How does a photographic style develop? Observe the themes of our time! — Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung


Freddy Langer, FAZ Frankfurter Allgemeine Literary Supplement

Link to original (German)

28th November 2008 – There are times in our lives, when events and photography overlap, when photographic images are incorporated into our memories as if they were our own personal experiences. You might be reminded of an „Evans,“ when you see an old gas station deep in the American south, or a „Becher“, as you pass a water tank or a gas pump in Ruhrgebiet, or, you might suddenly notice the ketchup on your French Fries begin to glow internally from of the power of the sun—and instantly you start thinking about Martin Parr. But the history of photography is not only simply made out of old images that were found in the real world—the history of photography is composed of a language with dialects and idioms that we attach impressions and moods to—even if we are not familiar with any particular well-known image. People, as small as ants, at the foot of a cliff, or on an observation deck turn into a „Gursky,“ or when our claustrophobic experience of shopping crowds equates to a feeling that Lee Friedlander had evoked in his shots of New York City.

It should be no surprise then that professional photographers are especially sensitive to stylistic approaches. Of course, they wouldn’t want to end up in the same creative tracks as their colleagues. That’s why last year we viewed the books of Harvey Benge and Thomas Wiegand with a wink of the eye. Benge, at times, works stylistically or thematically so close to other photographers that it allows him, in his last small book, to elegantly evoke the history of picture aesthetics from the Second World War forward. The photographer Thomas Wiegand entitled an image of a huge steel pipe „Mapplethorpe.“ He also put two child-like paper houses on a field to create a „Demand“. This is particularly funny—but only if you are familiar with the models of photography evoked in the images of Robert Mapplethorpe or Thomas Demand.

In contrast, the American Ken Schles, who wrote his newest book with a frighteningly scholarly seriousness, didn’t ask, “How do other photographers take their pictures?” He attempts to figure out the history of photography on the basis of his own 30 years work as a photographer and the impressions that influenced his views on the world. You can find the full spectrum of his work in the book entitled “A New History of Photography.” The title is typographically very close to a book by the photo historian Beaumont Newhall. The variety in the book is much better than we would have expected from Schles; up until now we saw him more as a photographer who documented only difficult subject matter,

whether he worked on a series of 9/11 images or on his reportage on Death Row, the military or bedraggled American communities which he combined in his illustrated book “The Geometry of Innocence” seven years ago. At that time he complained in his epilogue that we live in a capitalistic culture so controlled by the media that we experience our own endeavors only through mediated images as opposed to our own real and direct experiences. Now he discovers that even in his own work, his images are themselves often a kind of second hand experience—and that we can trace the inventive beginnings of those images to an aesthetic connected to other photographers. Schles consoles himself with the fact that he is not making copies of something, and yet, he still engages in stylistic borrowing. That the world appears flat does not even enter into the debate. Schles isn’t ill at ease in the world of artistic statements either—in his complex introductory treatise he freely discusses the ideas of Darwin as well as Heidegger and by the end explores historiography, and posits that you have to understand the echo of language to realize the character (nature) of time. Through this Schles warns against fictitious content, because if you do not understand real content, you will incorporate false ideations. The book challenges the readers to think for themselves on these topics. Pictured in it is a cornucopia of wonderful frames—there are intensive portraits and silent landscapes as well as experimental still-lifes and aggressive street snapshots.

It is a picture book you can’t stop reading.

Translation by Susann Gall with Ken Schles

Caption of the below: "Not Baldessari, not Eggleston, not Friedlander—rather the photographers Harvey Benge, Ken Schles and Thomas Wiegand—who suggest we can learn a picture's language like a foreign language—albeit not absolutely accent-free."

Books discussed in this article:
Ken Schles: "A New History of Photography". Verlag / White Press, Kbln 2008. 174 S., 106 Abb., geb., 198,- [Euro]. Harvey Benge: "A Short History of Photography". Dewi Lewis Publishing, GB-Stockport 2007.88 S., 40 Abb., geb., 38,- [Euro]. Thomas Wiegand: "Nach". ex pose Verlag, Berlin 2007. 32 S., 29 Abb., geb., 16,- [Euro]. Buchtitel: A New History of Photography Buchautor: Schles, Ken

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