High Summer

In which I send out another email without pictures and talk about my summer, writing and editing, photography and filter bubbles, and I suggest a couple of articles to read

The past decade, I’d spend two of the hottest weeks of summer teaching photography. This is the first summer without. Over the course of the month of July, I focused on resetting my mind instead (if that’s a way to describe it). At times, I felt pretty lost, and it wasn’t necessarily the best month I’ve had of late. But I can confidently say that I feel a lot better now than six weeks ago.

It’s nice having to deal with a flurry of tasks at hand, all of which center on my own work (this includes two books, one photo, one text [what am I thinking?]). I think this is something many writers and photographers can relate to: Being able to do one’s work is a luxury — even when (or maybe especially when) it’s happening against the background of unemployment and a raging pandemic.

I could list the things I’m missing, but maybe I’ll just say what — or actually whom — I’m missing: my students. I miss being surrounded by them, I miss their curiosity, their aspirations.

Most of these missives are written over the course of a few days. I might have an idea, or a thought pops up in my head, and I write it down. There’s always the final editing, but that’s for when it’s all done. I couldn’t say what “when it’s all done” means, but I think I mostly know when I’ve arrived at that point.

Today, when I came back to the current draft, I decided to delete a long chunk of text. First, I deleted smaller blocks, to condense. Then I deleted the whole section. Would you really need to read over 1,000 words on me learning Japanese? I don’t think so.

Truth be told, over the past two, three weeks, I’ve put all my energy into writing the book, and the combination of that and the pandemic really has managed to sap most of my creative energy. Plus, the pandemic seems to be getting at me in different ways now. Before, it was a little bit of a joke how every day was like every other day. But today, I didn’t even know what day of the week it was (this was a first).

My mental energy aside, writing is editing, and the core of editing is deleting more than anything. If I hadn’t set myself the goal to publish a new piece every week, I’d probably edit a lot more, maybe to the point of never publishing anything. That’s my writer’s block: not the blank page, but the one where everything could always be a little bit better. I don’t think I’d go to an extreme such as the main character in Thomas Bernhard’s Correction. But I also know that photography is my Cone.

Aside from all the essays that never made the cut, there are also all those essays that never got published, plus all the ones that never get written. The reality in photoland is that some things just can’t get published. Photoland prides itself on its openness and generosity. But if photoland experienced the kind of criticism that’s pretty common in painting, literature, or music for just a single day, I think many photographers would be shocked.

For sure there is some variant of a “filter bubble” happening in photoland. I don’t check access statistics for my articles (I’d have to somehow figure this out through my hosting, since I had all actual trackers removed). It’s not that I don’t care what people think about my writing (actually on the contrary). But I also want to resist the tempation to know what will get read widely, to then have that guide what I write about.

What I mean by “filter bubble” is loosely based on what I observe in terms of how often the tweets I use to share my articles on Twitter are being re-tweeted or commented on. What I’ve found is articles about any well-known artist will always be shared widely. But an article about a widely unknown artist has a much, much harder time.

I don’t want to divert attention away from who or what I write about. I’m happy to talk about that in order to learn how to be a better, more conscious critic. But at least some part of the onus lies on the readers, or rather: possible readers. There is a lot of talk about representation in photography these days, and I do think that as readers, we also have to accept some responsibility.

After all, I’m not always a critic. I make decisions on what to read or what not to read all the time. It’s tempting to click on an article about some artist I really like. It’s a lot less tempting to click on something that I have no idea what it might be talking about.

This is what I mean by “filter bubble” above: we create our own filter bubbles (obviously that’s not a concept I came up with, it’s Eli Pariser’s), and we need to realize that our filter bubbles have something to do with representation in photography.

I can only speak for myself, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that my own filters are actually not perfect at all. More often than not, it’s reading something that I only clicked on to challenge myself that will result in this moment of “Holy shit, this is so interesting.”

This conversation between Samuel Fosso and Okwui Enwezor doesn’t belong into the category I just described. For me, it was a different category: an artist I thought I knew enough about, so I’d read the piece eventually. But, boy, I was so glad that I did. Do yourself a favour and read it, it provides a lot of insight (if you’re not familiar with Samuel Fosso’s work for sure read it).

This article by Patrick Nathan also is incredibly interesting. Don’t be put off by its title. Yes, to some extent it’s about dick picks. But it’s mostly about masculinity, queerness, and what that might mean.

Lastly, there’s something else that has taken up a lot of mental energy over the past few weeks. I have been teaching an online course about photobooks for the Montclair Art Museum. Originally, I thought I’d work along the lines of the photobook classes I taught before. But then I had an idea that has changed my thinking about how to approach such teaching.

It’s not necessarily a particularly mind-blowing idea (I’ll tell you later). But suddenly a lot of possibilities opened up that have allowed me to think about photobooks a bit differently — or rather: to approach understanding them differently. I don’t know, yet, how I can bring the approach to writing, but there has been a lot of thinking. And not all thinking necessarily leads to a direct outcome right away.

I think there are some connections to the creative process here (for me, teaching relies on creative thinking): there’s this idea that the creative process is defined through making something. I’m all for that. But sometimes, stopping and thinking can play an important role — as long as you don’t overanalzye and never make anything.

Regardless, I hope this email is finding you well. I hope you’re enjoying your summer or (if you happen to live on the Southern Hemisphere) winter (for what it’s worth, I’m much more in thrall with spring and especially fall). It has started to feel like this pandemic is never going to end, but it will. Let’s all remain hopeful.

As always thank you for reading!

— Jörg

I’m a freelance writer, photographer, and educator currently living and working in the US.

This Mailing List is my attempt to bring back some of the aspects that made early blogging so great -- community engagement and a more relaxed and maybe less polished approach to writing and thinking about photography. You can find the bulk of my main writing on CPhMag.com.

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