Dispose of this Magazine Carefully after Use
by Joachim Schmid
Issue 21 Winter 1999
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The invitation to write on European photo journals came as a surprise. Why me? On the other hand, why not. After all, I do have some years of experience as a reader, co-worker and as editor of such a journal. But that was quite a while ago. I confess that in all these years I have not subscribed to any of these periodicals and I read them only sporadically. Strictly speaking, one can hardly call it reading since I do not find much worth reading in them. The decision not to take such journals seriously has something to do with my experience as reader. At the beginning of this decade there were a number of exhibitions of Eastern European photography touring through Europe and probably also other parts of the world. They presented works many of which were quite unknown and just waiting to be discovered and discussed. A few days after one of the events took place I read quite an intelligent and informative article about the exhibition and conference in Switzerland in my daily newspaper. It was written by someone who clearly had both a sound knowledge of contemporary art as well as of life in Eastern Europe. Months later, however, I read a whimsical article by a well-regarded photo critic who was writing on the self-same event in a well-regarded photo journal. The writer added his lament to a number of well-known banalities: none of those Eastern-block hillbillies would speak with him - him, the internationally eminent authority. That was it for me. I had already felt pronounced discomfort with photo journals; I would have been able to tolerate one more trivial article but this small stupid arrogance was the final straw. Why should I fork out the money of a bottle of decent wine or three packs of cigarettes for a specialist journal when I would be better served by going to other sources and thereby not be burdened by such conceitedness?
Almost everything about my vision of a good journal remains purely utopian. What is it that bothers me about photo journals? Nearly everything. Let us start out with what we ostensibly and habitually refer to as the contents. All the photo journals known to me, which incidentally are not all European, emphasise themes which are peripheral to me and brush over those that are of central interest to me (I leave out of this discussion those titles that are widely disseminated and whose motivation is purely commercial, and concerned with photo technique, advertising-, fashion-, designer-, and amateur photography). First of all, the field tilled by the remaining lot of journals is clearly too narrow. Photography appears in a multitude of manifestations - both within and outside the art world - which are not considered in any of these journals. There are so many aspects of non-photographic art that might be discussed in the context of contemporary photo-based art (just take, for example, the long-established techniques of montage in literature and film). There is so much more exciting stuff than what manifests itself as so much so-called art photography which, of all things, has received centre stage (recently tied in with products from the life-style industry).
Even if I were willing to accept this, what bothers me is how subjects are treated in general. It has to do - and I generalise - with it being exclusively a creation cult. Mr. A or Ms. B has produced this, that or the other. It is unique; no one has made such a thing before. Then, read the brief text accompanying it which states why this is new and good. And, Sir or Madam, please look at the wonderful pictures on the following pages, each on its own page, in all their glory. Towards the end of the magazine you will find some reviews of good and expensive books as well as a list of upcoming exhibitions worth seeing and selected by the editors. Occasionally, between the sections, there is some kind of text which the editors boldly present as an essay. In this an industrious and eager doctorate Art History student will declare that photos originating from inside of a computer are more interesting that those coming out of a darkroom or why big colour photos mounted onto aluminium are better, at the moment, than small framed and matted black and white photos. Only all this naturally reads somewhat more self-importantly. Any clever writer could acquire the jargon in no time but what clever writer would want to do that?
So much for contents; what about the packaging? The journal is wrapped in plastic and mailed in a sturdy box so that it will remain inviolate from the shipping company's manhandling. Being the buyer, one is almost afraid of opening the magazine so as not to damage the costly thing. It is just a matter of time before the publishers enclose a pair of white gloves with each copy? And, notice, how much heavier and smoother the paper is becoming. Whenever the printing industry perfects a new method, publishers' adrenaline pumps ever faster in their veins. Incredible, but there you have it. Black-and-white pictures in five colours; we would like to see anyone else do that. These rather fetishistic tendencies to strive for an optimal reproduction quality almost repeat the misconception of the true-to-nature reproduction from the infancy of photography. Because reproduction is such a slippery thing, I plead for simple print on cheap paper - bad up to the threshold of pain. A journal is not supposed to bring a surrogate into our homes, but on the contrary lure us out our homes with small intelligent tit-bits to whet our appetites. I want a journal which I can safely leaf through with greasy fingers and which is not merely calling out to become a collector's item. After reading it, you simply tear out the couple of pages that you wish to carry around with you or send to a friend, and then relegate the rest to the pile of old papers. When the postman rings the doorbell, I shall not expect any acid-free paper for the bookshelf but food for the brain.
I guess what I have in mind can hardly be called a photo journal. Rather it would be a magazine for visual culture in which exhibitions in the Victoria and Albert Museum would be as critically analysed as Barbara Kruger's advertising campaign for The Economist (or are those not her ads?); it would be a place that would inform us equally about the Helsinki Society of Drunken Amateur Photographers as about the shabby circumstances surrounding the foundation of a new museum in Berlin. In addition to that I would want to read a piece by a former member of the Rote Armee Fraktion on Gerhard Richter's Stammheim-cycle, an article by Annie Sprinkle on the stickies that advertise prostitutes posted on telephone boxes in English metropolitan areas, and an article by someone - I do not know whom yet - on Italian photo-novels, or an interview with the manager of the photo department of a government press office. It is not as if there is a lack of interesting themes, and the question of national borders interests me even less than the coincidental shape of the edges around the continents. If someone could contribute some remarkable trifle from the police archives in Argentina, from the election campaign in Russia, or from a portrait studio in Vietnam that would be much more precious to me than the twelfth well-deserved accolade of a camera hero whose pictures had already met the tastes of the big city. The co-workers of my imaginary journal would search out themes for themselves instead of following the trends of the marketplace. And if they work on something that has already been through the mill they would question the subject as well as the process itself, instead of trying to raise print numbers by heaving another trendily snapped pair of tits onto the title page.
I am wishing not only for other themes and another approach, but also other writers. By that I mean people who can actually write. In the journals that we know so well there is this kind of writer-photographer who, in addition to taking photos, throws together an occasional text piece attempting to legitimise his interest. In most cases, however, he is not a good writer. Just look at what I (or my pal who will be writing about my pictures in the next issue) have done. And there's a quote by Baudrillard; hmm, that looks good - we do indeed have our fingers on the pulse. That has little to do with writing, and these individuals have little more background in writing than what we all learned at school. Or the writing is done by ambitious curators, exhibition and book makers whose background is more extensive but within the wrong areas and who clumsily try to force the rest of the world to accept their questionable approaches and academic deformations as the norm. 'How clever I am' and 'what have I not read' are the criteria: fifty-four footnotes and three pages of weak text, from Marx to Krauss, with everything cited correctly - two more points towards your career. No human being wants to read such stuff, except for those who are - or want to be - mentioned.
What we need instead are writers who use their minds imaginatively and know what it means to work with language. Such people should be able to write the way Michael Owen plays football on a good day - fresh, skilful, witty, surprising - and add to that, with critical intelligence. Such writers do exist. All one has to do is to locate them, support them and let them play before they start the process of settling into the world as ordinary journalists. And one must pay them enough; that makes them even better. No one can work with dedication in the long term when the payment for his troubles just about covers the cost of the cigarettes he smokes while writing the piece. And we need an editorial staff that welcomes experiments and who can stimulate these people - and I repeat - will let them play; editors who are curious and adventurous and who are interested in discussion and dissent. What we do not need are conceited self-righteous know-it-alls who bind every divergence from their ideas into an editorial corset or are otherwise trying to impose their limits. What is also not recommended is working with some ambitious graphic designer who sacrifices everything in favour of formal ideas by cutting up or smoothing out virtually everything. Good journals do not need to have sacrifices brought up to them.
It is understood here that what comes close to the journal that I occasionally dream of can only exist as a truly international project. And as such, it must appear in English - no native language regrets here, because there is not enough of an audience in any other language for such a specialised journal, and for that we need translations. Publishers know of only two kinds of translations: inexpensive and expensive. Since the printing of the pictures already is so costly, they prefer the first. This allows the assumption that texts are not considered important in the predominant journals. Nobody reads the stuff anyway; what really matters is that the images come across well. For people who are not publishers, translations fulfil a different criterion: there are good translations and there are poor translations. The latter ruin the work of the writers. Good translations, however, keep not only writers but also the readers in a good mood because they are reading an elegantly tailored text rather than a jumble thrown together (I, at least, prefer well-written texts and assume that others do too). My imaginary journal's editors would hire only the best translators and would remunerate them with pleasure [translator's note: when the man is right, the man is right]. [Real translator's note: this was actually part of Joachim's text, not mine.] What we further need is a good net of correspondents. And permit me to suggest that the prospective correspondents will actually be people who correspond and not correspondents who, because of their own pompousness, will let themselves be moved by a place on the masthead and the prize of a press card (issued by the editorial board itself).
Such a journal costs money. Yet, there is quite a lot of money to be saved in the right choice of printing and paper. Money not squandered on production is money saved; and it can be invested in writers and translators. Next, we let go of the pages with all the tomfoolery. One can find free exhibition calendars at every street corner in every town, and I know of no one in their right mind who would travel from Paris to Glasgow simply because he has seen a small entry in a events calendar of a journal. All dates regarding exhibits, events and competitions can be found on the internet. The entire thing still costs money. Yet, there are countries - the 'nation of culture' from where I hail does not belong to these - that subsidise publications; part of the budget comes from retail; and a skilful publisher can raise the remaining money from ads. It is irrelevant to me whether the pages are filled with advertisements for pigs' fodder or for surplus medium range missiles, or, if you wish, even for photo industry products. There is only one thing the journal should avoid if at all possible: business contact with galleries, publishers and all other enterprises who could be possible targets of reviews or critical articles.
In case anyone has the courage, the energy, and the mercantile skill to bring about a new beginning: My address is known to the editors.
Translation by Christian Schoenberg
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