To Be Real

By Grundberg, Andy | Artforum International, March 1998 | Go to article overview

To Be Real


Grundberg, Andy, Artforum International


For all the performative aspects of Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency, there is no denying the directness of her appeal to the emotions. Now a younger generation has made her its hero; anyone who has taught photography students recently has surely seen countless spin-offs of her style and subject matter. Forget about the dilemmas of representation, they seem to say, let's see some real-life reality. Not that this trend is totally new - arguments about photography's documentary status are threaded throughout the medium's history - but it stands in opposition to the postmodern corrective that not only sees photographic experience as necessarily mediated, but requires that the work address this condition.

Contemporary German Photography (Taschen Verlag, $24.99), edited by Markus Rasp, an anthology of work from a score of young talents not yet recognized on this side of the Atlantic, indicates that the appeal of Goldin's subjective, self-centered sensibility is global. The photographs here - mostly in color, and mostly focused on aspects of everyday life in Germany - are undoubtedly a sign of the robustness of the current German photography scene, but they also wear their alienation on their collective sleeve. Besides Goldin, the dominant influences on these well-schooled photographers seem to be Americans Lewis Baltz and Jack Pierson and, closer to home, Michael Schmidt and Wolfgang Tillmans (perhaps we should call it Der Slacker style). There's plenty of blurred banality, barren landscapes, and disaffected youth on view, all portrayed with skill, and precious little romanticism or idealism. One wonders if Robert Frank's iconoclastic enterprise of the '50s, which vividly combined alienation and idealism, has finally become attenuated by the academy.

The attempt to reauthenticate photographic experience is being played out not only along the axis of personal experience but also across history. Here the photograph appears as a trustworthy and potentially instrumental document, and individual pictures and their makers seem capable of superseding their cultural and historical biases. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History (Random House, $100) is one such fascinating but flawed model of how photographs can be resuscitated from their past purposes and re-formed as convincing documentary evidence. The book is the project of Susan Meiselas, a Magnum photojournalist best known for her coverage of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, as well as a MacArthur Fellowship recipient. Combining her interest in collaborative, multiauthored photojournalism projects with an urge to explain the recent genocide against the Kurds, Kurdistan is a hybrid visual history that relies on a newly assembled archive of pictures that date from the late nineteenth century to the present. The bulk of the older photographs are portraits, while the more recent images are mostly newsworthy scenes of the tribulations suffered by the Kurds at the hands of the Turks and Iraqis since the Gulf War, shot in color by Meiselas and other Western photojournalists, and supplemented by news clippings, journal entries, excerpts from recent interviews, plus a series of brief commentaries by anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen.

There is no disputing the value of the images Meiselas has found; many are by Kurdish photographers unknown in the West, while others represent the labors of long-forgotten Western ethnographers, journalists and travelers who saw the Kurds as exotic subjects. Nor is there any disputing the value of the book itself: it opens our eyes to a far-off people in need of political support and, at 390 pages and $100, it's no mere issue of National Geographic. But the heft and cost of Kurdistan seem at odds with its political - and presumably popular - intentions. Fortunately, those eager to sample it without paying a weighty price can avail themselves of the project's website (www.akakurdistan.com), which is a virtual bargain.

Is it necessary to say that not all archives are created equal? …

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