honour, Benge therefore chose “William Eggleston’s Guide” from 1976 as a point of reference, citing tongue-in-cheek the tricycle on the cover that shook the photo world to its foundations for so long in the 1970s. Benge’s small book, a 16-page record of a visit to Eggleston’s home town of Memphis, Tennessee, is a perfect example of what the Marks of Honour project is all about. He has affectionately borrowed not only the dictum of the democratic viewpoint, but also the size and appearance of the book that is his example. This is a master honouring his master.

The project Marks of Honour, organised by curators Verena Loewenhaupt and Nina Poppe, focuses on a question asked for the first time from an emphatically biographical perspective: to what extent have certain books been influential and significant? In terms of photography too, this can be a difficult question to answer, as we know: one is asked to determine, in hindsight, to what extent one's work was influenced by various factors. Measuring the influence of photobooks is especially difficult, because their influence is indirect and long-term. Nevertheless, it is often possible to identify such influencing factors retrospectively. A glance along the bookshelves at home reveals the answers. The concept underlying Marks of Honour is based on the reception history of photographic books. This concept is both simple and complex. Thirteen internationally renowned photographers responded to the invitation to choose a photographic book that has been essential for the development of their work. The task was to refer to these “Marks of Honour” with due respect, and with the help of the vocabulary developed specifically for fine-art photography.

The resulting works are now presented for the first time at Foam, in the context of an exhibition. Together they form a varied homage that, for the general public as well as professionals, opens a surprising window onto the world of photography. The interplay of homage, retrospectives and photographic dialogues is as diverse as it is powerful – for example in the British Magnum photographer Mark Power’s reference to Uncommon Places, Stephen Shore’s groundbreaking work from 1982, and a masterpiece of the New Topographics and New Color movements. In a box lined with expensive velvet, the book is flanked by no less than four large C-prints that clearly refer to Shore, not only in terms of colour and composition. One of the photographs, for example, is of a bush that instinctively evokes the apple tree that Shore photographed in 1974 in Forestville, California. It is difficult not to interpret the quote symbolically. Everything has a beginning, it appears to say, and everything will bear fruit – for you too. A similar homage is that of the Austrian photographer Peter Granser, who chose The Americans (1959) by Robert Frank, the bibliophile photography icon of the century. As influential as this book was for subsequent generations, Granser – whose photographic work also took him to the United States – modestly counts himself among the followers. The Berliner Jens Liebchen, in his reference to Sons of Adam (1997) by Anthony Hernandez, tells a different story again – that of a remarkable encounter in the Uzbek metropolis of Tashkent: “On a walk I came across a man and was privileged enough to be a brief witness to this performance. It seized me straightaway. I took 3 shots and moved on….  What was motivating that man and what about the man behind him? What made them go there? Are there signs of political or social change here? And if so, is the connotation positive or negative - and for whom? Photography, the eternal witness, leaves me none the wiser, but fortunately we are here to ask questions.” Liebchen’s statement is a telling illustration of how the dialogue with a photographic book can lead photographers to become more sceptical about the truthfulness of their own work. The subtitle of the artistic reference is Landscape for Homelessness II.

An unusually complex work by Michael Light proves that a confrontation with a bibliographical example can be a very painful experience. The original work Yosemite and the Range of Light from 1979 – as for most of his fellow Americans of the same generation – was quite an obstacle at the beginning of his career. In order to achieve something in landscape photography, it was almost necessary to physically plough through Ansel Adams’ folio. In retrospect, this love-hate form that was advocated for decades resulted in terrible destruction. This led Michael Light to ask two questions: what must be dispensed with after all these years? And what can remain? In order to find an answer, Light deliberately broke with a taboo. He took a pair of scissors and carefully cut out sections from the photographs in the book – an almost warlike act of violence that resulted in the partial destruction of the example. On the other hand, this act also opens up the path to new ways of seeing, throwing new light on the aesthetic example of the old master. The Swiss photographer Jules Spinatsch chose a recent printed work, Block 2008. He stripped the photographs of their cover, as it were, by dissecting the objet trouvé, the calendar, into twelve booklets – one for each artist – and gave the whole a title that could hardly have been more programmatic: De-blocked.

Australian Matthew Sleeth’s homage to a Scandinavian fellow photographer is like a declaration of love. “I have long admired Lars Tunbjork’s work, especially his ‘office’ book. His use of colour and sensitivity to lighting creates such a beautiful and unsettling visual language. Tunbjork clearly has a genuine affection for the subjects of his photographs, yet they always seem a little lost and uncertain in their surroundings. The two projects I have chosen to accompany ‘Office’ share this sense of displacement. I always think of the real subject of the 25 Fire Extinguishers and 34 Houseplants projects as being our relationship with nature. The Houseplants represent our desire to reconnect with a natural world that is no longer part of our daily lives and the Fire Extinguishers express our need (for the illusion) of control over nature.”

The book objects of Onaka Koji and Tiina Itkonen reveal influences of a more national nature. The Japanese photographer is one of today's most prominent names in the photobook market. In keeping with the tradition of his country, he chose Tales of Tohno (1976), a work by the great Daido Moriyama. The book produced from his example, together with a contact sheet and five photographs taken by Koji at the beginning of his studies in Tohno, are carefully placed in a wooden box with Japanese characters. The wood, also from the Tohno region, subtly symbolises the unity of the object. In her photographic quest for an “Ultima Thule”, Tiina Itkonen, a Finn, found a connection with the works of her compatriot Pentti Sammallahti, whose melancholy black and while photographs of the Russian border region of Karelia were published in 1995 in the book Musta Taide. Her choice proves that a diffuse northern dream city can also serve as a source of examples.

Chris Coekin drew inspiration from a bizarre book design. When working on his photobook The Hitcher – for which the Brit travelled around the UK as an actor, photographer and hitchhiker – he came across the book Hay on the Highway (1997) by the two Finnish photographers Henrik Duncker and Yrjö Tuunanen. The emphatic waywardness of the title combined with the daring design prompted him to put the book into a sack and fill it with hay. By contrast, the choice of Dutchman Raimond Wouda is very sober. He chose Meetings by the American Paul Shambroom, which was published in 2004. Wouda is fascinated by the book, “which is a dry sociological study of a very important phenomenon, namely democracy. The book is not an exploration of democracy as a great compelling force, but considers it from the perspective of the smaller communities, and in a very detailed examination. It provides insight into something that is important yet hidden. He shows America's democracy and identity in a new light. This is a moving portrayal of democracy in its day-to-day context.” Alec Soth was impressed by the novel-like narrative of a photobook. “She doesn’t just make portraits,” the renowned Magnum photographer says of Treadwell (1996) a book by fellow American Andrea Modica, “or landscapes, or still-lives; she weaves these elements together to create a singular universe…”

The most striking statement in Marks of Honour is that of the South African Pieter Hugo. He was the only one to refer to a theorem from photography literature, namely Roland Barthes’ famous study Camera Lucida, in order to refer to the relationship it describes between photography and death. His portraits “of men who have died of a preventable illness, at a time when AIDS denialists were running South Africa's health care system”, are certainly more than a critical comment. The book and its photographic representation in his work are literally transposed to a child’s coffin, a symbolic form that is extremely moving. Seen in this way, the realisation that the photobook is not only a means of artistic expression but always has a biographical component too, is an essential element of the homage project Marks of Honour. “Everyone will tell you a different story”, the renowned photographer and photobook collector John Gossage once said. “It’s all just a memory now, a history book.”

© Christoph Schaden, 2009

text published in: „Marks of Honour“, Amsterdam 2009, o.p. 





text published in:

„Marks of Honour“,
Amsterdam 2009, o.p. 

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