Articles 24-08-2019

The paradoxically perfect and utterly imperfect photobook

A three-part conversation with Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Stefan Vanthuyne

Spread from One Wall a Web by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, published by ROMA Publications (2018)

(This is the third and final part of the conversation, part one can be found here, part two here)

SV: Speaking of aesthetics and book sales, I’d like to dig a little deeper into this idea of deriving pleasure from photography, because it’s a word that’s been stuck in my head ever since last year in Paris, when I asked what he thought of a particular book he had just browsed through, Chris Killip replied: “Well, it’s very pleasant”. The way he said it made it come across as a diplomatic answer, rather than a compliment. The book was a lush production, published by a prestigious fine art book publisher. The work itself, for me at least, felt like it romanticized the subject in such a way that I felt I couldn’t get through to it; I couldn’t go beyond that romantic veil, it didn’t allow for much deeper digging. But it was very beautiful.

In a way, this reminded me of Troubled Land (1987) by Paul Graham, a project in which he first decided to address The Troubles18 in Northern Ireland in a very direct photojournalistic way, and felt that he only came home with the same photographs that you would find in the press. So he ended up taking a step back, framing a broader and more indirect picture of the situation by showing us photographs of landscapes and scenes where people were hardly present, but the signs of the conflict where visible to those who looked closer. In a conversation with Paul Bonaventura, Graham says:

[the photographs] seduce you into viewing them simply as landscapes which accounts for people’s desire to engage with them. But they’re booby-trapped and launch the viewer into another area altogether. They play off that particular kind of sentiment which (Britons) have for landscape —a position which engenders Constable-like fields and Turner-like skies—against sentiments associated with political allegiance, British and Irish. If you don’t delve any deeper, you might see only the flags, signs and graffiti. But these symbols should also be read within the context of the landscape in which they reside, the Union flag in the richest and most fertile lands, the Irish tricolour against the rockier and hillier ground. These different layers of reading within the photographs only come out slowly.19

Troubled Land was considered a controversial book, and so was American Night, which in my opinion is also a very undervalued book. Published in 2003, with its bleached-out photographs of solitary African-American figures walking on what feels like burning hot pavements and parking lots, American Night is probably one of the first books to take the documentary into the art realm in such a conceptual and metaphorical way—a way that at the time mostly seemed to cause confusion.

You contributed an essay to The Whiteness of the Whale (2015), the book that brings Graham’s American trilogy (A Shimmer of Possibility and The Present being the other two projects) together in one volume. The title ‘The Whiteness of the Whale’ makes a clear reference to American Night, where Graham uses a quotation from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on seeing. American Night is also a book that deals most prominently, albeit in a conceptual way, with the subject of racial inequity. I was wondering if Graham, and perhaps American Night in particular, was of any influence, and what you maybe took away from him or this book in your own work.

SWW: I’ve been aware of Paul Graham’s work since I was beginning my undergraduate studies in the late nineties, and my dear friend Amy Gwatkin was a student at the University of Brighton, where two of her tutors in particular—Mark Power and Xavier Ribas—were enormously enthusiastic supporters of efforts to transform documentary photographic practice in ways that are/were inherently conceptual and experimental and expansive. I’d add here that Nomads by Ribas and Die Mauer ist Weg by Power are prized possessions of mine. They were also both enormous supporters of the photobook, so I came across Graham early, and actually at a point where I was most deeply embedded in the Magnum archive, and had only branched out from that as far as Chris Killip, Paul Strand and Walker Evans (thanks to the Phaidon 55 series, which really helped to open up photography for me).

It took a while for the breadth and depth of Graham’s achievements in Beyond Caring and New Europe to register with me. I followed an itinerary he has at some points described following himself, which is to say I went by way of Robert Frank and William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld before I landed at his door and got to grips with that great colour work he made in the late eighties on into the nineties. I’ve never been able to get hold of a copy of Troubled Land or Beyond Caring (other than Jeffrey Ladd’s Errata Editions remake), but New Europe and American Night in particular are both tremendously important books to me.

Genesee St, 2015 (All My Gone Life, Vol. 2) – One Wall a Web by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, published by ROMA Publications (2018)

So I was aware of Graham’s work, and his relationship to American photography from an early stage—from a stage at which I was chiefly only involved with photography as an avid viewer and book collector, who then gradually began to write about photobooks (starting privately in 2005). His works were part of the formation of my sense of how photography can productively and even transformatively intersect with the various realisms according to which we make sense of our place and time.

I think that part of what struck me powerfully about New Europe, Empty Heaven and End of an Age in particular were the varying and emphatically effective ways in which he aligned colour and artificial light with the psychic life of culture, but critically and often oppositionally. That dynamic is also very much at play in his short book In Umbra Res, which excerpts works from New Europe into one short but powerful riff (I’d argue that it’s an important precursor to Shimmer). I would hear stories about how he was excoriated for moving to colour as a documentary photographer in that time (late 80s on into the 90s), and I remember reading some review in which a documentary photographer took him to task for making this staggeringly apposite photograph of a little toddler waiting with her parents while they tried to get the dole.20 To me it was apparent (partly thanks to my familiarity with Eggleston and Sternfeld) that that historical period—the flourishing and waning of the Yuppie eighties into the burgeoning tech bonanza of the nineties—had sought to cultivate new and profoundly individualistic values in meaningful ways through its use of colour.

What Graham’s pictures did in New Europe or in End of an Age was in some sense to weigh that superanimated efflorescence against the bodies striving to take up space in that moment, and colour and light and a whole suite of photographic ‘imperfections’ played profoundly important roles in producing that effect in the work. I wouldn’t disagree in your emphasis on the conceptual aspects of that approach, but I would add that I think sometimes that term can be unproductively construed as somehow being in opposition to documentary form, which makes no sense to me.

Anthony Hernandez’s series from the late 70s into the early 80s (“Automotive Landscapes” (1978–80); “Public Transit Areas” (1979–80); “Public Fishing Areas” (1979–82) and “Public Use Areas” (1980–81)) strike me as also being both conceptual and documentary in their attempt to find form for a kind of realism that makes visible the grammar of things that our normative habits of seeing occlude from view. I’d also argue that, like much conceptual art, those serial projects formulate a sort of rule for themselves that they can then follow seemingly ad infinitum, and that their rhetoric or grammar is central to the sense of inventory they cumulatively develop. The book he made with John Gossage and Michael Abrams (Waiting, Sitting, Fishing and Some Automobiles, Loosestrife Editions, 2007) brilliantly develops that thread, while braiding the four series into a seamless continuum. I think both he and Graham have made seminal work that animates and complicates the vantage points from which we look, and the forms of attention and meaning that we develop as a consequence of those habits.

Pleasure is obviously deeply bound up in the way photographs solicit and reward the attention we pay them, and I think what’s especially noteworthy in that Graham work you mention—particularly in the case of American Night—is this way he elides the sensory effect of light and colour with the allegorical and metaphorical work the pictures seek to do in relation to their subject. There’s a groundlessness to the overexposed images of walking African-Americans—there’s a febrile, evanescent quality to the way those pictures render black bodies. In contemporary parlance, those overexposed images make black bodies, as matter, immaterial, or inconsequential, and certainly also unintelligible. Those black bodies don’t (have) matter. It seems like a simple and straightforward device now, but it wasn’t anywhere in use before he made the pictures, and when you see them as framed prints at such large scale, that weightlessness and indecipherability, that febrility creates an interpretive problem that the photographs refuse to solve: how are we to account for the people we know to be there but at one and the same time cannot even identify, much less acknowledge?

It’s crucial to that work that the pleasurable aesthetics of the image—their sfumato haziness—redoubles on itself in complicated ways. That radiant aesthetic is at once an invocation of the sublime, superficially, and an index of violent erasure, and both extremes are suspended within each frame in ways that cannot be brought into harmony with one another. I think that’s also part of the reason for success of the epic size of the prints: they draw on the romantic traditions of landscape imagery he points to in his discussion of Troubled Land.

To the extent that aesthetic pleasure doubles back on itself in American Night, the aesthetic in those photographs takes certain necessary risks with its viewers, but does so (I’d argue) along important ethical and intellectual lines. When we then encounter the rich, densely coloured landscape photographs of those McMansions replete with multiple carports, or when we finally reach the deeply shaded thick blackened colour photographs from the innercity, a great deal is at stake in the politics of visibility (to think the pictures politically or economically) and the politics of visuality (to think the pictures aesthetically). That’s an enormous and important achievement, so I’d agree with your high estimation of the work, and would dearly love to see it re-exhibited in a moment such as this in the US.

Black Boc, 2012 (Our Present Invention) – One Wall a Web by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, published by ROMA Publications (2018)

I think, if we go back to Sternfeld for a moment, that there’s certainly a strain of fine art documentary practice (albeit many people whose work might fall under that umbrella reject the term ‘documentary’) that has been deeply influenced by Sternfeld’s resonant, harmonic use of colour, and has simultaneously been powerfully persuaded of John Gossage’s claim that a great photobook should “function as a concise world within itself.”21 I think that the confluence of those ideas—harmonic relationships of colour and tone and form, combined with a certain kind of narrative that’s internally self-consistent, concise and autonomous—have encouraged people to make books that flow seamlessly, that develop an array of correlated forms of beauty that are tightly (even violently) restricted within a narrow and specific range. I suspect certain forms of cinema also influence this in the book form (Terrence Malick would be an influence here).

One consequence of that striving for autonomy and self-consistency can be, and I’d argue often is, that the books seem edgeless and clean and homogeneous, and seem to comprise a world in which no thing, no event, no perspective, no figure, no space contradicts any other. There can be astounding craft and beauty within that register, and it often takes extraordinary artistry to achieve that evenness, but what world works like that? What life is as smooth and unbroken in its lived experience as that? It might be a weird vestigial effect of modernism’s vaunted ambitions toward autonomy, or it might also be an effect of the way that early in his career, Alec Soth spoke so often, and so influentially of wanting the work to carry you, which devolved in his book sequences around the from here to there device, where one figure or motif carries over a spread into the next and onward in constant cellular evolution. But the end result can be, and might have been in the case of the book Killip looked at, that there are no jagged edges, no contradictory valences, no sudden irruptions—that there’s no confusion, and all the lines seem clean and effortlessly in sync with each other.

I think that the confluence of those ideas—harmonic relationships of colour and tone and form, combined with a certain kind of narrative that’s internally self-consistent, concise and autonomous—have encouraged people to make books that flow seamlessly, that develop an array of correlated forms of beauty that are tightly (even violently) restricted within a narrow and specific range. (Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa)

That sort of pleasure isn’t one I’m interested in producing in my work. I think stumbles and digressions and abrupt reversals and certain sorts of dyspeptic visual relationships are essential to the forms of realism that I’m invested in exploring, so to that extent I’m opposed to those norms. But it’s important to stress that that’s as a function of the type of work I’m making, and the realities it seeks to address. Differing kinds of content require differing forms, but what I see a bit too often is the idea that the photobook as form should craft an internally consistent world or natural-seeming progression, and in that sense for many artists, the book dictates the form of the work rather than the work’s subject dictating the form of the book. My suspicion is that even beyond a matter of form and of sequencing and aesthetic relations, there was a certain romantically pleasurable homogeneity in the lived experience that was depicted in the work Killip looked at, and that he might have been suspicious of that.

I remember having a really productive conversation with Dana Lixenberg maybe six years ago, where she talked about how we as photographers who go out into the world on our own can tend to only represent life in an isolation that’s more proper to our experience than maybe to the lives of the people we picture. Or, we can get drawn only to people who mirror that solitude. She argued that we need to remain alert to the fact that people live lives embedded with others, entangled with them in complicated and often contradictory ways. It’s hard for a group of people like photographers, who are so (maybe genetically) predisposed to exercising tremendous control, to be receptive to the mess and disorder that comes from photographing that entangled contradiction, and I say that as someone who has struggled to do so in my own work, especially with the big camera. But I realised as Roger and I were making the book that the people I was photographing were exposed to a plethora of voices and forces in their everyday lives, and also participating in that cacophony in various uneven ways. I realised that that speech, those forces, and those interactions had a history, and acted as much on the body as on the imagination, and that the book might be a vehicle through which to try and approximate some of that reality and also its effects, and that part of doing that would involve showing and quoting unpleasant things, or making images that tasted off, or sounded wrong. I don’t know how successful I was in the effort, and I’m eager to try to extend that effort in exhibition form, but for me in the context of this work it’s really important to be willing to take risks with pleasure in the effort to uncover meaning.

SV: One of the main questions this raises for me is if the contemporary documentary photobook, as an artistic medium and as an autonomous work, hasn’t fallen into the same traps, or at least hasn’t become the subject of the same critiques of documentary photography to which it was earlier subjected by people like Allan Sekula and Martha Rosler in the late 70s and early 80s.

In In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography) from 1981, for instance, Rosler speaks of “the germ of another documentary—a financially unloved but growing body of documentary works committed to the exposure of specific abuses caused by people’s jobs, by the financier’s growing hegemony over the cities, by racism, sexism, and class oppression; works about militancy or about self-organization, or works meant to support them.”22 To this, she added, hopefully, that perhaps “a radical documentary can be brought into existence.” This type of work, where power relations and their political and social consequences are being questioned, seems exactly the type of work being made today, and as you point out it is being made in ways that are ‘conceptual and experimental and expansive’—ways that attempt ‘to find form for a kind of realism that makes visible something that our normative habits of seeing occlude from view.’

Earlier, Sekula wrote in Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary about how when photography is considered art, it becomes about auteurism. Suddenly, Sekula argues, the attention of the audience is directed towards the artist (an argument Rosler also makes) instead of the content:

Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist. (…) A cult of authorship, an auteurism, takes hold of the image, separating it from the social conditions of its making and elevating it above the multitude of lowly and mundane uses to which photography is commonly put.23

(This actually reminds me of Killip again. In the past I’ve had discussions about documentary photographers with distinctive and celebrated styles, a signature aesthetic that is often imposed onto a subject and that romanticizes its conditions. I always bring up Killip as an example of documentary work where in fact the subjects and their conditions come first, and where respect and appreciation towards them is inherently present within the photographs—in short: the work is about them, not the photographer.)

One could argue that the photobook is the culmination of this authorship for photographers, as they now—as I mentioned in the beginning of our conversation—have almost complete control of the narrative, working by themselves or in collaboration with designers and publishers. This idea also touches upon what you said about narratives that are internally self-consistent and autonomous, the books that seem to flow seamlessly. As a book author, the photographer is now not only concerned about the reader’s experience of the work itself, but also of the book. And even if the work is of an unpleasant nature, it seems that the reading of the book should be pleasurable and logical. At the risk of sounding cynical, in this context it’s as though the book itself, if it wants to find a more mainstream audience (and hold its attention), should be safe and easy to read. For me this has to do with this old dissension between (documentary) photography and art, as today it seems photobooks are trying very hard to appeal to an art crowd.

In his essay On Photography’s Liquidity, or, (New) Spaces for (New) Publics?, Krysztof Pijarski suggests that the “(re)discovery of the photobook (…) as a medium in its own right, could be seen as having come in reaction to such developments” – the developments Sekula and Rosler address, concerning documentary photography becoming art – “with the promise of quick production, immediate dissemination, and more democratic accessibility serving as an antidote to the exclusivity of the gallery circuit.”24 Pijarski then goes on to argue that the photobook revival has in fact turned out to be—and this is my interpretation—a missed opportunity. Calling it an inbred phenomenon, Pijarski quotes Marcus Schaden, former publisher and founder of the PhotoBookMuseum, who says that photobook publishing threatens to become “just a circle where different photographers copy each other’s work,” and that especially with young photographers the “focus is on style not content,” and that “We need to go beyond that.”25

Paderewski Drive, 2015 (All My Gone Life, Vol. 2) – One Wall a Web by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa, published by ROMA Publications (2018)

SWW: I think there’s a danger in holding contemporary practice to the measures laid out in the important critical revaluations of documentary practice from the late 70s and early 80s, simply because contemporary fine art images/documentary images no longer circulate frequently in those forms and venues, nor at those same scales of diffusion. You’re more likely to see Katy Grannan or Mitch Epstein making portraits of subjects for editorial features in The New York Times than you are to see a suite of their own personal work (which I’d still group in proximity to, or under the broad rubric of documentary) in an extensive magazine feature on the weekend. That said, with the emergence of publications like California Sunday and TOPIC26, you are likely to see artist-photographers making commissioned series of photographs for those sorts of publications, but again, those circulate at a radically smaller scale than documentary images did in the late 70s and early 80s.

The historical and discursive context of that period is specific, and specifically important in a variety of ways. It’s the moment of a burgeoning (re)theorisation of photography, which occured in relation to the emergence of neoliberalism and the disassembly of the welfare state, but also in relation to conceptual art’s embrace of the photograph as document, and in relation to the art market’s embrace of photography as art. Vilém Flusser is someone whose name belongs in that pantheon, and whose ideas about photography as a system are really relevant here. It’s also the moment of emergence of Artforum and OCTOBER in the US, and the period in which some of those important early theorists—Rosler and Sekula, but also Rosalind Krauss, Craig Owens, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, John Tagg and Douglas Crimp to name a few more—seized on photography as it entered the fine art mainstream (at an angle). We’re obviously no longer in that moment, although its multiple effects can be traced up to the present economically, politically and theoretically.

I don’t think there’s been another genuinely comparable period in which as much heat and light were thrown onto the theorisation of photography within art since then. There’s been much more theoretical focus on the broader socio-cultural and political implications of (non-art) photography in subsequent decades, and for very good and obvious reasons given the depth of technological changes in our lives, and the ways that screens and images are at the centre of those transformations. But for me it’s at once instructive to revisit those theorists, and also dangerous to use their concerns as a fixed rule for this moment, because documentary’s purchase on the broader conversation is many orders of magnitude smaller now than it was then, so the calculus has to shift. We’re in a much smaller pocket now, and the widest ambit of exposure for documentary work seems to be in the realm of fine art, not of mainstream culture.

One way you can trace that shift is by looking at the embrace of Rosler’s and Sekula’s art in the decade from say Documenta 12, in which Rosler was featured, to this summer, where Marian Goodman gallery have staged two large shows of Sekula’s art in London and now in New York. Art works they made in the period of that writing are now exhibited as fine art (and rightly so). Inevitably, that requires an institutional emphasis on their creative self-expression, but perhaps not to such a degree that the broader socio-political forces with which they were engaged are then marginalised. But, of course, the deferral—the interval of time between then and now—also defuses the intensity of those works’ immediate acts of critique. Maybe something similar has happened to contemporary documentary practice, a similar deferral or diminution that happens as a consequence of its shrinking scope of address? That’s the pessimistic view at any rate.

Maybe this broad retrenchment means that documentary’s last best home (at least for the still photograph) is art, but art can be many things beyond or outside of the museum, or the gallery, and the photobook is absolutely one of those things. For myself, I’m a little suspicious of the ethical compromises one might have to make with the mainstream. I was invited to submit images and a text to a major publication (a nationally and internationally distributed publication of very high stature), and in the text that helped to contextualise the images I wrote that the US is buttressed by the fruits of racism. I was told, on a number of occasions, and despite plentiful statistical proof of that fact, that the publication could not print that phrase: “buttressed by the fruits of racism.” Racism had to be an error, not a plan, if it was to be named at all. I remind myself of that, from time to time, when I think about access and opportunity in relation to my work. If getting in means forswearing one’s right to tell the truth, maybe we should commit to slowly beavering away at the margin, to working locally, to building “a memory entwined in the intimacy of a collective heritage,” to come back to Pierre Nora. That’s harder work. Slower work. More local and less quantifiable work. And it can certainly feel all too incestuous at times. But I think Audre Lord was right to say that The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.27 Who knows how many people we might persuade as the virtues of our cause?


18 The Troubles was a political, ethnic and nationalistic conflict in Northern Ireland that extended from the late 1960s to 1998.
19 Bonaventura, Paul. “Paul Graham: The Troubles.” CIRCA Art Magazine, 2003,, last accessed on June 25, 2019.
20 The dole is the colloquial term for a monetary government benefit that was extended to the unemployed in Great Britain during the 1980s. Receiving it required attendance at the job centre on a regular basis, and required that recipients provided proof of their ongoing efforts to find permanent work.
21 David Campany, “The ‘Photobook’: What’s in a name?,” Aperture Photobook Review #007 (Winter, 2014). See here: , last accessed on July 25, 2019.
Rosler, Martha. “In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on documentary photography).” Decoys and Disruptions. Selected Writings, 1975–2001. The MIT Press, 2006, pp. 151-206.
Sekula, Allan. “Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary. (Notes on The Politics of Representation)” Photography Against the Grain. Essays and Photo Works 1973-1983, Mack, 2016, pp. 53-76.
24 Pijarski, Krysztof. “On Photography’s Liquidity, or, (New) Spaces for (New) Publics?” Why exhibit? Positions on Exhibiting Photographies, ed. Anna-Kaisa Rastenberger & Iris Sikking, Fw:Books, 2018, pp. 17-30.
25 Pijarski, pp. 24.
26 As of Friday 26th July 2019, TOPIC has shuttered its online publishing platform.
27 Lord, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa [New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981], pp. 98-106.