All posts by @vossbrink

Splitting time between Princeton NJ and the San Francisco Bay Area. Photography at,, and Blogging at Tweeting from @vossbrink.
Bence Hadju

Erasing and remixing

Note: This post was originally posted on NJWV.

I’ve been seeing a lot of photography projects which involve erasing the subjects of other photos. Michael Somoroff’s take on August Sander is the latest entry to generate discussion here. As with the colorization thing, an awful lot of the reactions are the same sort of outrage about “respecting the original photographer” or “desecrating works of art.” Both of which tend to amuse me, especially when people get especially worked up about it.

I’m not a fan of Somoroff’s project—only the photo of the cook really works for me—but I’m not against this sort of erasure in general. Tweaking art and changing its context is something I love and wish more museums would show—for example, Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography and Re-Framing History at Galerie Lelong. These shows treated photos and images as functional items which live and change as society changes rather than confining them as specimens to be collected and kept in mint condition.

Do most people notice the river, castle, and bridge on the background? Or that there’s an empty room behind Mary? Probably not. But those are all there on purpose. The details have been chose for a reason and it’s a lot of fun to think about. When the background include city details, you can also start to see depictions and documentation of architecture and technology which most people just miss.

Looking at Backgrounds

The first thing I thought of when seeing the Sander discussion was Bence Hajdu’s Abandoned Old Master Paintings. I really like these and I mentioned them in a few discussions. A number of people agreed with me and found them a lot more interesting too. Where erasing the Sander subjects was troublesome, erasing the old master subjects not only didn’t bother them at all. I’d expect the anti-desecration people to be similarly upset but now I’m wondering if that argument is just an easy choice for a generic “I don’t like this” reaction.

For my part, I don’t like Somoroff’s project because I don’t think Sander’s work in particular lends itself to the erasure game. It’s not a portraiture thing but rather the few-props, simple backgrounds, and somewhat shallow depth of field means that there’s not much to look at besides the subject. Sander’s done his job well and left only the relevant details in the frame. The photo of the cook works for me because there’s enough extra detail for it to work here. In general though, the details are a bit too minimal.

I’d be curious to see the same approach taken to portraiture where the entire frame is full of background detail. Unfortunately, most iconic photo portraits don’t have the kind of detail I’m picturing. There are plenty of old master portraits are like this—for example, the Arnolfini Portrait is exactly what I’m thinking of. It’s very clearly about the people in the room but there is also lots of other detail to look at and take in if you bother to look. It’s also not the way you’d take a formal photo now with random shoes in the foreground and everything in deep focus.

The language of photo portraiture, even environmental portraiture, is different and it took me a while to think of iconic photo portraits which have the right mix of subject with background information. Arnold Newman is too formal with his backgrounds being too-closely tied to the subjects. Rania Matar (not iconic but internet famous) emphasizes the backgrounds too much. I finally remembered Larry Sultan. Envisioning either Pictures From Home or The Valley (NSFW) with the subjects erased feels more interesting to me and suggests a way this kind of erasure could work with photo portraiture.

The other interesting tactic on the erasure front involves modifying iconic photojournalism and news media images. Two examples here are Josh Azzarella’s and Pavel Maria Smejkal’s work, which, while not exactly the same, happens to overlap a lot. When I look through their projects, I’m struck by how recognizable some images are once I’ve put on the “do I recognize this landscape” hat. It amazes me that Mount Suribachi or wherever Capa got that soldier killed are so recognizable despite being such a small portion of the image.

These iconic photos do suggest that we’ve absorbed enough of the other details, even without there being anything specific, just through repeated exposure and references to the original images. Whether it’s the Olympic Village in Munich, a road near Trang Bang, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, or Kent State, they’re the very definition or photos which we know culturally and are continuously reminded of as they get remixed and referenced over the years.

This is another way that the old master paintings work with the erasures. They’re part of our visual canon so we just recognize them better. It may just be that, for me, August Sander isn’t part of the same shared visual culture. Or perhaps only a few of his photos, such as the cook, are.

Which brings us to Mishka Henner. His approach to Robert Frank takes one of the most-famous photo projects and remixes it through erasure. But it’s about more than just erasing the subjects to reveal the backgrounds. Henner is getting into the remix thing and reveals new compositions within Frank’s originals. Henner’s work feels a bit gimmicky to me but that’s more of a taste-based reaction. I’m good with the remix concept. I’m also good with riffing on a classic of the medium. I’m just not liking these specific results. It’s okay, liking isn’t the only thing.

Thinking about erasure as only part of the remix culture though opens up a lot of other projects which are worth considering for comparison—in particular, all the rephotography projects.

That Gardner’s* Confederate “Sharpshooter” photo has been subjected to both the erasure treatment as well as rephotography makes this connection easy. We recognize the image without the subject. And we recognize the place over 150 years later. Of all the photos in Annie Leibovitz’s Pilgrimage, her photo of Devil’s Den** is probably her best example of explicitly revisiting both national myth and photographic myth. The location still resonates and seeing what it’s like now changes my understanding of the original. It’s no longer just something from my history books. It still exists and I can see the history in it.

*Or O’Sullivan, according to the Library of Congress.

**Which I’m unable to find a good version of anywhere.

Rephotography is something else that could seem like a gimmick but, in the right hands, ends up being something much more powerful. This works especially well when the subjects being rephotographed have such a strong sense of place already. Christopher Rauschenberg’s Paris Changing where he rephotographs Atget is a great example here. It takes the past into the present, showing how much has changed, and how much hasn’t.

The pairs are really interesting to look at because they also give you an additional appreciation for what Atget was doing. Atget isn’t a photographer who most new photographers get into. It usually takes a while to start to get him but once you do you’re seeing everything much much differently—at almost a different time scale. It’s no surprise that Rauschenberg found himself shooting Atget-like photos at the same time he was rephotographing Atget.

This same impulse is what makes looking up Stephen Shore’s locations in Google Street View to be so interesting. In this case it’s not the exact replication but being able to explore the area and see what made the frame’s Shore chose to be so uncommon. Really seeing why Shore chose certain views and thinking exactly about what makes them work can only happen if you play around in the area.

If Google Street View isn’t available, the rephotographing which includes the original as part of a wider view of the scene does a similar job at showing context. Unlike the tightly-composed Atget or Shore photos, this approach often seems to be used to take vernacular photos and place them in a larger setting as a way of telling stories about the past and giving them something to anchor to in the present. Our stories and memories need these anchors so we can remember them and pass them on.

Rephotographing can also be used to remix content in order to reveal previously-unseen connections. Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe in particular are the experts in this area. Rather than just going wide, their work incorporates original photos into new panoramic images which, in addition to just showing the wider view of the area, either show how one photographer worked a scene or how two photographers happened to take photos from about the same spot.

I particularly like the panorama joining Edward Weston to Carleton Watkins since the two photographs by themselves don’t appear to be related at all. It’s always interesting when two masters photograph from the same place. It’s especially interesting when it’s not apparent that this is the case. Making that connection is something you almost have to be onsite for.

Similarly, Klett writes in the Timothy H. O’Sullivan book about discovering how some of O’Sullivan’s photos were taken from the same mountain top, only looking in opposite directions, and how this discovery could only be noticed from the mountain top and wasn’t apparent in the images themselves. He also writes about discovering how O’Sullivan would cant his camera for certain scenes and how the act of being in the field helps him learn about what O’Sullivan was doing.

Klett and Wolfe proceed to remix the old photos to show the combined results of a photo session as an unintentional panorama. The resulting new compositions are fascinating to look at since they both help me see how O’Sullivan or Ansel Adams or whoever worked and suggest David Hockney “Joiners”* in that they pick out how the eye wanders and gets interested in specific details while surveying a scene.

*Only these joiners are using 8×10 negatives.

In all these cases, Klett and Wolfe take the old photos and show us something new through their remixing. None of it is a gimmick, we see and notice new things as the context changes around the images. At its best, this is what remixing does, it adds, transforms, and makes us think about everything in a new light. This isn’t desecration of art, it’s allowing it to live.

The People of India | Image on Paper

From Volume I “Mishimi Hill Tribe, Assam”
From Volume I “Mishimi Hill Tribe, Assam”

At its worst the classification system sought to announce a theory of racial types. Certain groups were categorized as criminal tribes or castes.

At its best, the project was a formative compendium of ethnographic detail completed by sympathetic and intelligent observers who sought to understand the cultures they were living among.

via The People of India | Image on Paper.

Not ethnic mixing but a timely reminder of how the colonial viewpoint and racial-type photography and the documentation of otherness, no matter how well-intentioned, is problematic and often ends up saying more about the photographer than the cultures depicted.

Susan Meiselas, Sandinistas at the walls of the Estelí National Guard headquarters: ‘Molotov Man’, Estelí, Nicaragua, July 16th, 1979 (1979)

Addressing History in the Image

Susan Meiselas, The Life of an Image: Molotov Man
Susan Meiselas, The Life of an Image: Molotov Man

Each of these elements demonstrates (some) of the vicissitudes of the original picture, but also provides at least a glimpse of the individual who took up arms in the cause of the revolution. Much more importantly, Molotov Man literally “re-frames” history in multiple ways. The past cohabits with the present; the history of the Sandinista revolution—now open to retrospective interpretation, the reference to the illegal American war against the Sandinista government (cf. the arming and funding of the contras), the fragility of historical memory—the list is easily enlarged. To do this work, Molotov Man required other media (video, objects, texts), a continued personal stake in Nicaragua’s ongoing history by Meiselas over several decades, and the demonstration that an “iconic” photograph is open to many uses and many meanings.

via 2. Boundary Problems: Addressing History in the Image.

Love love love this post. Reminds me of what I liked best about Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show (also featuring Meiselas) and how photos can change meaning and be reappropriated through context and history and culture. I’d love to see more shows and blogposts which investigate the life of an image as it travels through time.

Las castas. Anonymous, 18th century, oil on canvas, 148×104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.

Miscegeny! Miscegeny! No escaping that for me!

Note: This post was originally posted on NJWV. Crosspostings from NJWV to Hairy Beast will hopefully be a regular occurrence.

Martin Schoeller. The Changing Face of America.
Martin Schoeller. The Changing Face of America.

I wanted to avoid writing about the PolicyMic What Americans Will Look Like in 2050 article. Part of this is because I don’t really like the photographs. I’ve found that portraits where the photographer’s style overwhelms the photo don’t really do it for me unless I’m looking at a show which is about the photographer. There are, of course, exceptions here—e.g. I really like Avedon’s West—but in general I’ll echo what someone smarter than me said and think of these kinds of photos as caricatures rather than portraits.

National Geographic is not a magazine I expect to see caricatures in. Nor is race something I enjoy seeing caricatured. It takes me into uncomfortable territory, especially when the race in question is mine.

In addition to the Martin Schoeller all-look-same effect, another part of why I wanted to stay away is because the photos felt a lot like the continued fascination with how strikingly beautiful mixed-race people are supposed to look. There’s an odd fascination here with physical appearance that all-too-often strays into exoticism if not straight-up racism as mixed-race people are used as a way of being both acceptably foreign and white-assimilated.

It all gives me hives. Especially when PolicyMic framed the photos by claiming the cure for racism is miscegenation.

The responses to the article though have pulled me in. In particular, I’m finding that I want to add on to Sharon Chang’s response asking why we’re still hung up on pictures of race.

Chang’s post points out the history of racial-type photographs; the kind of ethnographic, white-centered values they promote; and puts the Schoeller photographs in this context along with much of the rest of National Geographic’s (undeniably excellent) photography. To read National Geographic, or at least to look at the photos and maps, is to see otherness and “explore” the world from the safety of your home.

It’s the colonial viewpoint which I’ve become tired of. It’s equating culture with appearances. Chang’s absolutely correct to call it out.

I just don’t think she goes far enough.

First, this kind of racial-type imagery existed well before photography. Second, we’ve had multiracial societies in the past and there was never anything post-racial about them.

Las castas. Anonymous, 18th century, oil on canvas, 148x104 cm, Museo Nacional del Virreinato, Tepotzotlán, Mexico.
Anonymous. Las Castas. 18th century.

The way National Geographic displays the Schoeller photos in a grid creates an obvious Casta painting connection. And it’s not just the grid layout but the way we’re invited to compare and guess who looks part Asian or Black or Indian or White and in what quantities. Focusing on looks. And focusing on parentage. And comparing proximity to whiteness.

It’s important to remember that we’ve gone down this road in the past and only succeeded in creating dozens of racial divisions all ranked by how close to whiteness and reason they are. Yes, you could breed your way up the ladder. But that the ladder exists is the problem.

Merely showing a multiracial society is not enough. Casta paintings show. Schoeller’s photos show. What are we being provoked to do or think about instead? Especially regarding how we address race, and how we’ll address it in the future.

Angélica Dass. Humanæ.
Angélica Dass. Humanæ.

I wish the critiques had gone into photographic work which is actively critiquing the concept of racial boxes. One example of this is Angélica Dass’s Humanæ* which matches the people’s skin color to a specific Pantone number.** Dass has managed to create a project which, despite being only about one feature (skin color), manages to both show a multicultural society and actually critique racial values.

*Note: Dass is from Brazil but what she’s doing is completely relevant to the multiracial discussion in the US.

**The purist in me is bothered by the fact that she’s not sticking to a single Pantone swatch book but that’s me being a print nerd. This in no way detracts from the actual point she’s making.

Where Schoeller’s work results in a number of images which all feels the same. Dass emphasizes the point that we’re all different. Everyone. Looking at her work doesn’t result in comparing mixes or trying to figure out who looks like what. Instead we’re realizing how unique everyone’s skin tone is—and how stupid colourism really is.

Dass isn’t making a claim about how things will be. She’s provoking us to think about how things are and asking us to think about alternatives. What she shows us is designed to break the existing racial checkboxes and even if all it accomplishes is laying bare how ridiculous the way we call clothing or makeup “flesh-colored,” we’ll have made some improvements.

Kip Fulbeck. Mixed Kids.
Kip Fulbeck. Mixed Kids.

Which brings me to the other work I wish Sharon Chang had mentioned in her post. While she talked about Kip Fulbeck’s Hapa Project, she didn’t mention Mixed Kids.

Fulbeck’s Hapa Project is about himself and finding his own community. It’s a necessary project of self-representation but indeed doesn’t go beyond and ask anything provocative. I like it. But then I’m hapa. And I have it on my shelf as evidence of my community and a reminder of how many different stories people who share backgrounds similar to mine have.

And it’s a completely necessary project to get out of the way as a stepping stone to Mixed Kids. The Hapa Project is about coming to grips with our identities and how we grew up and who we are now. Most of the book features adults and their stories—whereas Mixed Kids is only kids. Our kids.

Mixed Kids is about their potential. And about ourselves as parents. And how we want to raise them.

America in 2050 is a theoretical entity. Our kids are not. My kids are not. Fulbeck’s provocation is simple but huge. What am I going to teach them? About race. About themselves. About their world. About each other. It’s not about what percentages of what races they are. Or how they look. It’s about raising a generation which is smarter about race and privilege than their parents.

My parents had to fight the “but what about your kids” battle. I didn’t need to. Instead I get to look though Mixed Kids and rather than thinking, “what are you?” I think, “what will you become.”